ARTICLE: Adam Sonnett

Hiring guide – choosing the right UX partner for the long haul.

Your EdTech company is thriving. Your product is growing and so too must your team. It’s a good problem to have, of course. But for companies considering working with an outside UX agency, it can be hard to know exactly how to gauge their value. 

It’s easy to see why this can feel like such a challenging decision. The idea of spinning up an internal team is daunting, but the idea of working with an agency brings its own set of concerns and unknowns that can lead to misinformed buying decisions.  

In my role as Vice President at Openfield, I’m involved in a lot of early stage conversations with existing and new clients in order to gauge if and how it makes sense for us to be involved in an initiative. I see recurring patterns of questions as we help people think through myriad issues. My goal in sharing this is to help product leaders enter the conversation much further down the field. By understanding the criteria for evaluating a UX partner and what you should expect from them, you can have a more effective conversation when considering an agency partner and increase your chances of a mutually beneficial long-term relationship.

A dose of skepticism is a healthy defense mechanism.

With our existing clients, these conversations are much more easily had because of the mutual trust that has been earned. But with new or potential clients, there are more barriers. Let’s face it, when you’re evaluating whether or not to select a partner, the agency’s goal is to sell their services. And yes, this is where I must admit this is a core part of my job. But, as the buyer of those services, you naturally must protect the interests of your organization with a healthy amount of skepticism. Through careful vetting and reference checking you can find the right agency partner who knows their success depends on putting your best interests ahead of all else. 

There are two broad models for how product teams work with UX agencies. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how you field your UX team. The model that works for you today will inevitably shift over time as your product moves through its life cycle. The right agency will support your need to adapt over time. 

Agency Model – all UX team members work for the agency.

If you currently outsource the entirety of your UX operations to an agency, or plan to, you should familiarize yourself with the agency’s staff and overall capabilities to ensure they have all the knowledge and specialized expertise you need now plus those you may need access to in the future. Such specializations may include research, UX architecture, UI design, accessibility and compliance, prototyping, and front-end development.

Hybrid Model – a mix of the two that can enable increased specialization and dispersed responsibilities.

A number of our clients have existing core UX teams that we collaborate with seamlessly. In this scenario, it’s important to have a clear strategy that defines how and why you integrate your internal and external UX resources. The agency should offer something that’s either difficult or impossible for you to get from your own finite internal resources. They should bring new processes and techniques that your internal team can tap into and learn from. 

Don’t think that because you have internal UX resources that an agency won’t be interested in working with you. The right agency partner will not see your internal team as a threat but rather an opportunity. In our experience, collaboration with internal teams sets up ideal conditions to effect the most meaningful change.

Understanding an Agency’s Value Points Will Give You More Control in the Decision

Whether you have little to no UX resources internally or you are looking to compliment your in-house team by hiring an agency, there are a number of things you should consider before selecting a partner. 

Over years of conversations with existing and potential clients, the following five themes top the list of reasons why EdTech product companies choose to work with outside UX agencies:

  1. Speed
  2. Cost
  3. Objectivity
  4. Focus
  5. Quality 

A Deep Bench + Specialization = Speed

When it comes to scaling up your resources, time is of the essence. We find there are two main ways the right agency partner can help you move faster: a deep bench and specialization. 

Put me in, coach!

Filling short-term capacity gaps is not the best reason to hire an agency at the outset, but it’s a perk that comes with having a trusted partner in place. If you work with an outside UX agency, you should expect them to bring the ability to deploy additional resources much faster than it would take for the average EdTech company to add to or build out an internal UX team from scratch. That’s not to suggest that hiring internally is not the right long-term option for you, but rather to point out that in some scenarios, your agency should be there to scale up a team much faster to meet your needs.  

Specialization reduces ramp up time and costs.

