Two topics were raised during UXSG #29:
- For someone’s first job in UX, how does one compare working in an agency versus working in-house (corporate or start-up)?
- What advice would you give to someone operating as a UX team of one – either as a freelancer, or as the sole UX practitioner in-house?
Since they related to each other, we combined them into one topic.
Agency vs in-house
“Should by first UX job be in an agency or in-house?” This is a question frequently asked by anyone making their first career decision in the UX industry. What’s the difference between the two? These were the points and tips offered by the group.
Agencies operate in a high speed environment, with a focus on execution (“Make X”). Consequently, there’s an accelerated learning curve. You’ll need to efficiently learn processes and tools in a short timeframe to complete your tasks. As an example, you may be tasked with creating a prototype in Balsamiq to present to the client next week. Don’t know Balsamiq? Well, you have to learn it now, within a week.
If you want to hone your visual design and UI skills, an agency is the place to be. Your clients will expect beautiful work, and that’s what you’ll have to deliver.
Working in an agency offers broad exposure to a range of clients, which you won’t find in-house. For some people, this broad exposure is a good way to ‘sample’ different industries before deciding to specialise in a certain area.
Agencies are notorious for long working hours, which won’t appeal to those with obligations outside of work.
In-house (corporate, start-up)
Compared to agencies, in-house UX jobs will generally be at a slower pace. You’re also more likely to have a work-life balance. However, you will not experience the same breadth of projects as in agencies. Instead, you’ll go deep in one industry.
You will spend a lot of time honing your soft skills. In an in-house environment, you’ll need to advocate UX, and educate your stakeholders on the value of UX methodologies. To get the support of your stakeholders, you’ll learn to sell your ideas to them. You’ll also learn to negotiate with stakeholders, and navigate power structures to accomplish what needs to be done.
In-house UX projects will involve more innovation and problem-solving (“What should we create/fix?”). So you’ll be involved more with research and strategy work in-house than in an agency.
Questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line
Is there a support system available, or are you thrown in the deep-end alone?
When you look at the team, is there someone you can learn from, or who will help you? Look for organisations where there’s someone to help you ‘swim’ when you need it, instead of leaving you to ‘sink’.
Is there work-life balance, or is it a slave ship?
Ask the current employees out for lunch and you’ll find out. If they all say “cannot, too busy”, it’s either peak season… or they’re *always* busy working long days.
Further reading on in-house vs agency
- Medium article: Freelance vs In-house
- UX Booth article: In defense of in-house designers
- Quora: As a UX designer, what are the pros and cons of working at a design agency vs. working at a corporation / late-stage startup?
Advice for Operating as a UX Team of One
When you work as a UX freelancer, or as the sole UX practitioner in-house, it can be overwhelming and lonely. What’s a UX team of one to do?
- Find a mentor
- Someone with a lot more experience than you, either in the company or externally from the UX community. Ask them for guidance when you’re uncertain or feel a bit lost.
- Know your boundaries
- You can’t do everything, so learn to prioritise, and delegate/outsource where necessary.
- Collaborate with others to help you or your project
- It’s lonely as a team of one! Build your peer network so you have people to call on when a project’s scope is too large for you alone to handle. Or when you just need some friendly advice.
- Prioritise by managing the outcome
- Listen to your stakeholders to understand what they need, and deliver that.
- Bring stakeholders on the journey – “show me, don’t tell me”.
- Invite them to observe interviews and usability testing, or show them recordings as evidence of user behaviour.
- As an aside, the TV series Silicon Valley has a funny scene where stakeholders are surprised by user feedback.
- Whether you’re a freelance contractors or in-house practitioner, do lunch or coffee with as many people as you can in the organisation. This is so you can:
- Learn who’s who in the organisation. Use power mapping to identify power structures.
- Find out what the real problems are, revealed by chatting one-on-one with people in a casual setting.
- Identify decision-makers, and who to ask for what you need. It’s easier to accomplish what you need by asking the decision-makers directly instead of going the usual admin route.
- Ruth created her own “Discovery Canvas”, which is a mash-up of:
The Discovery Canvas is a great diagnostic tool, giving you a comprehensive picture of the business. When working with corporates at the beginning of a project, use the Discovery Canvas to align with stakeholders.
- The UX Team of One by Leah Buley