The more companies understand the power of a great user experience design and its impact on customer loyalty, the more they are willing to have it embedded in their culture. With so much emphasis on the user today, there are plenty of career opportunities for UX professionals. An extremely diverse cohort of companies and teams are looking to seize top UX talent.
Choosing between dedicating your professional self to working for a design agency or a corporate company is a big deal. Just think about how different the design roles for UXers in an agency and corporate can be in terms of the environment, working culture, team size, responsibilities and the impact of final deliverables.
In this piece, I will try to highlight major perks and pitfalls of a UX designer’s life in a corporate environment in comparison to that within a design agency. Before diving into the topic, let me just say that obviously there are no universal truths in this area and what one views as a pro or con highly depends on personal needs, goals, character and career expectations.
That being said, this article aims to give a non-final list of things to think about for someone who is deciding whether to go with a UX design role in a big company or to work for an agency.
Many organizations today are trying to win a design battle to stay relevant. In addition to this, recent trends show that more and more midsize and large product companies are gaining their momentum. However, like in any corporate environment, being a part of a large organization comes not only with perks but also with challenges.
Perk #1: Deep product and brand knowledge
In-house UX designers have the opportunity to dive in a single brand and truly invest themselves into each project from the start to the finish. Participating in a conversation early on, designers are able to get a valuable insight that allows them to truly nurture product execution. When designers work on a specific product long term, they are able to witness its growth and development over time.
Pitfall: Focus on design within one brand and/or product
Very often in-house teams are dedicated to working on a single product within a brand. For many creatives, this limited work variation opportunity represents a real challenge that may lead to creative stagnation. At the same time, I feel I need to mention that being responsible for the design of one product over a long period of time requires a real talent and creative commitment.
Perk #2: Skill Specialization
Compared to most agencies, design departments in large companies are usually specialist in nature, being perfect for those who would like to grow their expertise in a particular part of the design field. Instead of going wide in their skillset, designers focus on perfecting their talents in one part of the design process.
Pitfall: Narrow skillset
On the other hand, despite the tendency to have specialized design forces, companies highly value when their design professionals have a wider knowledge of the design field because they see this as a precious asset. In this case, being an expert in one narrow area and fully devoting oneself to it could be seen as a drawback. Taking into account the pace at which digital design is developing today, user experience designers have to balance their skillset at the intersection of many areas (for example user research, information architecture, visual design, etc.) in order to stay relevant with their work.
Perk #3: Structured workflow and established processes
In mature and large organizations, workflow processes are in place and well-defined, which makes the design expectations clearer and easier to follow. Besides, with more structured processes comes more defined managerial structure with assigned supervisors or even mentors to learn from and grow.
Pitfall : Corporate red tape
The environment inside larger companies tends to be more bureaucratic and less flexible. Starting from endless meetings, rigid brand guidelines and communication standards to conservative mindset on experimentation with ideas and design strategies, UX designers often struggle to push their ideas through and introduce something new into their routine work.
Perk #4: Stability
Let us put it this way – large companies with established reputation are likely to stay here for a while. The work life within these organizations tends to be more balanced, with more predictable cycles of work and standard working hours. In terms of payroll and other benefits, large companies have multiple social perks, starting from medical care and additional vacation time to education reimbursements and annual bonuses.
Pitfall: Challenge of staying inspired and motivated
Unless it is a company with design thinking culture, where the innovative spirit can be enjoyed together with the benefits of working for a large company, the lack of variety in work can truly undermine motivation of some UX designers. No one wants to sit for hours and do the same work or to be on the same project for years. In the end, it gets tedious and unchallenging. One of the ways for creatives to overcome this drawback and maintain their creative forces is to adopt a continuous proactive “seek-out” attitude and search for the ways to improve products, processes and procedures they are a part of.
Perk #5: Cross-team collaboration
One of the most rewarding thing in working as an in-house designer is the possibility to directly collaborate with people from various disciplines across one company and learn from the top professionals in other fields. This on-the-ground collaboration is equally important to streamline feedback and approval times as well as to help designers to find support in pushing their ideas forward.
Pitfall: Corporate politics
Getting used to the corporate mindset and politics is a struggle for many creatives. At the same time, if one does not embrace it and learn the art of corporate diplomacy and how to navigate dodgy internal politics, one can get really frustrated and disengaged along the way. Understanding the corporate mindset and working around it is essential for success within the corporate environment.
Unlike corporate companies, agencies tend to be smaller. Depending on the clients and industries served, they could be strong UX generalists or have a particular UX design specialization. Here is an overview of the pros and cons of working for a design agency.
Perk #1: Wide variety of projects
The best part of working at an agency is the variety of projects one gets to work on. In comparison to one-product companies, working for an agency is a great way to expose oneself to a variety of UX design challenges in various industries and greatly enrich one’s professional experience.
Pitfall: Lack of long-term influence
One of the major drawbacks is that you cannot influence what you are working on in the long run unless an agency you are working for is set up to offer extra services that facilitate a long-term project’s success.
Perk #2: Creative diversity
Generally speaking, agencies are more flexible in terms of trying new technologies, tools and design strategies to help their clients reach their design objectives. Such flexibility creates a constant flow of new creative opportunities for designers to expand their skillsets and go beyond expected design frameworks.
Pitfall: Short-term deadline-driven culture
Creative flexibility is one of the positive and most important aspects of solving design problems. However, it is essential to stay focused and deadline-oriented, as thriving on accomplishments and observing project deadlines provides structure, based on which success is measured and reputation is built.
Perk #3: Direct communication with clients
Direct communication with clients is a great way to expand your professional network, build connections and develop relationships that eventually may lead to long-term engagement and multiple projects.
Pitfall: Quick client turnover and bad clients from time to time
Sometimes clients can be indecisive and demanding, continuously asking for alterations. This means that you really need to be patient and ready to accept criticism. Another drawback is that sometimes after accepting your work, clients will change or ruin it, ignoring your suggestions.
Perk #4: Simultaneous work with an assortment of clients
It is not an uncommon practice for agency designer to work on various projects simultaneously, interacting directly with clients. One of the advantages it offers is the opportunity to build connections and to develop the skill of good communication and collaboration with external teams on a short-term basis.
Pitfall: Need for high adaptability and high-speed creative performance
The high client turnover can have a negative side as well. Due to the short-term engagement with clients, UX designers need to quickly adapt to new clients, understand their needs and instantly dive into the design challenge the client is trying to solve, efficiently utilizing time. This could be stressful and exhausting for those who are more introverted.
Perk #5: More opportunities to expand transferable skills
Beside creative diversity and flexibility, work for a design agency also offers a great way for UX professionals to improve their “portable skills”, such as the ability to persuade the client on the relevance of the design choices and to demonstrate the business value of the design solutions.
Pitfall: More personal responsibility
More creative freedom goes hand in hand with more personal responsibility. At an agency, it is nearly impossible not to notice a job well-done or failed. Therefore, UXers need to be more focused and dedicated to their work to avoid letting down their team in front of the client.
Just like in any workplace, there are pros and cons to each particular design work environment. Depending on whether you value structure or creative flexibility, there are many ways to keep your job interesting and advance your career. Do not let preconceived expectations about particular work environment hamper your experience. No matter what your personal work preference may be, with an open mind, a proactive attitude and a willingness to work hard to execute your creative ideas, you will be able to develop your creative potential and succeed in any environment.
(Lead image source: Negative Space – Creative Commons)