In-house UX team versus consultancy — What are the differences and which one should I work for?

Elsa Ho
Elsa Ho
Mar 27, 2016 · 6 min read

In-house UX team versus consultancy — What are the differences and which one should I work for?

You can roughly divide user experience (UX) design teams into two types — internal teams that work exclusively for their employer, and external teams that provide service to multiple third-party clients. The former is usually called in-house, while the latter is known as an agency or consultancy. “What are the differences?”, “Which one should I choose?” are questions often asked by people who are new to the UX industry.

If you have experience working on both sides, you might find that sometimes people overstate the differences. This article is going to cover some common claims, and what you should really consider when looking for jobs.

Claim 1: Consultancies only provide ideas, they don’t execute.

I have heard a lot of people, especially in-house teams, say that external consultants only make proposals and lack implementation abilities. A user researcher at Amazon once told me that when she was looking for job, she decided not to join consultancies because “ideas only live in vacuum”.

This is not necessarily the case for every consultancy. Whether consulting firms work until the product is shipped or not, depends on each firm’s set-up and strategy. For those who want to focus more on strategic work, they will intentionally avoid taking on projects that require execution. They might also have less or no designers and engineers, who can actually make things, on their teams. On the other hand, there are consulting firms that position themselves as one-stop shops, offering services from strategy to detailed implementation. At the end of the project they would deliver working products to clients. Management consulting firm Accenture, for example, upon acquiring design studio FJORD and building out their own digital team, formed the ability to really create something tangible.

It is true that the proposals made by consultancies could just stay on paper and never be carried out for all kinds of reasons; clients change their leaders, clients cut their budgets, or the focus of the company shifts and the initial issue is not important anymore. However, it doesn’t mean that in-house teams don’t encounter these same situations . Take the toy industry for example. From the beginning of a year, designers start to do all kinds of investigation, design and testing, in order to find a killer product that every target customer thinks they need to buy on Christmas. The products or ideas that are not selected, and there are many of them, are generally abandoned in the warehouse, despite the effort put into them.

So what?

No matter what type of team you are in, the ideas and plans that you worked hard to come up with all have the possibility of being abandoned. Therefore, it makes more sense to compare the level of ownership to the product. Most of the time, consultancies come into a project, engage with the product at a particular stage, within a certain period. They solve the problems and leave to move on to the next project. In addition, to keep the project within a reasonable scope and to avoid clients’ unlimited requests, consultants tend to clearly define what they will do and what they will not do. On the other hand, for in-house teams, you are the owner of the product. This means that you have to deal with any issue relating to it no matter how big or small or tangential. Asking yourself whether you prefer to have higher control and ownership over the product, or to move on after your task is done, might be a better question to help you make a decision.

Claim 2: Consulting is more interesting because I can work with different industries.

It is true that you can work with clients from totally different industries in consultancies, as long as your company does not focus on consulting to a particular realm. It is not rare to work on banking services in a project, then jump to fashion in the next one. This may be interesting, but I have seen some people feel, at the end of the day, that the processes they went through in the projects are still very similar, despite the industry and type of product. In the long term, they might still feel bored. On the other hand, if you work in-house, usually you will be assigned to a specific product team, and all your work will be around this product. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the work is boring, as there could be numerous extensions and applications around that product. Take Google search for example, besides the search engine on computers, things like mobile search, speech input, image search are also part of it. Besides, you might have a chance to re-locate or work with other product teams.

So what?

Whether something is interesting or not is very subjective. You might not encounter the same situation or feel the same as those who share their experience with you. Therefore, instead of thinking straightaway about in-house versus consulting, ask yourself “which company is doing the things I’m interested in?”, “which company is solving the issues I care about?”, and make your decision based on that.

Claim 3: Consultancies pay less, and offer poor work-life balance?

I once went to a meet up where two UX designers from Facebook shared their past experience in consultancies, in comparison with their current experience. Both of them mentioned that the work in consultancies was more tiring, paid less, and the working style was not as flexible as in-house. It is true that in the U.S. as well as many other countries, the pay and perks in consultancies usually can’t beat big companies, even for famous design consulting firms like IDEO and Frog. As for the work-life balance, since consultancies provide their services to clients and the charge-out rates are usually pretty high, it is natural that the projects are more time-sensitive and come with higher pressure.

So what?

“My work and life are finally balanced after moving to an in-house team”. I have heard people say this several times. Of course, it is not always the case that you have to work harder in all consultancies, and not all in-house teams are more laid-back. Since the situation varies, it’s important to look beyond salary and work hours, to the opportunities you can have in a company and how important it is for you to have the experience working there.

A while ago, I met a UX designer who has always wanted to work on wearable devices in the sport industry. However, when he just started his career, he knew that it would be almost impossible to land this ideal job directly. He decided to start by joining the UX team in a well-known retail company, then made the path more focused by changing jobs to a small sport brand. Seven years later, he got an offer from one of the biggest sport brands, working on the experience of its wearable products. He told me that he finally landed his dream job. Besides being lucky, he knew that he got this by having a clear goal and planning each move consciously.

In consultancies, you will be able to go through the complete user-centered design process and build solid understanding of it. On the other hand, working in in-house can better help you accumulate experience within a certain industry or product. If you already know that you are interested in a specific industry, you might want to find a company that at least has some relationship with it. This might be difficult to accept, but if you want to work on service design in health care, for example, no matter how many years of experience you have in digital UX, from company’s point of view, you are still not experienced enough.

Meanwhile, if you wish to join the UX team in companies like Google or Facebook, but you only have experience in consultancies, it is very likely that you need to persuade the recruiters and answer questions like “why do you want to make this change?”, “what value can you bring to the team from your experience in consultancies?”. The same goes for those wishing to move from in-house to consultancy. Every step you take in your career could affect your next move. Therefore, no matter whether it’s in-house or consultancy, as long as you plan ahead and make decisions carefully, based on your broader plan, it will be the right choice for you.

The Chinese version article is featured on Conversion Lab

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