Hiring UX experts versus giving your team their own UX skills

Is there a conflict between providing expert services and training for those skills?

A colleague wrote:

I wanted to ask your advice:
I was giving a user experience (UX) presentation to a higher level manager recently, and talked about the importance of us providing UX Expert support and also providing UX education at a basic level on testing, card sorts, and other techniques.
Then the manager said: “Wait a minute, aren’t providing expert services and UX education at odds with each other? Is UX something that should be left to the pros, or not? If it’s such a complex field that we need professionals, why are we teaching that anyone can do it? Aren’t we deprofessionalizing the field? And can’t “bad UX” performed by a newbie be WORSE than no UX at all? Should we provide UX education to the pros, and just awareness to everyone else?”
I was caught a little off guard. I’ve always thought that some UX is always better than no UX, and that have people learn the techniques is a great start to getting people to care. But their opinion was — some UX is dangerous in the wrong hands. And we’re undermining ourselves by doing both.
Can you provide UX services and teach at the same time? Or do you need to choose?

My colleague was correct. Some user experience skills are always better than no user experience skills.

With no UX skills on the team, there’s a good chance that whatever the team produces will have a poor UX. Probably close to 100%. Any designs that aren’t a poor UX are just accidents that work out in the users’ favor.

As you add UX skills to the team, you increase the odds that good user experiences will emerge in the team’s designs. The more skills, the better the odds.

There are two ways to add skills to the team. One way is to bring on someone already with those skills. We could call that person a UX Expert.

The other way is train the team in having the skills. Of course, training takes time and the quantity of skills (and experience — also important) that the team has will emerge slowly.

But UX Experts eventually leave. Teams rarely lose critical skills, especially if they’ve done a good job of training everyone on the team, not just one person.

Bringing on someone with skills and training the rest of the team in those skills are not mutually exclusive activities. In fact, they are quite synergistic. The UX Expert can act as a coach and leader, helping the team become self sufficient in the long term.

UX is a complex field because there are lots of complexities: accessibility, mobile design, working in government agencies, working in an agile development process, and dealing with cross-cultural needs, to name a few. Yet, these are edge cases. 80% of UX work is quite routine and when learned by everyone on the team, creates consistently good designs.

The first UX skills anyone learns is to shift their thinking from the requirements of the system and the business to the experience of the user. They become sensitive to what it’s like to use the designs they are creating. It’s rare for that to result in worse designs than what you had before you developed that sensitivity.

Once you have everyone on the team with a solid UX skillset, you can tackle those harder, more complex problems by bringing in some expertise. Or better yet, growing your own.

That’s how we get better designs all around.

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