If you have—or plan to have—any digital products (such as web apps, mobile apps, platforms, or websites), then you will probably have a need to conduct user research. But then you’re bound to consider the age-old question: outsource or in-house? Commission an agency or hire a UX Researchers?

Choosing between hiring a dedicated UX researcher or commissioning a UX research agency depends on various factors, including your project’s scope, budget, timeline, and specific needs. In this article we discuss some considerations to help you make an informed decision.

Partnering with a UX Research Agency:

When you commission an agency, you’re getting much more value, but the cost is also often greater than a solo UX researcher. Below are some points that can help you justify that cost.

1.     Project-Specific Needs

Picture a fast-growing e-commerce company preparing to launch a major redesign of their main platform and application. They need a comprehensive usability evaluation to ensure a smooth transition and improved user experience. Rather than building an in-house team for this one-off project, they commission a UX research agency with a strong portfolio UX research. This agency’s experts conduct extensive usability testing, identify critical pain points, and provide actionable recommendations. The project is completed efficiently, leading to a successful relaunch.

Having a need for everyday, in-depth research activities that are integral to your work (such as field studies) might require an in-house UX researcher. If, however, you have a particular, short-term project that requires a specific research focus, then hiring a researcher or a team to handle it doesn’t make much sense. Agencies can offer specialized expertise in various UX research methods to address unique challenges that a single researcher or a small team wouldn’t normally possess.

2.     Access to Diverse Capabilities and Perspectives

If your project requires a multifaceted approach with various research activities & methodologies or a set of diverse perspectives, then an agency with a multidisciplinary team is the way to go. Agencies often have a team of experienced researchers, designers, and analysts with diverse skill sets. This can be beneficial when you need a variety of perspectives and expertise for a project.

Designers sitting around their design artifacts, such as the design process, their wireframes and wireflows, as well as the outputs from their ideation and ux research.

Consider the case of an organization whose business model is based on a consumer mobile app. Their user base spans across a large variety of demographics and they want to obtain effective results and insights about their users to guide a redesign of their app for higher conversion. They decide to partner with a UX research agency known for its multidisciplinary team to conduct a variety of UX research activities to understand their product’s usability and their users. The agency’s researchers, designers, and analysts work collaboratively to gather insights for a more user-centric app. This approach ensures that the business benefits from various perspectives and expertise resulting in a well-rounded product that stands out in a crowded market.

3.     Scalability and Flexibility

Agencies can quickly scale up or down to quickly accommodate changing project requirements, adding or reducing resources as needed. This flexibility can be advantageous for projects with fluctuating research needs.

A tax software company experiences very clear seasonality in their operations. During tax submission season, they experience a surge in user activity. Since users are already coming for the services, they will be more willing to participate in some research while you help them out. A UX research agency can quickly scale up their team to conduct user testing, gather data, and provide insights to optimize the user experience during the rush period. Once tax season ends (and users are far less enthusiastic to participate in research), the agency scales down conducting continuous, behind-the-scenes research that doesn’t require extensive user participation, offering cost-effective flexibility that an in-house team might struggle to match.

4.     Expertise Across Different Industries

Owing to the diversity of a larger team, and the history of accumulated knowledge across the years, UX research agencies usually have experience across various industries, allowing them to bring insights and best practices from different sectors to your project.

Various hands holding the tools of their trade, including a stethoscope, a wrench, a calculator, a POS, a hard hat, and a voltmeter. An UX agency would have more experience than a UX researcher in these different industries

At webkeyz, for example, we’ve functioned across more than 30 industries, and have amassed a wealth of knowledge in each, allowing us to have insights into the functions and operations of many different businesses across various sectors.

5.     An Unbiased, Objective Perspective

Research bias is defined as any deviation from the truth, causing distorted results and wrong conclusions and it’s one of the things that can skew design research findings. In a diverse organization with a large team with varying perspectives, bias is much less pronounced than with a single researcher or with a small in-house team, as a large team of systematic researchers will have checks against measures that would weaken the value of findings. An external agency can provide an objective perspective on your project, free from internal biases or preconceptions.

A corporation’s internal teams who have been working on a complex software application for years might become too close to the project and can’t see its flaws objectively. Bringing in a UX research agency with fresh eyes can help uncover critical usability issues that might go unnoticed. The agency’s outsider perspective could be instrumental in saving the project from potential failure. Designer and researcher Leah Buley’s book titled “The User Experience Team of One” emphasizes the value of external perspectives in avoiding internal biases.

6.     Cost Predictability

Given the usually sprawling scope and unpredictable outcomes of UX research, controlling costs and projecting benefits could be a bit tricky. It’s more prominent with a single researcher since they’re doing everything sequentially and any delay or obstacle will cascade across the entire project.

Close-up of a person using a calculator to sum up their costs with one hand and writing down the figures in a notebook with the other. Various charts, graphs, and notes are strewn under the calculator and notebook.

