Struggling to make
your in-house
UX design team
effective? There’s a
better way.

Many companies are insourcing UX design, but are hitting familiar roadblocks that stop them from making design truly strategic.


Chris DonnellyPrincipal UX Designer


ver the last decade, there’s been a noticeable trend for companies to move from using external design consultancies to hiring in-house UX design teams. Larger companies tend to insource more than smaller ones, but many come up against a common set of challenges:

  • Design is not well understood as a strategic problem-solving process
  • It’s often considered to be a frivolous afterthought
  • Many still conflate design’s value with the aesthetic qualities of the product
  • The value of research is poorly understood and sometimes actively undermined
  • The overlap between the strategic elements of design and the role of product management isn’t recognised and there are no plans to resolve any tensions that emerge here.

In short, they’re struggling to operationalise design: to put in place systems and structures that allow them to produce good work at scale that enhances the user experience.

At Each&Other, we fundamentally believe in competitive advantage by design. As customers’ needs change, delivering great interfaces that transform their experience, has a disproportionate multiplier effect on growth.

Don’t just take our word for it: companies that invest in and value design have long been shown to make outsized returns relative to the rest of the market. These companies use design as both a way of delivering and as a strategic tool.

The way to unlock this advantage is for design leaders to elevate the design agenda as high up the chain as possible. This starts with making your design team truly effective; a process that’s sometimes called operationalising design.

Take the UX maturity test

The first step is to assess your organisation’s UX maturity. Different companies have a different appreciation for design: think of Apple, Salesforce, or Stripe: they get it. But other companies are less further along on that journey.

NNGroup's 6 stages of UX maturity.







Nielsen Norman maturity model

Part of UX maturity is understanding what business you’re working in: if it’s consumer-facing, design is a key part of the puzzle. If you’re building routers, maybe it’s less important. (But that in itself can be an important insight.)

InVision’s design maturity model is a useful tool to think about where your company is at. It prompts you to ask questions like: how do designers get assigned to teams? What tasks are they focused on? Once you have those answers, it helps you to start working out what to do next. Another option is the Nielsen Norman maturity model. Research both, try them out, and use the one you feel most comfortable with.

The next thing to figure out is how to organise the design team, because getting it wrong can lead to significant internal tensions and can manifest in a poor customer experience. Here are the three common models and we’ll look at each of them in turn.

The centralised design model

The centralised model is like having a consultancy inside a company. Design is a small unit, separated from product teams, which come to them for a specific project, and the designer drops in and does some work.

That’s a good model from a design team perspective: the team is healthy because they’re working alongside each other, and it helps the leader to manage the quality. But this leads to design being siloed away from important teams like IT, marketing, sales, customer success. And that creates challenges: the design leader has less credibility and influence with those business groups.

A brief anecdote here: I worked at IBM at a time when it had a centralised design group. When the company pivoted to spreading the design teams across the business groups, it resulted in more good work, led to more success and opened up a lot of collaboration opportunities.

The embedded approach

Another model is to disperse designers in other teams. In today’s Agile world, we’ve got cross-functional scrum teams or sprint teams that have designers, product managers, QA, engineers, and so on. Embedding one designer in a sprint team is a really good model for maintaining product velocity, for building and delivering.

The challenge with this model is that it tends to turn designers into ‘ticket takers’; fundamentally, someone else is defining what they work on. So it jars with our guiding principle of wanting to escalate the value of design. As designers, we see ourselves as ticket makers – but when the designers are embedded in this way, it’s difficult for senior leaders to see the value that design brings at that level.

So, for all the advantages from a product perspective, it’s not ideal from a strategy perspective. Also, it’s hard to keep the design team culture cohesive. If a designer is reporting to a design manager but taking orders from a product manager, it creates tension.

Intercom solved this problem quite well. My understanding of their model is that they’ve taken the concept of the three legged stool where you've got product, engineering, and design all working hand in hand. And so on a product team, there are engineers, product people, and designers, and managing them, there’s an engineering leader, product leader, and a design leader. That structure goes all the way up the chain, and it suggests that if you’re going to do an embedded model, the whole organisation has to map to it.

A hybrid way of working

Another model is the hybrid, which tries to be the best of both worlds. Create a team of designers, align them to an experience. To pick a common example, that might be the shopping cart on an ecommerce site.

