When should your company hire a UX designer? We discuss the pros and cons of hiring a UX team member vs. bringing in a consultant vs. just doing the work yourselves

How does a company know when it’s time to seriously invest in user experience (UX)?

As a UX consultant, I recently wondered this question. It was tough to find answers. I suspect there are many companies who undervalue or ignore the need for UX talent.

Still, others recognise the value but don’t quite know how to incorporate a UX consultant or new UX hire into their team, or perhaps they intend to take care of UX themselves without genuine expertise.

So let’s split this up into three categories and discuss the conditions that would lead a company to either: conduct the work for themselves, hire a UX consultant or hire an employee.

Doing UX work themselves

The truth is that if you are building a complicated thing, you should involve experts. This goes for everything: a kitchen renovation, a space shuttle – and, yes! – designing the experience of a website or app. UX experts recognise how to build effective and easy-to-use digital products. We know how to avoid customer frustration and avoid the need for expensive redesigns.

Of course, as lovely as it would be to hire a UX team for every product, that requires a sizeable budget. Startups and nonprofits, for example, don’t necessarily have the resources for hires or outside consultants.

If a company’s budget is tight, it might be wise to beef up on UX knowledge themselves. Some UX is better than no UX, and at least in the short term, they can keep the product afloat until they can afford to hire experts.

A good first step is to assess the team’s UX skills. Jared Spool suggests rating the team from 0 to 5 for each of eight Core UX skills (like information architecture, user research, and copywriting) and 10 Enterprise UX skills (like analytics and marketing) to arrive at a final score. This kind of assessment can help a team understand their strengths as well as the weaknesses that they should supplement with training or hiring.

Then, by reading up on UX resources, the team can incorporate UX processes and methods into their product design and development. Gathering any user feedback will likely be beneficial, even without the best tools or techniques.

But, as with anything, we tend to simplify the things we don’t know. So, a team may believe they have a grasp on designing good UX while they are actually missing the mark.

Hiring a UX consultant

Learning basic UX skills can certainly get a company started toward better design, but UX experts can do the work faster and better. A consultant can help a company gain some quick UX wins, and ideally teach them a few pointers along the way.

Skilled UX researchers carry out relevant and impactful research, quickly and efficiently. A good UX consultant is experienced enough to make an educated guess about which design components will be problematic for users. Having this expert’s eye is much more efficient than blankly testing everything about a product.

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If a company is facing a specific problem, they can also invest in a consultant who specialises in solving that kind of problem. UX is a broad field with a bunch of specialisations within research, design, and development. Companies can seek a consultant who specialises in exactly what they need, like usability testing, prototypes, or accessibility.

A UX consultant can also help the team learn key skills to improve UX processes going forward, so the investment in a UX consultant can go further than paying only for the short-term work.

Hiring a UX team member

Although consultants are efficient, they remain outsiders. By contrast, full-time UX employees can be consistently involved in every aspect of the product, creating and upholding a consistent product vision.

When a product-based company has the budget to hire full time employees, hiring a UX team member should ideally be a priority. Hiring UX employees helps a company truly build a culture of UX.

For a first UX hire, one strategy is to hire somebody who can do a little bit of everything — a UX generalist as opposed to a UX specialist. A UX generalist may adapt to whatever needs arise, making this hire a great investment.

(Side note: UX unicorns, who are experts in EVERY UX specialty, don’t often exist. If a company is relying on a mythical UX unicorn to save the day, it’s probably a sign that they don’t understand the complexity and depth of UX as a professional field, or don’t adequately understand the problems that the company need to solve.)

When the company budget allows for building a UX team, hiring can expand to multiple generalists or a few specialists in critical areas. Intelligently investing in UX will likely have very positive outcomes for the product and the company’s success.

So, how does a company know when to start hiring UXers? There are obviously a ton of factors, but I’ve shared my personal observations. I am interested in hearing others’ thoughts and experiences!

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Becca Kennedy

Becca Kennedy is a Human Factors Psychologist and cofounder of Kennason, a UX consulting company in Upstate New York. Say hello on Twitter: @becca_kennedy

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