Andy Wardleworth by Andy Wardleworth

What They Don’t Tell You About Hiring a Digital Product Design Team

  • General

Let’s jump right in. We don’t want to reheat old arguments about whether you should hire a digital product design team or keep everything in-house. In truth, this isn’t an either / or option.  It never has been.

Experience tells us that brands that push boundaries and set the standards on digital experiences tend to build their design capabilities from the inside out. They turn to an outside perspective, and deeper levels of expertise and skills, to increase the design maturity of their business and team.  

The result? Products and experiences customers want, your people have fun doing what they do, and happier bean counters. 

“Design is the last great competitive advantage”
Seth Godin

Almost three-quarters of businesses (73%) invest in it in some way to help their brand stand out against the competition. 

But, this is only a partial view of the story. Lots of brands are still wrangling with how to keep up and deliver the design standards and products customers expect with the resources they have in-house.  

We don’t want to second-guess why you’ve come to us. What we do know is that as a business owner, a CEO, product, marketing or design lead, you need to make tough choices about how, and where, to invest. You’re making design-related decisions every day about your branding, UX and products, processes, resourcing and R&D. 

But …

  • Do you ever get time to think about a strategic design approach and future products? 
  • Is your team stuck in a cycle of tactical design and short-term fixes?  
  • Are they feeling overwhelmed or under-skilled for new projects? 
  • Are you noticing a dip in customer satisfaction, or is digital uptake and usage lower than you thought?
  • Are your customer teams noticing an uptick in complaints about your app or website?
  • Are you losing good designers?
  • Are your competitors grabbing the headlines and poaching some of your customers? 

Get your design approach wrong and you could end up driving up your marketing, customer service and staff costs. Let’s carry on.

What do customers think?

Your customers don’t really care about what goes on behind the scenes. They just want the digital products they rely on to work for them. You need to be agile enough to innovate to respond to their changing needs – now and in the future. Get this right and they’ll want to stick with you. Loyalty has never been more fragile. 

Making the right choices for your business …

You might have tried hiring an agency before but with limited results. You don’t want to burn through your budget on the wrong choices. You’ll know that time isn’t on your side. The pandemic saw to that. Whatever the reason. Whatever your headache. Read on. Here’s our no BS take on when, and how, to bring a team in.  

1. In-house is still best

As we mentioned earlier, businesses that are creating the products and experiences people love, turn to agencies to unlock the value of their design projects. They do this to grow their capabilities, plug any gaps and become more confident in design-led processes. The aim is to manage the agency team out of projects in many cases. 

They use this know-how to dig beneath the surface to find new ways to solve user problems and work out what comes next. These types of businesses are agile in responding to their customers’ needs – known and unknown. 

Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Talent is in high demand – this is more than an old chestnut – it’s tough out there to find, and keep, talent. You’ll already know the reasons why you have skills and knowledge gaps. Hiring talent on demand will probably be something you’ve already thought about. But, there’s more. An outside team that brings a fresh perspective and new ways of working could also help you tackle some reasons why you might be losing talent – a team that feels overwhelmed, a lack of purpose, little confidence to express ideas, a lack of skills and tools to do their jobs properly. 
  • Teams get stuck in creative echo chambers lots of internal design teams work in echo chambers. This means they usually end up embracing ideas that support their opinions and beliefs. How often does your team get out of its comfort zone to test new ideas and innovate? An outside different perspective can help you come up with breakthrough ideas.
  • Design can be siloed – teams with their shoulders to the wheel can become too siloed or insular. They don’t have time to think about a joined-up approach to collaborate across the business. Your marketing and customer leads, for example, will have reams of customer data and insights that will help you better design with the user in mind. You might need to rethink the way you do things – your company and design culture. Bringing a team in can help you break down silos to bring cross-functional teams together. Everybody then cares about design excellence.    
  • Teams can get stuck in tactical design loops – busy teams often get stuck working on tactical design projects and short-term fixes. A visual improvement, creating a new feature or fix for a short-term need, for example. They may not have any time to think about the root causes of a problem or future products. Is this cost-effective and creating value for users in the long-run? Probably not. This where strategic design thinking and outside expertise and extra bandwidth comes in to help you work out how to use design as a competitive tool and deliver better outcomes – long-term. More on ROI later.
  • Senior management teams face short-term pressures – this follows on from the point above. Constant plate spinning to manage short-term pressures means there’s little time to take a strategic view about how good design makes you stand out and helps to drive customer-led growth.  
  • Time and money – this is on the list of pretty much every article written to help you decide whether to bring in a team. We want you to think about it in a different way. What’s the cost to your business – in time and money – of carrying on with the status quo?


