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Product Design

Design Strategy

Design Agency vs. In-House Talent: Who Wins the Digital Product Design Game?

Evan Shoemaker

February 28, 2022

Some decisions are easy to make: Stay up late or hit the sack early the night before a big investor pitch? Order the spaghetti or go for something less tomato-y when you’re wearing all white?

But the choice between hiring a design agency or in-house talent? That’s clear as mud.

While you may know you need someone to help you get your digital product to the next level, it’s often challenging to know where to turn. You might assume hiring in-house is the best path forward. Maybe you think it’s the only path forward.

Or perhaps you’ve heard all the benefits of bringing a design agency on board. But what does that even look like?

Buckle up as we take you through the benefits and drawbacks of hiring a team of design pros or adding a new employee to your team.

Design Agency or In-House Talent: It Depends on 4 Factors

Like designing a suite of new features, there are a lot of nitty-gritty details to figure out before you go all-in on one solution. When it comes to deciding if you need to hire or work with an agency, there are four factors you need to consider. Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of a man’s right hand using a calculator and left hand holding a pencil while writing on a clipboard

  1. Cost and Budget. How much do you have to spend? Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of a woman using a magnifying glass surrounded by clipboard and various shapes such as hexagon and arc

  2. Expertise. What skillset are you looking for? Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of handshake

  3. Commitment. How long do you need the extra help?

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  4. Onboarding and training. What’s your appetite for training?

Think about these factors and how they match up with your product’s needs.

Need a Specific Design Skillset for the Long-Term? Hire Talent In-House.

You’ll want to add another employee to your product team if you need someone with a specific skillset over a longer period of time. While the initial costs of onboarding a new hire aren’t fun to think about, it’s generally more budget-friendly over time.

You know your product like the back of your team’s Figma files. But it’s taken you a while to get there, right? It’ll be the same way with a new hire. It will take them a while to learn the details and data behind your brand.

This is not a bad thing if you have the time. In fact, quite the opposite. A deep and well-rounded understanding of how your product works is golden and can lead to higher productivity over time. Not to mention, you’ll have another kick-butt team member who’s an advocate for your brand.

Speaking of kick-butt team members, the more the merrier, right? If your development team is in-house, you could be looking at a strong alliance between them and your new design guru.

The last, and perhaps biggest, benefit to hiring an in-house designer is that they will undoubtedly be more connected to your team, brand, and overall mission of your company.

In-House Designers: More Likely to Experience Burnout, Leading to Turnover

Designers are creators. Creators need to be inspired and motivated to keep their well of creativity gushing. But focusing on the same product for a longer period of time can be draining.

If you hire someone in-house, don’t be surprised if they begin to lose interest or not work as diligently as they did in the beginning, despite feeling connected to your brand.

When burnout happens, turnover isn’t far behind. And it’s expensive. A report from Superside said turnover can cost employers 33% of an employee's annual salary. Ouch.

While being all-in on your product is a good thing, being too attached to what they know is not. It stifles fresh thinking and gaining a new perspective, meaning they may be less likely to unplug the cord on certain features they came to favor. And because they’re so attached, they may not find iterating appetizing.

A new hire requires time — for onboarding, training, and overall management. If you’re looking for someone to jump in right away and get going, a new employee won’t be a good fit. In addition, finding extra design projects for them to work on in between the feast and famine can be a task.

Finally, like finding your new feature’s bugs on the first try, it’s nearly impossible to seek out one single designer who's not only a rockstar at UX and UI, but also has skills in research, design systems, animation, and more. Be aware that if you hire someone in-house, they likely won’t have as much expertise across verticals, industries, working in other products, or in similar startup environments.

Design Agencies Are Packed With Fresh Perspectives and a Variety of Expertise

When you work so closely with a product, it’s hard to see it objectively. It’s easy to dismiss or overlook the glaring opportunities for improvement because you think you know it (and your customers) so well.

This is where a design agency shines. They come into a project with a fresh view, able to put themselves in the shoes of your users. New ideas and never-tried-before solutions are part and parcel of an agency’s expertise.

When you hire a design agency, you’ll get more bang for your budgeting buck because you’ll work with a team of pros. Depending on your needs you could have a team of UX designers, UI designers, researchers, strategists, project managers, graphic designers, illustrators, and animators ready to take your product to the next level.

This team made up of diverse specialties means you can be confident you’re tackling your project efficiently, and from all angles. Not only that, but these teams have worked in different verticals and industries, only adding to your arsenal of approaches. And sometimes that’s just the type of boost you need.

Next up in the pros column: Ability to iterate. Once you get to a certain level, it can be hard to know how to improve or where to start. Enter: a design agency. They’re pros at iterating and process improvement. It just comes with the territory of having so much experience testing and revamping product problems. Plus, they’re never attached to just one idea, which is key if you want to keep moving forward.

A few other key attributes you’ll find with a design agency include:

  • Easily and swiftly implementing constructive criticism.

