Deciding whether you should design your website in-house or source the work out to a third party is a debate that many companies have at some point (though, in reality, there isn’t much to debate these days).
In short, the resounding answer is: No, you should never try to design your website with your in-house team. Doing so is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
If you already agree, you need not read on! But if you need convincing, let me expand further on why we are so sure this is a bad idea. Of course, you could just say I’m biased given the nature of my business—and you’d be right. We design countless websites each year, and I am absolutely biased in my opinion.
But there’s a reason why I hold this belief. Designing and building websites today is so much more complex than it has ever been before. I know from hard-earned experience that unless you design user interfaces for a living, it’s just too frustrating to try to do this yourself.
Is It Really Worth the Headache?
Let me explain why people think designing a site in-house is a good idea in the first place.
For the most part, the thinking is a bit old school. As we’ll discuss in a bit, websites today need to be complex experience channels with many moving parts. But years ago, they were simple to spin out and create with readily available internal resources. Your designer could typically take some old-world knowledge dating back to the days of print and come up with something that more or less worked for the Web. Maybe it didn’t follow all of the best practices, but one could buy a few books to help fill in any knowledge gaps and keep the project moving.
Since technology was limited, this was a passable technique for a long time. And before the days of the CMS, you could even utilize tools like Dreamweaver or GoLive (now I’m dating myself), which would seamlessly integrate with design programs to create fairly complex HTML.
But times have changed. Today, web design encompasses so much more than drawing pictures. And that’s a great segue into my first reason why you shouldn’t attempt to do this yourself…
Reason 1: The Technology That Powers the Modern Web is Complex
There just isn’t any way to avoid the fact that today’s websites take longer to design and longer to build.
You are probably saying that it’s crazy, given the age of the medium, that techniques don’t exist to speed up the process—and to an extent, that is true. But today’s Web isn’t just delivered via a computer. Today, content is consumed on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other devices that can read and render pages. Hell, even my car has a browser with its own display rules!
You can’t simply avoid these tools. If you don’t have them integrated into your site, you’ll be unable to visually compete with your competitors.
If you don’t believe any of that, consider how the job of a web designer has actually morphed in recent years. Today, being able to push pixels in Photoshop doesn’t cut it. Today’s designers also need a comprehensive understanding of how all these coding frameworks work.
You wouldn’t hire an architect who didn’t know anything about building materials, right?
The same goes for web design.
Designers need to know the capabilities of the many libraries and languages available to them, and utilize them intelligently. And the best UI/UX designers will be able to handle code themselves. This isn’t something an in-house creative team can handle—web design has become a multi-discipline skill.
This isn’t to say that an in-house creative team can’t add value to a design project. Of course they can! They can focus on adherence to brand guidelines, serve as a second set of eyes on all design directions, and provide valuable insight into maintaining consistency with other projects done in-house. After all, it isn’t the fault of your in-house creative that they lack the experience with designing comprehensive web presences. They are busy with other tasks—keeping up with an agency design team that produces countless projects per year would simply be too difficult when their day-to-day responsibilities are so uniquely different.
Reason 2: In-House Teams Understand the Goals but Not the Pathway to Success
Another way the Web is more complex today isn’t even technology-based. It’s about results.
Nearly every website design needs to be results-oriented these days. It isn’t enough to design a pretty experience; the experience has to ultimately nudge the user in the direction you want them to go and perform the tasks you want them to perform. That is what defines the difference between a traditional designer and a UX expert. A UX expert will know how to give those subtle queues via design earlier in the process of designing and building the site, without as much time spent on learning and figuring out how to achieve the desired results.
In-house teams are usually aware of the goals and objectives of a website design project. The problem presents itself, however, in that they typically are not aware of how to achieve them. In reality, the only way you learn to design a proper UX is through trial and error, and that happens via constant and consistent exposure to UX design and the end results. The best UX designers have been through years of training and practical experience, having learned how to iterate their designs along the way to drive the best results. And they understand metrics and how design ultimately affects them.
This all ties directly into economics. If you are willing to let in-house designers iterate over and over to achieve results, you are giving up staff time, which in turn will affect your bottom line. If it takes your designers a year to achieve numerical success, you will have not only lost the revenue a year of improvements bring, but also set yourself yet again behind the technology and design curve. By the time you are done and have reached your goals, new techniques will already be available that your designer may have no idea about.
Reason 3: In-House Teams Are Part of the Internal Political Complex
I’m walking on eggshells with this point, but it has to be said. All internal teams have exposure to corporate politics—in fact, it’s highly unusual that this isn’t the case. And as such, their modus operandi has a high likelihood of being biased in one direction or another.
For example, an in-house creative that works within the marketing team can be heavily biased by the needs and wishes of their immediate supervisors. On the flip side, they can work around their boss and cater to the CEO’s favor, even when he or she perhaps has good intentions but is on the wrong track.
Internal designers are notorious for being manipulated by the corporate structure. There is no true way to maintain an unbiased, non-partisan approach when you are trying to move the needle while simultaneously relying on the signature on your paycheck.
Outside parties, such as agencies, approach this problem very differently.
First, an agency comes in with a level of credibility from day one since they were already thoroughly vetted. By the time you talk to an agency, you will have already looked at quite a few possibilities and, as such, had some introductory calls. Whoever you bring in will have established their abilities, which will be respected by the internal team (for the most part).