Commissioning an agency typically involves clear project-based pricing, making it easier to budget for specific research efforts without the ongoing commitment of a full-time hire. Some agencies even offer off-the-shelf, modular research offerings with specific timelines and crystal clear outcomes.

7.     Faster Turnaround

A UX research agency has at its disposal an entire team that can process multiple activities in parallel thereby reaching results faster than a single researcher.

Say you have a mobile game that needs quick feedback on a new user interface design. You can hire a UX research agency to conduct rapid usability testing on a mockup of the design with multiple users at the same time to obtain valuable insights within a short timeframe. Do this before you invest in developing the interface, and you’re saving yourself thousands in development costs and reduced time-to-market.

Hiring a Dedicated UX Researcher

Sometimes the UX research needs of your business are so small or so sensitive that you can’t hire an outside entity. But the argument also stands that if your needs are too small, wouldn’t a dedicated, full-time UX researcher be too much for you anyway? Maybe a one-time project with an agency, or even hiring a freelancer would be a better bet?

Here are some cases where hiring UX researcher would be a good idea.

A close-up of a UX researcher holding a clipboard and writing down observations.

1.     Continuous Low-Intensity Research

If you have a continuous need for user research due to an ongoing project or long-term product development, having an in-house UX research team can be advantageous. They can build domain knowledge and deep understanding of your product and user base over time, facilitating more informed design decisions.

Consider hiring an in-house UX researcher if your project is long-term or requires continuous research efforts. Bear in mind though, that a single researcher might not cover all your needs or produce outputs in a reasonable time, and a large team might sit idle for stretches at a time.

2.     Project Control and Integration

In-house researchers can work closely with your product development team, fostering better communication and integration of research findings into the design process. They are always available to attend meetings, workshops, and design sprints at the drop of a hat without much consideration. This close integration ensures that research findings are directly applied to the design process.

3.     Project Confidentiality

If your project involves sensitive data or proprietary information, you may have concerns about sharing this data with an external agency. Or your regulatory framework might even prohibit sharing data with external parties. A non-disclosure agreement might solve this issue and allow you to benefit from hiring an agency, if this isn’t possible hiring an in-house researcher will allow you to maintain greater control over data security and confidentiality in the research process and its findings.

A person filling a non-disclosure agreement.

4.     Deep Domain Expertise

Many agencies have worked across multiple industries and have garnered deep knowledge in them. But even if an agency worked 10 projects in a particular field, it might not match a dedicated UX researcher with 20 years of experience within that field.

An in-house researcher can develop domain expertise specific to your industry, organization, product, and target audience. This depth of knowledge can lead to more insightful research and a better understanding of user needs over time.

5.     Cost Considerations

While hiring an in-house UX researcher involves salary and benefits, it can be cost-effective for continuous research needs compared to continually commissioning an agency. The ongoing commitment may be justified by the steady stream of insights that help improve the product. But if you’re hiring a team of researchers to give you the same value and level of expertise as an agency, then the cost of maintaining that team might end up being the same as an agency, or even more since your needs might not cover an entire team’s capacity year round, but you still pay their salaries every month.

Unless you find an agency with bite-size offerings, or you’re really strapped for cash, maybe hiring a UX researcher or even commissioning a freelancer could be the best option for you.

Consider a Hybrid Approach

In some cases, a hybrid approach may work better than either model. This involves hiring an in-house UX researcher to manage ongoing research needs and strategic direction, while occasionally partnering with a UX research agency for specialized or high-intensity research projects. Your dedicated UX researcher can act as a liaison with the agency, being someone who knows your industry inside-out but can talk the language of the agency and guide them in planning and conducting their research.

A team of UX researchers with one in front extending a hand to shake towards the camera.

This hybrid model gives you the depth of an in-house researcher, with the breadth and power of a dedicated team of researchers. It allows an organization to maintain in-house expertise while leveraging external agencies for specialized projects. For example, a technology company with an in-house UX researcher may choose to partner with an agency for specialized research, such as international usability testing to accommodate a global audience which the agency can reach and recruit with ease. The book “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy discusses strategies for combining in-house and external UX resources for maximum effectiveness.

Your Research Summary

Ultimately, the decision of hiring an in-house UX researcher and commissioning an agency should be based on a thorough assessment of your project’s unique requirements, your organization’s capacity, budget constraints, and the level of control and specialization you desire. Remember that each approach has its merits, and the key is to align your choice with your project’s objectives and long-term strategy for delivering a great user experience.

Bear in mind that agencies have at their disposal many research methods and tools, such as eyetracking, usability testing, user recruitment, customer research for service design, etc. and they can flexibly scale up and down according to your needs, while also having the capacity to conduct many activities in parallel. So whenever your needs require any of these activities, even if you already have an internal team, a hybrid model might be a good option.