  • Working well with diverse styles of leadership and team dynamics.

  • Confidence in presenting work.

  • Meeting deadlines with accuracy and speed.

  • Less oversight and supervision required.

  • Self-managing because the agency takes care of it all!

You’ll find that design agencies have their own unique qualities and specialties. You can count on an agency to swoop in ready-to-work, expertise at the ready.

Hiring a Design Agency is Best for Bigger, More Complex Projects

Ask any startup and they’ll tell you their budget is tight. We get it! Budgeting for your product’s design is tough.

While bringing on a design team comes with enormous benefits like a highly-qualified suite of design pros, it might not be a good match for your company if you’re not able to make the investment. Likewise, a design agency won’t make sense if you’re looking for a project that one or a small in-house team could focus on.

Design agencies are an investment because of the amount of product design prowess being brought to the project.

One last drawback to an agency hire: While pleasing a product design client comes with the territory for an agency team, they inherently don’t have the same level of integration into your product as an in-house designer would. They’ll never be able to join as many meetings or after-work happy hours. They won’t get ingrained in your culture, as much as they want to. That’s just the nature of bringing in a third party.

That doesn’t mean if you hire an agency like webuild we won’t be friends. We totally will.

One Tip for Choosing the Right Product Design Solution? Don’t Stress.

Hiring is always a tough decision, whether you want to add a new employee or a third-party pro. But here’s the thing: You can always get back on track if you feel like you made the wrong decision.

If you start with an agency, you can always hire in-house designers (as much as your budget allows). At webuild, we offer month-to-month plans so you can bow out at any time. Other agencies might have longer contracts, but you’re not married to them forever.

On the other hand, if you hire someone in-house and it’s not quite enough, you can always hire an agency to work in a hybrid model. This is especially helpful when in-house teams are treading water and you could use some help getting them to dry land.

Prefer a more hands-off approach? A design agency is more your speed. Same with moving quickly with a team that can plug and play.

But Wandr sums it up best: If you have more money than time, go with a UX design agency. If you have more time than money, hire in-house.

Ready for a Design Agency Right Now? Why webuild Beats the Rest.

Yahoo! You’ve decided a design agency is just the ticket for iterating your already awesome digital product and getting it investor ready. Now all you need is the perfect agency partner.

You’re sure to find great people with a lot of talent under their belts wherever you go. But not all design agencies are built the same. For instance, some have developers. We stick to all things design.

To help you narrow down your choices even further, here’s what we have to offer that might be harder to find. Illustration in purples and oranges of a left hand holding a purple heart

  1. You get a team of dedicated designers. Product managers and strategists, UX/UI designers, design system experts, brand strategists, graphic designers, illustrators, and animators. We have ‘em all, you get ‘em all. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really. Illustration in blues and oranges of a globe with flags on continents

  2. A remote team from around the world. Not only does our remote team foster diverse perspectives (a boon for creativity and collaboration!) but it also means someone is almost always on the clock. Thanks, time zones! Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of rotation arrows surrounded by gear icon, checklist, download icon, screen and circles

  3. We work in design sprints. We take time to learn your brand and what makes you tick. Then, we get to work. Our two-week design sprint process means we are laser-focused on a few key tasks at a time. Our iterative approach (investigate, ideate, and iterate) focuses on strategic optimization. We constantly learn and evolve to deliver the best results for your digital product. Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of faces of two women surrounded by gear icons

  4. Engagements are price predictable and flexible. Forget binding contracts. We’re all about flexibility. Our subscriptions are adaptive, so you can weigh the benefits of bringing us on alongside your budget. We have three tiers of subscription that can fit just about any project: Kickstart: perfect for startups executing on product/market fit and focused on rapid learning and iteration. This level includes a dedicated team consisting of a strategist, a project manager, and 2 product designers. Accelerate: perfect for growth-stage startups with ambitious goals who need significant product support to move quickly. With Accelerate you’ll get a dedicated team consisting of a strategist, a project manager, and 3 product designers. Liftoff: perfect for established companies looking to dominate their market and bolster their offering. You get a dedicated team consisting of a strategist, a project manager, and 4 product designers. Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of tablet screen surrounded gear icon, tip of a pen and hand icon

  5. Seasoned pros in B2B SaaS and Fintech companies. We've worked with startups from Seed to Series D and beyond. We love a project where we can get our hands dirty and be involved in all parts of the design process, from product to marketing to design system and beyond. Illustration in blues, purples and oranges of woman holding a tablet with bulb icon surrounded by a man and woman using a laptop

  6. We’re ultra concentrated. We know what we’re good at and that’s what we stick to. So if you’re looking for developers, content, SEO, or ASO help, we can point you to the experts in those areas.

Bringing new people into the fold is a big decision, whether you’re adding a new employee or partnering with an outside agency. Hopefully, after this, you feel more confident to go in the right direction for your needs. If that’s with a design agency, let’s chat. And if not, we’ll be here if you change your mind.

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