Why it's worth engaging an embedded UX design team (and 17 questions to ask before you do)
Neuron breaks down the benefits of hiring an embedded UX design team and offers some questions to prepare your team for conversations with vendors.
When organizations hire us it is generally for one of two reasons. Either they do not have design capabilities in-house or their internal design team does not have the capacity to take on the full scope of work they want done. While the traditional agency model is to offer a fixed project-based statement of work, we are increasingly finding organizations opting to have our designers come on as full members of an embedded design team or as an agency of record. In some cases, we are the lone design practitioners, collaborating with a team of developers, project managers, and product owners. More and more we find ourselves joining an existing design team to help increase output. While we do not necessarily sit in the same office, we work virtually as members of a team, convene at a regular interval, and share resources. When internal resources are at capacity, hiring an embedded team is a cost-effective way for our clients to get access to the design resources their project requires, without having to deal with the overhead and onboarding of a full time hire. We are able to come on and give them access to senior design practitioners with a range of specialities on an as-needed basis. In a different scenario, when the scope of work is well defined and can be divided into small tasks with relative ease, we recommend engaging vendors on a project basis. The embedded team model is a good option for organizations with evolving requirements or tight turnaround because they are then able to guarantee the resources they need without having a clearly defined project scope.
The benefits of an embedded UX design team
You gain access to a number of specialists, without having to incur the costs.
In addition to the increased capacity, the value of an embedded team really comes from the access to a range of specialties. Rather than hire five people with distinct capabilities, you can have one or two designers on a retainer basis but tap into an agency’s entire team. While as designers our skills are wide-ranging, it is rare for anybody to be a true expert at everything. With the embedded team model, clients gain access to different specialities, on-demand. This means gaining access to areas such as information architecture, illustration, animation, UX writing, and motion — but only when you need it.
After working with Neuron on a localization project that would expand Givelify’s reach to include Spanish-speaking users, they continued to engage us on a partnership basis to support continuous improvement and feature development. This ongoing relationship ensures Givelify has access to senior designers on an as-needed basis.
You can avoid the overhead and latency of hiring a full-time employee.
Recruiting, negotiating, and hiring full time resources takes time. Even with a full-time HR specialist it can be difficult to find top-tier UX talent. Hiring an agency instead can be an effective way to side-step the latency and overhead of onboarding a full time employee. Also, agencies are already adept at working and collaborating remotely because they tend to work with clients in different areas. This is a value add because many organizations (and their HR teams) have yet to perfect the remote hiring processes, which can slow things down further.
You benefit from their experience across industries.
Consultants can often get up to speed on complex projects very quickly when they have worked across various industries. Over the years we have developed a framework to digest a large amount of information in order to understand the business logic, customers, and the design language of our clients. This has made it possible for us to work on everything from HR management software, to IT asset management, healthcare, real estate, and more.
iQuartic is a health software company that helps risk-adjustment experts determine pricing for insurance policies based on individual patient data. We began our engagement with a Discovery phase to help us understand the ins and outs of iQuartic’s complex business. By breaking their existing workflow into steps and assessing the word documents and spreadsheets they used for every assessment, our designers identified moments of truth in the user experience and produced detailed product requirements.
If you’re engaging a design partner, encourage a robust discovery process to help them learn your business, sink their teeth into your challenges, and then strategize on how design methods can create better outcomes. Working quickly, cross functionality, and collaboratively is somewhat inherent to the agency model and in hiring an experienced vendor with breadth you are likely to benefit from insights gained across different industries and mediums, which can offer your team an appropriate, but fresh perspective.
Neuron worked with Oomnitza to completely reinvent their software platform and marketing website to drastically improve product usability and push Oomnitza forward as the industry standard amongst CTOs and IT professionals.
Some things to consider before engaging vendors
Before starting your procurement process it is useful to articulate and build consensus around the nature of your project.
The early stages
When we meet with project stakeholders looking for an embedded team, we ask questions that help us assess their readiness as an organization. First and foremost we set out to understand what it is they want to achieve:
What are the project goals? Are your product requirements already clearly defined What is the minimum viable product? What is your timeline? Do you want to take an Agile, Waterfall, or hybrid project management approach? Is your scope clearly defined, or is this likely to evolve?
The relationship between requirements, budget, timeline, and project management methodology is important because it contributes to predictable pricing and general project success. Pricing on a project basis makes sense when the requirements are clearly defined, the scope is fixed, and the timeline is firm. However, if you want to take an Agile approach that welcomes changing requirements, a retainer or time and materials engagement is likely to be the better option. On the project management front, we keep things predictable by tracking project status and burn, depending on the engagement model. Guided by these variables, we encourage prospective clients to consider the engagement model that makes the most sense for their business and project.
A sample project schedule that breaks down activities across project phases.
People and culture
It is also important to give some consideration to culture and internal dynamics, especially in the early stages of project planning. Working in a consensus driven environment where the stakeholders have not answered the questions above can be an early indicator of a timeline in jeopardy. In addition to gaining clarity around the project itself — scope, timeline, budget, and objectives — it is important to think about how decisions will be made and how features will be prioritized in the event that scope changes.
What internal resources will you dedicate to onboarding, general project management, and admin? What capabilities do you want access to? What degree of embedding do you want (e.g. meeting frequency, communication, etc.)?
