How UX consultants can help internal teams

As User Experience (UX) continues to develop as a practice, many large organizations have moved away from external vendors and are internalizing their user experience design expertise. Having an “in house” UX designer avoids the tiresome problem of finding a qualified vendor. It can (on paper, anyway) feel like a less expensive proposition.

But most of all, internal teams also have the benefit of knowing their product, inside and out. They know the quirks, the tricks, and the challenges before a project starts. That depth of experience is invaluable to the project, especially if it is being handed off to an external development team.

Internal UXers, however, do face some challenges that an external team can help them overcome.

1. UX “teams” are often a team of one

Doing any design or creative work solo is challenging. If you’re simultaneously vying to be heard equally with creative design and development teams, who can be much larger, this task can be even more difficult. Secondly, the Team-of-One model limits the impact that person can have, based solely on their capacity. If there’s a major redesign project, the lone UX ranger has a huge amount to do, all the while development teams are pounding on their door to get more projects underway.

2. Telling other teams members what UX is (and what it isn’t)

Evangelizing UX within an organization can be more difficult and draining than you might think. I remember a designer friend saying to me that most of his job was “telling people what UX wasn’t.” Even with the current trend towards UX design, especially with the swelling interest in omni-channel customer experience, it’s still a poorly understood field. Eric Flower’s image summarizes it poignantly: there is still a gulf of understanding between what UX is and how it’s seen in organizations.

3. Internal Politicking

Like any family, organizations have their fair share of internal scuffles — sometimes minor cracks, other times major fissures.  Sometimes these debates can overshadow user needs. The user, like Baby in Dirty Dancing, can get put in the corner. Internal UX teams get caught in the middle, fighting to represent two masters: the decision-makers they work for, and the users they design for.

An external team, more than anything else, provides an objective sounding board for ideas and questions, where everyone is heard and everyone’s opinion is equal. An external set of eyes means that user needs come first, irrespective of internal problems that might compromise the user experience. For example, if two departments disagree, actual user needs can fall by the wayside; an impartial third party can help refocus the project. The result final user experience design has the user at its core.

4. Same old faces, day after day

Quality design isn’t something that simply materializes. It’s the result of what designers experience every day, conversations they have and techniques they explore. Internal teams can be prone to repeating design patterns simply due to their more limited exposure to a variety of design perspectives.

Working on the same or very similar projects, month after month, can make it difficult to build and expand your expertise.

So what’s the ideal? The best approach (as usual in design) is a collaborative effort.

External objectivity, resources, and facilitation nicely balance the challenges that internal teams experience.

Conversely, the insight that internal UX teams can bring to a design project is invaluable – the intimate knowledge that only comes from years of working closely with the product, the stakeholder, and the brand.

When all the UXers get in the sandbox together, magic can happen.