Specialization is another reason that agencies can act more quickly. There are two types of specialization that product teams can benefit from – industry specialization and service specialization. Industry specialization allows agencies to parachute into a set of problems behind enemy lines because they already know the unique challenges that companies in a niche space face. At Openfield, for example, we’ve developed best practices that stem from our deep familiarity with both UX and the EdTech space. This allows us to quickly get up to speed and add value to your product. At the service level, a strong agency partner should also offer specialized subject matter experts available to solve your problems. Examples include:

  • User research
  • User testing
  • UI and data visualization
  • Accessibility and compliance
  • Prototyping

Simple Cost Comparisons Can Be Misleading

As with any business determination, cost is an important factor in deciding whether to hire a UX agency or build out an in-house team. A common misperception is that an agency is more expensive. But it can be misleading to simply compare the annual salary cost of a single, mid-level staffer to the cost of hiring an agency like Openfield for the same amount of time. It’s not an apples to apples comparison.

How many in-house staff vs agency staff should you expect?

If you had to field a team that covers every kind of specialized need you may require, you’d likely need to build the equivalent of a 15-20 person agency, maybe larger. This not only represents a financial challenge, it would take a very long time to attract, vet and onboard such a team. 

In our experience, the costs of hiring one full time internal employee equals access to 4 times as many agency specialists, or more. That’s because agencies can deploy specialized resources at the exact time of need. So you don’t pay for them when you don’t need them. In most cases, you will have a core set of individuals from the agency who are supported by rotating specialists whose capabilities are only deployed at the time of need.

One of the analogies we often use to illustrate this is the construction industry. Let’s say you have a set budget that will allow you to hire three individuals, so you hire a plumber, an electrician, and a carpenter full time. But building a house requires a number of other specialized services including flooring, drywall, painting, HVAC, landscaping and others. The right agency partner will have the critical mass to field a full team that covers all your needs. They can deploy resources only when needed which frees you from the need to keep a tile installer busy all year.  

Objectivity is a Powerful Asset

Agencies also bring a unique kind of objectivity. For one thing, because they aren’t actually a part of your company, they have the ability to stay just far enough outside of your world to bring a fresh perspective, bypassing internal pressures and politics. In addition, because agencies work with a broad spectrum of other companies, they may bring an appreciation and understanding of relevant factors that your internal team may have not already considered.  

Focus is a Force Multiplier

Another agency asset that can impact quality output is that your agency team is free to focus more singularly on your project work. This is because your agency team isn’t required to participate in all the non-project activities that in-house staff must typically attend to over the course of an average workday. They can act more freely as a force multiple to help your team keep a lot of plates spinning. 

Agencies Live or Die by Quality and Results

Finally, agencies live and die by the quality of their work. We joke that we have a healthy fear of not always being rock stars for our clients. Because of this pressure, agencies have a major incentive to stay on top of industry trends and produce the highest level of value in order to justify continued work with their clients. We always remind our team that we’re lucky to work with our clients and that if we don’t constantly make them better than they would be without us, we don’t deserve to work with them. While that might sound like the conditions for a pressure cooker – it actually attracts and retains high performing individuals who aren’t happy unless they’re bringing their A-game.

Final Thoughts

It’s a huge decision to select an outside agency partner. Even with the most rigorous scrutiny and due diligence, you just don’t know how it’s ultimately going to work out until you start working together. That’s a big risk for product leaders. I hope these thoughts help you reflect on what’s most important to your team when considering whether to work with an agency and when you’re vetting potential partners.

 

  • Photo of Adam Sonnett
    Adam Sonnett

    As Vice President at Openfield, Adam consults closely with our clients and ensures our team delivers the best process, velocity, service and quality to enable our clients’ digital products to surge ahead of the competition. Adam is a life-long player and fan of the beautiful game. As a season ticket holder from the get-go, he is a fervent member of the Orange & Blue swell that helped justify Major League Soccer’s decision to include upstart FC Cincinnati as its latest expansion team, in just two short years.

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