Speaking more tactically, identifying a product owner to work with vendors is crucial. This person — who usually holds a director title and works closely with the product — will be a point of contact who convenes with vendors at a regular interval to answer questions and offer insight into the varying use cases. As designers coming into a business, we learn the most when we are able to speak to the people who actually use the product. If we are working on a consumer product for example, we tend to focus on gaining insights about the optimal use by studying customer research, surveys, and interviews with power users. Ensuring that this point of contact is resourced for this additional communication is key to ensuring their availability does not turn them into a blocker. An experienced partner will ensure their time is used efficiently and not in a disruptive, ad-hoc manner. In addition to these conversations with your in-house expert, expect your partner agency to do their own research, starting at minimum with known competitors, and then expanding to tangential competitors for insight or inspiration.
Collaboration and project management
It is also important to consider the level of embedding you want and then setting expectations with your team. As far as dynamics go, there is a big difference between a design partner who contributes to sprint planning, discovery, and retrospectives and a partner that just adds horsepower to complete well documented tickets by their deadline. The difference will really be felt in the number of hours dedicated to project planning meetings where your vendor contributes versus status updates where they merely report on tickets completed to date.
Who at your organization will be responsible, accountable, consulted, or informed? How will you manage decision making with your internal stakeholders to ensure the timeline is not compromised What level of communication do our stakeholders require to be confident in the work? If you have an existing design team: How will you manage team dynamics to ensure that people’s roles are clearly defined?
In organizations that have worked without a design team to date — usually in early stage ventures with an engineering-focused culture — we find there is value in involving developers and giving them a voice in the design process. Your new designs will benefit from their tacit knowledge, and this will help shift your culture to be one that embraces design. When clients have excluded developers who have historically made product decisions, we find there tends to be friction. It is important to acknowledge the value and insight that developers bring to the design process while also demonstrating that designers and design partners are allies.
For product owners who have not worked with an embedded team before, their hesitation about the embedded model is often rooted in concern that a vendor will not be able to learn all the intricacies of their business. For us, the strategy piece of a design engagement demands that we consult with stakeholders who know the product well and have shaped it to this point. For example, understanding technical debt, customer feedback, and the preferences of the braintrust or founding members of the team.
When we are dealing with an existing product we often encounter entrenched opinions. In such a relationship it is important that we develop hypotheses to help inform the design decisions because we do not believe in just shooting from the hip. Hypotheses should filter through a series of validation mechanisms to prevent invalid ideas from being implemented and to ensure stakeholders are on board.
In The Know is an iOS mobile application that leverages cultural context and design to help native Chinese speakers learn English. Neuron worked directly with their founder to create a brand identity and design language, in addition to the iOS app, marketing website, explainer video, and architectural guide. Read the full case study here.
We also believe it is important to choose a vendor that knows how to extract undocumented knowledge from your subject matter experts and stakeholders. By giving different stakeholders a voice and letting them actively participate in the design process they become champions of the design process. If there is not an existing culture of design within your organization, this is likely to require more meetings or facilitation, but it is worth the effort when trying to create a culture shift.
Even when there is already a culture of design there can sometimes be some existing friction between the design and development teams. It is important to think about morale when bringing on a design partner and to develop strategies for ensuring your own team does not feel like they’re being stripped of opportunities to work on a new, big, or impactful project.
Cohesion and collaboration
Who will be your product or project champion to support onboarding and project kickoff? What tools will we use to support collaboration?
We find Figma to be a helpful repository for both specs and annotations, helping your product management team to define acceptance criteria.
Where tools are concerned, we almost always advocate for anything collaborative and cloud-based. This makes it easier for teams to work together and share resources, which contributes to both cohesion and efficacy. Our toolkit for working as an embedded team often includes Figma, a cloud-based design tool that allows for real-time collaboration and easy packaging of design files; Mural, a virtual whiteboard which helps with mapping and planning; and JIRA, an issue tracking and project management software.
Do you have an existing design system? If not, what existing assets or information can you provide vendors with?
Having a design system will save time and contribute to a consistent and coherent product. A design system can also make onboarding of vendors more efficient, and when done right ensures that design is never a blocker for engineers trying to complete their tasks. It will also eliminate the need for developers to make design decisions, which is common in the absence of a design system. If you do not have one in place, we recommend creating this documentation in the early stages of your project. This can be done in tandem with your other project requirements.
In our work for the City of Everett Massachusetts, we established a highly detailed and flexible design system that could be assembled to meet all current and future needs. Read the full case study here.
In the absence of a design system, starting with an open, active repository of design files is an important first step, and can form as the basis of alignment. By conducting a design audit in the early stages and making all files and assets available to your vendor, you can avoid a situation where designers are requesting files or conducting duplicative work.
Communication is key to accountability
There’s a lot to consider when evaluating vendors in search of an embedded design team, especially if it is your first time. By asking the questions above, you will be better prepared for conversations with vendors, who — if experienced — are likely to ask these questions of you. Project success is an outcome of great communication and accountability for shared goals, in addition to all the technical skill required to bring a great digital product to life. It is important to establish priorities early, give vendors an understanding of your big-picture objectives, product requirements, and internal culture if you want to consistently hit milestones and meet project goals. Not an unlike interviewing an individual for a job, great candidates often have a lot of questions for the interviewer because they too are trying to assess fit and likelihood of success and longevity.
For more insight on how to streamline your product design workflow, reach out to us at email@example.com.