When to hire a UX consultant, and when not to

As the demand for UX has exploded, decision-makers are often faced with the question of how to address this need within their organizations: hire staff or use external resources?

As a consultant, I am of course biased. But I have seen cases of misalignment in both directions: companies holding out for a full-time hire when a consultant can provide significant value very fast, as well as companies who depend upon consultants when they need a dedicated team member.

I’ll start by reviewing three scenarios where a UX consultant may be the most efficient solution.

Reason 1: The diagnostic

You’ve been working on your product for awhile and it’s all coming together. But something’s not right and you can’t quite put your finger on it.

This is a common scenario when lots of features and functions are being pulled together for the first time. Rough edges inevitably emerge. It’s time to take a holistic view of the user experience.

Sure, you could spend months doing usability tests or research. But even then, you’ll only have defined the problem — not necessarily spelled out a solution.

One solution is to hire an outside expert to perform a heuristic analysis. Basically, this is a diagnostic exercise which considers how real people will use your product, evaluates how well the existing product fits into that model, and offers specific recommendations for improvement. The key is to use an external consultant who is not limited by the practices of your specific industry or immersed in your own team’s preconceptions and workflow: in other words, fresh eyes.

In many cases, the actual changes required may be surprisingly simple — the result of a focused team’s natural myopia. A classic example is Jared Spool’s classic case of “The $300 Million Dollar Button.” The UX diagnostic is a fast and low-cost tool for ironing out kinks that can have major impact.

Reason 2: The overhaul

Sure, your site or app works fine from a technology standpoint.

But maybe it’s just plain ugly. Or the navigation is impossible and people aren’t finding what they need and important functions are hidden away. Maybe you’ve just done a rebrand and are going to apply a new look: this is a good occasion to clean up the UX as well. Maybe your website isn’t yet responsive (in other words, doesn’t scale down for mobile devices); that’s also a good sign it’s time for a refresh.

Overhauls are a great case to use an external UX resource. Since the functionality and content are mostly defined, the consultant should be able to offer a fixed cost and detailed timeframe for a redesign.

On your end, since the backend code won’t be changing much, the front end development — where most of the UX decisions will apply — can be treated as a smaller, standalone project.

The key factor in an overhaul is that the problems are limited to user experience and design, so the solution can be equally focused. If it turns out that major functional changes are needed or new content needs to be created, cost and complexity will certainly increase. But a seasoned consultant can spot these potential issues upfront and will bring them to your attention.

Reason 3: Innovation as a service

As a business leader, your mind is on the future — what can you be doing to stay ahead? What might your competitors be doing? Technology change happens rapidly, and you need to be anticipating your next move.

But your product teams is busy dealing with today’s problems. They can’t be pulled away to start exploring “what-if” scenarios. This is the perfect time to call in a consultant.

A good UX consultant can lead key stakeholders through a series of ideation exercises to form some hypotheses, and create an interactive prototype of the idea that can be shown around and even tested with end users. With the advent of modern prototyping tools, all this can be accomplished by a single individual — no development required.

UX prototypes are an amazing tool for increasing the pace of the innovation process. Of course, not all ideas will prove successful, but today you can explore them at far greater speed and dramatically less cost than ever before.

When NOT to hire a UX consultant

Every modern digital product needs a UX lead consistently advocating for the user. This person should be a core member of your team and have a seat at the management table.

At some companies whose culture is oriented towards sales or development, there can be a predisposition to see design as an add-on or a surface-level issue. There may be a tendency to rely too heavily on UX and design contractors. The result can be a patchwork of design decisions, or scattered documentation, or simply a lack of clear product vision.

If you’re building a complex digital product, invest in a design leader who shares your vision and is in it for the long haul. UX consultants are outsiders by definition, and no business can afford to have part of its core mission led by an outsider. Recruiting and onboarding the right individual is a time-consuming process, but it is an investment that will pay dividends many times over.

What’s your timeframe?

Generally speaking, UX consultants are a great resource for quickly solving clearly identifiable problems. An internal UX lead is a core team member who is involved in many aspects of the business. So it’s easy to think of the former as a short term solution and the latter as a long-term one.

The wrinkle is that technology is a time-warped business. A month in the tech world is like a year in other industries; time to market is always the most powerful driver. I think it’s fair to say that the long term is getting shorter.

In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I became a consultant: I enjoy the rapid pace of change and am constantly learning and retooling to keep up with it. To me, speed is always of the essence.