Outsourcing UX design successfully

Can it be done right?

Recently I’ve been speaking to a good number of digital agencies and software companies in and around the North West. A common topic that crops up is the availability of User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) talent, and how best to involve these professionals in your next project.

This has lead me to delve a little deeper into the subject in attempt to provide some insight for companies asking the grand question of ‘can you outsource work successfully to UX professionals?’.

Before going any further I’d like to clarify what I mean by ‘outsourcing the UX’. I’m talking about outsourcing substantial aspects of a project, including the likes of UX research, planning, testing, prototyping, and visual and interaction design just to name a few. For me the debate doesn’t lie around tasking a designer with minimal wireframe amends, but more using an external contractor to define the entire experience of product.

What are the difficulties with outsourcing UX work and what can I do about it?

When speaking to outsourcers about outsourcing UX, these difficulties are commonly cited:

“I don’t know how to go about hiring a UX designer”

While hiring a UX designer itself can be an easy task. Hiring a good UX Designer that will really contribute effectively is what can be difficult. To do this it’s imperative you understand what steps you need to take for the completion of your website or application, and finding a UX designer that has the relevant background and experience. There are many useful articles out there for this such as How to recruit a UX Designer that answer that question in full. There’s also vast amount of recruiters who specialise in UX recruitment if you don’t have an internal recruiter. The fact is if you search hard enough, there are many skilled professionals working as freelancers or specialised agencies each with their own benefits.

“I don’t understand the difference between UX and UI”

UX Designer and UI designer are vastly different roles and there are strong cases that these two practices are best done using two different people. While aspects of both practices cross over closely, and it’s important they work closely together it isn’t recommended that you avoid merging the UX and UI into a single requirement, in regards to overloading a single person with too much work and turning them into a generalist. Craig Morrison, founder of UsabilityHour.com wrote a useful article on Why you shouldn’t hire a UI/UX designer about the subject of hiring somebody who offers to do both.

“Will they be able to understand the product and objectives as well as I do?”

Like anything else the UX designer starts unlearned. You might be at the very beginning of a project, or have realised a need halfway through but the fact is you own the project. So it’s important to gather all the project insights as you progress, so they are transferable to others. For example a well-produced design brief and other strategy/research documentation should give the UX professional the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the project to date (more on creating a basic design brief here). Maximising the use of your knowledge so they not only understand the users well, but the business strategy and vision.

Will I be able to integrate the UX specialist with my existing team?

The answer to this lies primarily with you and your teams ability to communicate well. Including the clarity of briefing sessions, how you pose the project to them and the ongoing levels of communication throughout the project lifecycle. Depending on the location of the outsourcer, it’s easier to have a ‘person to team connection’, involving them in relevant meetings and general communication. Should there be a restriction on the time they can physically available, there’s many ways to work remotely through the like of Skype, Google Hangouts and conferencing software.

“When is the right time to hire UX specialists and how do I manage their schedule?”

In my humble opinion, the difficulty here is the UX needs for a project can’t just be done in a block section of time. Let me explain, from my experience there is a consistent need for UX input through the entire project lifecycle. While this is the ideal, it can be difficult to hire for and plan. My recommendation here would be to use a retainer model which allows more flexibility, planning a segmented buy consistent involvement (say 1 or 2 days a week) and manage client communication and other work tasks in the break areas. At exactly what stage of the project to involve them is another question that depends exactly where you are in the project lifecycle. Most UX designers have the required skill-sets to involve themselves predominantly in the earlier phases of a product or website project where idea generation, problem solving and design is most prominent. I would argue that there isn’t a phase of a project where some kind of UX specialist is providing you with insight.

What you can outsource

The ability to outsource UX depends entirely on the skill and experience of the UX Designer you hire. If their skill-sets match their needs, you can find they are adequate at delivery on all kinds of UX tasks, that will help you deliver a product that meets the needs of users. If brief correctly, the sort of tasks I’ve seen successfully outsourced include:

  • User research and testing
  • Workshops preparation
  • Conceptual/ideas generation
  • Customer modelling and journey mapping
  • High and low fidelity wire-framing
  • Interaction design and prototyping

How can you be sure the results of the above are validated and the external contractor you’ve hired is doing a good job?

By adopting collaborative approach that allows the easy exchange of critique between the outsourcee and the outsourcer, allowing strategy, technical and design expertise to work with the UX expertise. While the UX responsibilities sit with the designer, the project management requirement should still lie with the outsourcer. Not outlining these responsibility clearly from the project offset may result in projects breaking down, and key people becoming confused about what’s their job and what isn’t.

While this is my experience, it would be great to hear from respective UX Designers who are self-employed, or those who outsource UX work regularly.

Martin Fletcher

Owner of User Experience consultancy EPIK. With 10 years of experience I’m a one-man UX team providing Research, Strategy and user-centric Design for product owners and agencies. I do things differently, using a lightweight UX process to generate quick tangible results that improve the performance of your website or app.