Furthermore, a good agency will begin with the process of discovery and architecture, so they will be able to wrangle together all the parties and arrive at consensus.
For example, when we conduct a discovery session, we begin with sending out a pre-discovery needs assessment to all team members. This assessment enables us to see each individual’s thoughts and concerns in a confidential setting, allowing us to better understand the team dynamics.
If you do an internal project, there is no way that level of clarity or openness will ever be accomplished by a coworker or colleague—employees don’t open up that way to each other in a typical setting.
Who is Making the Decision?
Oftentimes, we see that the decision or pressure to design in-house comes from a variety of individuals or job roles. Understanding their motivations is essential to convincing them that the lowest-risk scenario for all parties is hiring a qualified vendor.
The Business Executive
This isn’t typically the person who convinces the company to design a website in-house. It’s actually more likely to happen in other places. Usually, the executive knows that they need experts to get the job done right. And if they don’t believe it, they can be convinced relatively quickly.
But when a CEO does insist their in-house team can do it, it is usually due to one of two factors.
The first is control—executives love maintaining control over projects. They believe that they have more control over in-house resources compared to third-party ones. And while this is true in that they can hire and fire whomever they want, it is also true that having that much control leads to decisions based on fear, not based on what is right.
As I said, it’s usually easy to show executives the error of this thinking by reassuring them about the capabilities of an agency. Remember, agencies want to please too, and that provides leverage to their clients (i.e. you), particularly executives.
The other thought process a CEO may bring to the table is cost. It’s always cheaper to use in-house resources—this point is indisputable. However, the opportunity cost if the project doesn’t go well presents a significant risk factor to both the executive and the company. If the project is finished and doesn’t perform well, there is a major economic impact on the company. Likewise, if the site doesn’t maintain credibility or doesn’t pass muster with investors or a board, it can reflect poorly on the executive and cost them ultimately their position.
Again, penny-wise, pound-foolish is a risky proposition.
The Marketing Executive
This is one of the more likely individuals to espouse the position that in-house design makes the most sense. They will highlight the fact that they can drive the project more closely and that they will be using an existing cost (i.e. the in-house team’s salaries) as opposed to requiring further budget.
CMOs are faced with constant budgetary requirements clouding their judgment (sorry—it’s true!), making them think this is a smart move. There, of course, are a couple of arguments against this position.
First, as we mentioned, is the quality of the output. Unless their in-house designer has created a compelling interactive experience in the last year, even if just a single one, they are disqualified from serious consideration. Technology is moving just that fast.
Second, if you use your in-house team for designing your website, it will result in one of two things: Either they will be so busy that they will be unavailable for the other tasks you hired them to perform, or they will have to juggle their usual tasks with the new design work, making all projects take much longer than planned.
Either way, not a good place to be.
CMOs need reassurance as to the value of hiring an outside team. Many of those reassurances can be given based on the same arguments we had for the CEO above. Beyond that, assuring the CMO that their team can be heavily invested in the design process is an important message which any qualified agency should bring into the discussion. The best project, after all, is a result of collaboration between agency and client resources.
The Creative Director
This is the most dangerous person in the decision-making process. I’ve yet to meet a creative director who doesn’t want to undertake the entire design process themselves.
It’s an admirable trait, wanting to be involved at the highest level and do the work themselves. Unfortunately for the company, it’s often the riskiest approach. In recent years, I’ve seen no instance of an in-house creative director taking on a web design project that ended well.
Look back to all of the reasons above: technology, UI/UX changes, internal pressures. It is nearly impossible for a quality deliverable to come out of an internal team given all of those factors, much less the head of a department.
The creative director needs to get a sense of the overall risks of taking on the project themselves. The website, in many cases, is the main communication mechanism of a company. Whether it be a B2B or B2C organization, a mistake made with this essential tool can affect business in ways that you may not even imagine. Agencies can take on that risk because they are exposed to those scenarios often. Internal team members are not. It isn’t worth risking their livelihood to prove a point or exert control.
So how can they stay involved and have their creative input considered when hiring an agency?
The compromise has to be a collaboration between agency and client. This can and should begin during the discovery and architecture phase, culminating in a wireframing process. Internal teams should work to understand why the UI/UX experts are positioning elements where they are. Understanding the mechanics of those decisions will help them learn more about the discipline and help them maintain the site in the future.
Then, they should be involved during the creative, conceptual design process. The number one role during this part of the project is for them to make sure the third party is adhering to brand guidelines. This should be their primary objective—adhering to the standards they are charged with enforcing.
Agencies are happy to collaborate when there is a clear delineation between teams. That line should be defined clearly in the initial steps of the process so as to formulate a solid bond between the groups early on. Given that clarity, projects typically evolve smoothly with all parties accountable for their given tasks.
I know many people will read this and say something along the lines of: “Well, that’s to be expected from an agency owner.”
To an extent, again, this is true. But we’d be happy if all we did was implement CMS projects and not engage in design processes. Designing a website is an emotional task that is complex and, in some cases, draining to all parties involved.
But it is our honest appraisal that attempting to design a modern website experience in-house is simply not feasible. When large, multi-national corporations hire outside agencies to rebrand and rebuild their websites and apps, it should be a clue that doing the work yourself isn’t the best way to go.