In Defense of In-house Designers

If you’ve attended some of the major user experience design conferences over the past few years, you may have noticed a pattern: many presentations are geared toward (and given by) agency designers or freelancers. The same can be said of the design articles written: most concern themselves with newly built sites, site-wide redesigns or storefronts rather than the maintenance of large, established websites.

This makes for an extremely one-sided perspective.

The thought pervading most UX blogs, conferences, etc. seems to be that every designer works at – or should want to work at – a design agency. Perhaps it’s because agencies have more opportunities to work on projects that involve sweeping redesigns or new builds. Or maybe it’s because college programs often suggest internships at them. Whatever the case may be, agencies can actually be very harsh environments for designers.

For one thing, many are focused on sales and profit margins. As Andy Budd (co-founder of the design agency, Clearleft) puts it:

“The agency world is filled with middlemen, preventing makers from driving projects. It’s full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work.”

So what of the alternative – the stalwart, corporate design teams?

Many successful, “big” companies have chosen to make UX a core competency. Google’s first tenant in their Ten things we know to be true, for example, is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” When talking about their Doodles, Google makes it clear that while they began with freelance artists, Google made the choice to employ an in-house group of illustrators.

It seems as though the designers comprising successful, corporate, design teams are at least on par with their agency counterparts. Why is it, then, that in-house teams are often overlooked, both by their own, internal teams as well as UX agencies and freelance designers? And what can we do about it?

An image problem

Sometimes the biggest roadblock facing in-house designers are the prevailing attitudes within their own company. Pharmaceutical-giant Merck’s Creative Director, Bob Calvano, recently said in an interview:

“Part of [the challenge] is making [executives] feel and believe that we have the capability in-house: [that] we have the talent in-house and we have the technology in place.”

He then generalizes:

The blanket statement may be that in-house teams don’t always get the credit … that the outside agency or design studio may get. We’re trying to dispel those beliefs by explicitly showing the quality of work we do in the capability presentations, showing what … creative looks like.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude at Merck isn’t unique. What Calvano says resonates with my own experience over the years: Business partners tend to automatically give more credence to the word of a design-agency account executive simply because that executive comes from a company specializing in design.

Part of the allure of account executives is that they’re different. They offer a unique perspective at companies where designers (and, in turn, design thinking) make up a relatively small part of potentially thousands of employees. Cathy Fishel corroborates this in her book, In-House Design in Practice:

“You have to remember that designers are often viewed with suspicion because people [in the corporate world] don’t understand what we do…”

So, short of stapling a resume to their forehead, all we can do is work hard to build trust with our business partners. This is where company culture – and empathy – play a pivotal role.

It’s all about people

Does your company value its members’ or customers’ positive experiences more than the size of their executives’ bonuses? Does it have clearly stated core values and a mission that it truly follows? Is it innovative and willing to risk failure in order to find success?

It might sound as cheesy as this photo looks, but: whether in-house or out-of-house, collaboration is the key to success.

A user-centered design culture is brought about when companies foster both collaboration and mentoring. When designers collaborate with the various members of the project team – including non-designers – they have the opportunity to whiteboard together and bounce ideas off each other. They’re able to see experiences from several different perspectives.

In-house UX designers can also stay with a design effort throughout its entire lifecycle. This is often unheard of in the consulting world and affords a level of business (and user) knowledge that those outside team likely won’t have the time to experience.

And yet, however enticing, the benefits of in-house UX design are seldom recognized. Take the perspective of one author when comparing design agencies to in-house designers:

“Unlike in-house designers, agency people will usually come with fresh and innovative ideas, so even if a company has an in-house department, they might rely in an agency at some point in which they would like to change how things are being done.”

To assume that in-house designers don’t have fresh and innovative ideas is to grossly underestimate the experience and knowledge of the designers who intimately know how a product or service was designed.

Take control

So how might in-house designers work against this stereotype?

Fishel suggests we start by practicing a little bit of self defense; that we relinquish control:

[E]veryone likes to ‘be creative,’ to get involved with what we do. But you often find out that what they really want is control. If you can show people that you are still listening to them and what they do, no one gets freaked out.

Next, we might find an executive champion (not unlike Merck’s Creative Director). This is a great way to start an open dialog about the talent available in-house. When talking about the future of the initiatives for promoting his in-house design team, for example, Calvano says:

[O]f course, we’re going to continue doing dog and ponies, but have them be very strategic. I don’t want to set up outside the cafeteria and hope people stop by. I want to invite the strategic folks, the key stakeholders and have meetings where we have the biggest potential for business growth.

Short of Fishel’s suggestions, in-house designers might follow Cennydd Bowles and James Box practical advice in their book Undercover User Experience Design.

Agency designers, for their part, need to build awareness and understanding of the talent hiding inside of corporations. Those consulting with a large company can start by asking to meet – and subsequently champion – the in-house design team. As we’ve seen, an experienced in-house team can offer a wealth of insight into their product or service.

Finally, in-house designers need to be more visible. If the stigma surrounding their work is ever to change, in-house designers must submit proposals to conferences, attend conferences themselves, blog, tweet, and write articles on issues unique to their work.

Together, we can make our voices heard, spreading knowledge that’s otherwise hidden away behind the grey, cubicle walls of some faceless corporation.

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