2. No more blah – design expertise should be a given – focus on how a fresh perspective can be applied to your business

Design expertise is important. None of us would get far without it. But this alone isn’t what makes an agency stand out. Nor does a list of generic services. Every agency worth their salts offers design services. Here’s the thing. What makes them different? Find out more about their perspective and approach and how it can be applied to your business. This will make it easier for you to find the right fit. 

You’re doing your research. You land on an agency’s website. The mothership is a long list of services. Content will often be tailored to these services. But there’s an assumption here. You understand your problem and you know what you need to fix it. That’s a big assumption. You might not know what you need. You might not even know you have a design problem (see #4). Now what? You could click away. But hang fire.  

Read on, read their blogs, case studies, download their content. Do you like the way they communicate their perspective? Is it worth a call?

A few questions to think about …

  • How can the team’s perspective and approach can give you a different angle on your situation – and give a realistic assessment of what you’re trying to achieve with the resources and budget you have?
  • What does the team specialise in?
  • Is there a good cultural fit – will there be chemistry in the way you do things?
  • Will the team help you shift your culture and challenge your design thinking?
  • Is there a danger that you’ll be shoe-horned into a four-point process that means you’re probably off on the agency’s journey not yours?

3. Five-day turnarounds – they said it couldn’t be done – it can now

Long lead times and lengthy projects can mean a whole heap of uncertainty and significant upfront commitment to spend on creativity. You need to understand how a project delivers value for the business and your customers. You need to be agile. And so does the agency you work with.  

A five-day deep dive into your business can be enough to get to the insights you need to do the work yourself or ask the agency team to solve and implement the findings. Yep. Five days. 

There’s no need for months of meetings and sign-offs. There’s definitely no need for endless Zoom calls or PowerPoint presentations. 

How it all works … better conversions, engagement and CX …

Day one – stakeholders and teams
Day two – analytics and data
Day three – customers and users
Day four – compiling and review
Day five – explosive results

Yep. It’s as broad as that – remember this is your journey. Find out more here.

4. A bit of branding, flashy logo, catchy strapline, good-looking website or snazzy app won’t get you far 

Customer experience and design go hand in hand. As discussed earlier, the most successful businesses design everything from the customer back to creating products and experiences that people want and need. 

But … is your business over reliant on the look and feel of your branding or logo, website or mobile app to wow your customers? This is important. However, good-looking design is also a low barrier for entry and easy to replicate. Great design is about more than bells and whistles. It’s about how something works. What makes you stand out is being able to deliver value to users – at the right moment and the right time.  

You need to ask yourself:

  • Is our team relentlessly focussed on how our customers experience our brand and its products? 
  • What makes us different from all the others? 
  • What do our customers most value – do we have the data we need to get to the answers?
  • How do we create customer value, early and often?

If you don’t know the answers – do you need an outside view to get to them?

What not to expect

Here are a few extra things that could mean the agency isn’t the right fit …

  • Fully fledged / off-the-peg strategies or slick presentations probably mean you’re off on somebody else’s journey. 
  • A green light for every project – you won’t want partners to just say ‘yes’ to everything. 
  • Comfortable truths – you’ll want to be challenged. There may be some uncomfortable truths that need to be overcome. 

One last thought … how do you measure all of this?

Now we’ve got down to the nitty gritty. Most design teams have KPIs around project delivery and UX. On UX, the question is ‘what are the key attributes of a good UX and how do we track them over time? Your list of metrics might include conversion rates, quality leads, task completion times, analytics from Google / site performance etc. There is a whole bucket load to choose from. Choose the right metrics to link to specific goals to measure the ROI. 

But, here’s the thing (again) – are these goals ring fenced to your design team? How do you link these metrics to your overall CX strategy and your marketing efforts, say?  A cross-functional team with shared goals makes it easier to measure the business impact of an investment, not just a departmental one.   

There are four big picture questions:

  • What outcomes are you looking for – as a business? 
  • How do you link your investment with tangible results? 
  • Which KPIs / metrics should you use to measure performance?
  • How can metrics help you unearth hidden costs due to poor experiences?

That’s plenty to think about for now. 

It’s a wrap

We’re going full circle here. Should you hire a design team? Potentially yes if you find you need deeper levels of expertise and skills to increase the design maturity of your business and team. If you are thinking about starting a discussion or doing your research, go beyond services and think about how the agency’s perspective and approach can be applied to your business to look at your situation in a different way. This is more than a fresh pair of eyes. 

How can an outside team help you think differently about your products now, and in the future? How can they help you stand out in saturated markets? Remember good-looking design will only get you so far. Your customers want the digital products they rely on to work for them. They don’t care about what happens behind the scenes. 

What’s next? 

Struggling to move your digital products forward? Worth a chat to find out more?