Should you do UX Research yourself, or hire an agency?

UX Research: Do it yourself, or hire an agency? Pros and Cons of each

The number at the end of the agency’s proposal was over one million Euros.

I was floored.

A client of mine had sent me a proposal from the latest research consulting firm in the runnings to help them explore a new market. Of the handful of consultancies my client was evaluating, this was the biggest company yet. But one million Euros for new market research was the highest rate I’d ever seen.

My client asked me to evaluate the offers so far, and advise them.

Should they accept one of the offers, and accept the huge budget? Or should they find a way to do the research themselves?

For younger companies, and those with young design teams, it’s a hard decision. Unless someone in the team has prior experience with this scenario, it’s hard to know how to make the right choice.

I’ve worked in UX Research, UX Design and Strategy for 12 years, and seen my share of agency proposals. I’ve worked on the agency side — been a line-item in a proposal myself —as well as in-house, choosing external partners.

Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of the pros and cons that I find most helpful in guiding teams toward the right decision for them.

The Pros of doing your own UX Research:

The Cons of doing your own UX Research from the start:

  • It’s potentially really time-consuming. Do you know how much time it takes to plan a research study, recruit just the right audience, then carry it out? Whichever colleague you assume has the time to take on the new task of UX research, they probably don’t.
  • Taking on UX Research means more management of tasks that you and your team may not know how to manage effectively (yet). You’ll need to support each UXer’s focus, tasks, allocations, goals, and career development the same way you do for other roles, even though it’s a new discipline for you,” says Erin Young of Slide UX.
  • It has a long learning curve, and you won’t end up with reliable insights immediately. There’s a high chance of doing things wrong the first few times. You likely won’t know the techniques that ensure higher reliability in planning, moderating, and analysis. It’s also easy to focus on the needs of the wrong customers when starting out.
  • You have to recruit all your participants yourself. One of UX researchers’ biggest annoyances is recruiting. Even when an audience seems easy to track down, it’s not always easy to convince them to join research. This is especially true with non-customers and B2B audiences who feel that they receive no benefit in spending time with a service they don’t use.
  • Internal team members have significant biases, due to proximity to the product and relationships with stakeholders they report to. As the team at Outwitly clarifies, “It can sometimes be very difficult for internal UX teams to facilitate meaningful top-down discussions and stakeholder interviews with their own bosses and executives.”

The Pros of hiring an agency to do your UX Research:

  • It might be done more quickly than you can do it yourself. You don’t have to allocate a chunk of your time or a team member’s to first learn how to do UX research, and then plan, implement, analyze, package, and share the research.
  • You have a partner or team of people who are experienced at doing highly reliable research. In theory, you get to avoid the fear of doing things wrong, or paying attention to the wrong customer input.
  • The agency may have specialized expertise in your industry or business type. The team may be used to doing projects just like yours. They may have expertise in an industry or service niche like yours. They may even be able to draw on insights from previous studies.
  • The burden of legal challenges and correct processes is on them. As Sabina Idler of UXKids writes, “Doing your own research…can not only be very frustrating, it can also get you into trouble…,” for example, there are ”legal issues you need to take into account when testing with minors” and potentially other sensitive customer groups.

The Cons of hiring an agency to do your UX Research:

  • You don’t actually get to be hands-off — they take your lead. You still have to tell them what to do, which takes far more time and communication than you might expect.
  • Leaning on an agency drives the business value down. If your startup team wants further investment, plans a sale or an exit, then this isn’t ideal. Big consultancy firms make it their business to make teams like yours dependent on them for insights. But if a startup depends on an agency for insights, then it doesn’t know how to understand its customers without it.
  • You might not get to hand over all recruiting tasks to an agency. That pesky, time-consuming recruiting step isn’t simply handed over when you hire an agency. If existing customers are the target participants, an agency likely needs your support and permission to recruit your own users.
  • Research agencies charge extra premium fees, and add roles that you don’t need. They put together big teams for even small projects. Proposals include “strategic partners” and “advisors” for hundreds per hour. Such roles aren’t necessary for a new market exploration or most other UX research.

Working with an independent UX research freelancer or consultant who can guide you to start UX research on the right path can significantly speed up the process of running research yourself — and doing it well.

The downside can be similar to that of agency work: if they can’t help your team learn to do research, then they leave and take your team’s only insights processes with them.

Look for someone who can do the following four things:

  1. They can work with you to do foundational research quickly so your team gets a solid sense of who your customers are, and what they need from you right away.
  2. They can teach you how to run your own research with a simple getting-started framework. They have a process and templates in place to get you researching on your own in a matter of weeks.
  3. They include you in the research process. Even before they begin to teach you how to do UX research yourself, they can invite you to live sessions with users as an observer, and involve you in workshops to analyze results together.
  4. They can scale if needed. They have a network of other highly experienced freelancers with relevant industry expertise, who can jump in to help get more work done, faster on a need basis.

All three options for starting your team’s insights-gathering have their pros and cons.

It’s important to see that the expectation of agencies taking over the full burden of time and effort isn’t often the case, though they likely eliminate many forms of biases as outsiders and may have deep industry knowledge.

While it typically takes more effort and time to lead research internally when starting out, the value remains internal as you own your insights processes and learn how to improve them over time.

An experienced UX Research consultant can save you time, money, and can teach your team how to do research correctly from the start. But depending on the consultant, they may also take their expertise with them when they leave, and may not be a long-term solution for your team. A List Apart has a helpful article that covers the internal company situations and project types that are best suited for help from external consultants.

It’s important to clarify which obectives are most important for your team before making a choice between these options. Is the priority to teach the internal team to research, have the fastest possible deliver of insights now, gather the most reliable insight with the least bias, benefit from external industry expertise, retain company value, or a combination of a few of these objectives?

One team’s best solution may not be best for the next. Before jumping into a project with an agency, internal team member, or consultant, taking the time to thoroughly assess your team’s near-term and long-term goals with UX Research work will help point you to the right path.

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