Should You Hire a UX Designer or Digital Agency? An Insider's Guide.

Jun, 2023 Author: Selma-Rachel Swire

Everything you need to know about hiring digital designers.

When you’re looking to improve your digital product, user experience, or brand identity, you may decide you need professional design support. As a design expert who has worked as a freelancer as well as at large, mid-size, and boutique agencies, I understand that it can be difficult to figure out your exact design needs — especially when there are so many types of designers and specialties. The good news is that no matter what scale of project you’re working on, you have some great options.

✦ Freelance designer

Freelance designers can be hired on an hourly or per-project basis. This allows for a lot of flexibility for both you as the client as well as for the designer. Finding a designer with the potential breadth of skills needed for your particular project can be challenging. Sometimes designers specialize in one area. For example their wireframing skills may be stronger than their detailed graphic design skills. This may lead to some parts of the project being overlooked or less polished. Also, when you work with an individual freelancer or design consultant, your organization doesn’t have the opportunity to benefit from having multiple designers. I can honestly say, in every project where I was the sole practitioner first and later brought in a team to support my work, the final product was always better when I worked with a team than when I was working as an independent designer. More design minds collaborating make design work stronger.

Benefits

▪ Very flexible for the client from a cost perspective. Make sure you work with the designer to scope the project in advance. This will help agree on specific deliverables, cost and timeline at the beginning of the process.
▪ If you find a strong designer, this can be a huge cost savings for you. Hiring a freelance designer means you don’t have to pay for any agency overhead or internal employee benefits.
▪ If your project is small or short-term, this can be a great option.‍

Challenges

▪ Make sure the designer you hire is delivering well-documented work. In case that person may be unavailable to speak to their work in the future, you have explanations and context for decisions. Documentation might be a style guide, usage guideline, key user flows, information architecture map, or explanation of the work in addition to the deliverables themselves. This can also help mitigate risk if your project is long-term and the freelancer is suddenly not available.
▪ If you need more than one freelancer, you should have an internal stakeholder facilitating those relationships. This person would potentially connect the freelancers as necessary, allowing collaboration and increasing productivity.

✦ In-house designer

An in-house designer works directly at your company. This person usually collaborates closely with product and engineering teams – working on research, designing features, and pushing new releases. Working so closely with individual stakeholders, the UX Designer/team gets to know the ins and outs of the product really well. Sometimes this is great, but other times this may create blind spots. Because the designers “know” the product so well, it can be hard to approach problems from a fresh perspective. Since an in-house designer is a full-time employee, costs like salary, benefits, etc. must be considered. In-house design teams work best when there is strong design leadership that can organize and manage the entire product design process with technology and product leads. In an ideal world, these design leaders would collaborate closely with C-level stakeholders on design thinking strategies to create new business opportunities and outcomes.

Benefits

▪ Design, product, and engineering can be closely woven together and highly collaborative.
▪ If you want a design-driven organization, having an in-house team is a must.
▪ Individual UX designers can be responsible for large portions of the company’s product.
▪ Your business has UX designers available all the time to work solely on your product.

Challenges

▪ If you’re in the early stages of forming a design team, getting the right people in the right seats can be tricky.
▪ If you plan on hiring a team, take care to find a senior design leader to be your first hire. This person can help make sure the rest of the team is structured correctly and the right mix of skills are in place.
▪ The design lead should also be able to research, strategize, and execute on the work at a very high level.
▪ If you only have the budget to hire one designer, make sure that person can produce all the work completely independently – from concepts to wireframes to pixel perfect specs.

Image of blue wall with colorful post-its and a shallow depth of field.
Post-its on a blue wall. Ideas coming together.

✦ UX studio or digital agency

There are many different types of agencies, just like there are many different types of designers and creatives. Let’s group them by size for simplicity – large, mid, and small.

Large Studios

If you choose to work with a large agency (let’s say 75+ people) the rates are normally going to be higher – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the work will be better than what you would get with a small or mid-sized agency. At larger agencies you will be paying for a larger team with more project managers, account managers, proofreaders, junior designers, levels of bureaucracy, etc. You are not paying for efficiency, in my opinion, but you are paying for de-risking the creative. If you decide to work with a big agency you can be confident they’ll deliver and provide a working product. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s always going to be the best product or process.

Mid-Sized Studios

A mid-sized agency is another option. Some are owned by larger organizations and some are independent. I think it’s nice to know which type you’re working with, which also can help explain their pricing models. A mid-sized agency will probably have a stronger specialty, so I recommend interviewing a few to get a sense of their work and their design process in order to know if it’s right for your organization. Some agencies will have project managers or account directors to facilitate the project and client relationships, while at other agencies you may work directly with the design team.

Small Studios

With a small or boutique agency like Selma Digital, you will work closely with the designers who are working on your project. A small agency will have niche specialists who can focus on your particular design goals, with supporting designers who join the project to round out any other specific skills that are needed. At a small agency, you will more commonly be working with more seasoned designers who support and mentor junior designers that also help on the project. Boutique agencies may also have particular industry specialties, like finance, healthcare, or beauty.

At a mid-sized agency or small, there are few ways pricing could work. The project may be flat-fee based on a certain scope. Alternatively, there may be retainer for a certain number of hours per week or month. Even more simply, there may be an hourly service rate for billable hours. Pricing often depends on the firm and the size of the job. At Selma, we work at an hourly service rate for larger, ongoing projects. For smaller or more time-constrained projects we charge a flat fee for a set scope. Sometimes we offer clients a choice between the pricing models, because ultimately it’s just a question of “how much design time does your organization need?” We’re flexible and happy to work with our clients on what’s right for them.

One of the largest benefits of working with any digital agency is that the folks who work there are experts in the field. Skilled designers will help you uncover what experiential and communication methods are best for your business and customer experience. At Selma Digital, we help you plan and execute on your goals while envisioning the future with you. We suggest services or products that might be helpful for what you are trying to achieve, and connect you with the additional creative specialists you need.

Conclusion

There is value in hiring a design professional no matter which route you choose. After all my years in the field, I can say that what’s most important isn’t necessarily which kind of help you hire, but finding the people and team that share your vision and have the skills to execute it . What design project are you currently working on?

Let Cue know how we can help take your product to the next level.