The idea with this model is, you have a team that’s focused on end-user experience and that team focuses purely on designing the shopping cart experience. There might be, for instance, three designers on the experience team, but then they also sit in three Scrum teams that are delivering the components of the shopping cart experience. This way, you can maintain the cohesiveness of the design unit, keep a focus on delivery, while also seeing the strategic picture, like how the experience works across touchpoints.

Which is the right model for you? (Trick question)

Keep in mind, the right decision about design team structure is based on understanding the business context. There is no truly correct model; you need to pick one that makes sense for your business, try it out, and then modify it as you learn how it works. Iterate your way to success.

As leader, you need to do the proper assessment and pick the one you think is right, in order to create a design group that will work in that structure. A great book I recommend to guide your path is Org design for design orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner.

It’s worth restating the key point here: you need to understand the maturity of your organisation, and together with that, figure out how the other teams in the business are structured. If you’ve identified IT as potential partners for design, and they’re all about product velocity, then thinking about an embedded model makes sense. So it’s not a decision you can make in isolation from the rest of the business.

With that, let’s get into some considerations for design leaders as they decide on the right structure.

Action #1: Map the organisation and find your allies

Map the politics of the organisation (on paper or in your head – we’re designers, this should come naturally!) Think: who’s going to be a champion for design and how can I as design leader help that person to use design to help them be successful?

As design leader, you need to find your allies in other depts, such as engineering. You need to prepare and work for it. I liken it to a gruelling political campaign: have your talking points rehearsed for when a voter asks a question and be ready all the time to make the case. So if someone in the org asks: “Why is [feature X] so bad?”, your answer as a design leader might be: “We need to have a design system in place.”

Action #2: Get DesignOps right (and why this matters)

Why have a design system in place? This quote from Andy Budd at Clearleft sums up the reasons why it’s worth doing:

Design Ops is essentially the practice of reducing operational inefficiencies in the design workflow through process and technological advancements. In short it’s about getting design improvements in the hands of your users as quickly and with as little friction as possible.

DesignOps Handbook.

Available in online, epub, pdf, and audiobook formats.

Access free book

Getting Design Ops right is really important. It’s about applying discipline to questions like: what tools you use, how are your meetings set up, how do you manage how the work flows, what methods do you use in research? It can also cover questions like: how is the culture of the team, and what’s the growth path for designers. There’s a lot of great material out there about this discipline, including this handy ebook from InVision.

Action #3: Put a design system in place

Design systems is a popular term, and these days, it seems like everyone is building them. Sarah Federman, now at Canva, put it very well: “They’re not really new, but more of a distillation of a lot of things we’ve been starting to do for a long time now. They help us with creating consistency, productivity, and creating better user experiences.”

Google Material.
The most well-supported and universal design system.

It’s important to get the design system right if you care about quality – and you have to, if you’re a designer. Intercom’s Emmet Connolly has a good way of explaining why they matter: “a design system is useful for when you need to design not just one thing, but a whole set of things that you want to feel like a coherent family. If you come up with a template and always stick to it, you’ll get that coherence for free.”

Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.
Deep and detailed, but primarily focused on app design.

The best way I’ve heard design systems described is to treat them as a product – a cross-functional team all working on it. That’s really important to get right. Designers are the ones who bang the drum about design systems but a couple of other organisations need to be involved: engineering and product. Management also need to care about it because it’s important for product quality which affects the bottom line.

Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to build your own design system: but you should be thinking about how to apply the concept effectively.

Action #4: Get user research right

The UX maturity measure I referred to earlier will tell you where you’re at with user research. It’s critical to get this right, and as design leader, you need to figure out how to make good research happen. In immature companies, this is a really big lift. User research is like having the design conversation again: you need to figure out how the research is organised. (For example, if there’s a hybrid model but a centralised research team.) You need to get to a model where teams are well resourced and has the right people on the team.

Research is probably not as well regarded as design but it’s getting there. You need to take care of it and cultivate it. That’s actually the secret weapon of design.

Action #5: Develop your design strategy

All along, we’ve been talking about moving up the value chain in terms of how you perform design in the company. Design is an experience-focused discipline, so we pay attention to user touchpoints. If someone goes onto your company’s website, then gets in touch by email or calls, does it feel like they’re dealing with the same company? Understanding if there’s a cohesion between those different interactions is where the strategic value of design becomes powerful.

At Each & Other, we help companies transform their customer experience by unifying touchpoints, and by making complex systems seamless, intuitive and brilliantly easy to use. Design strategy is where you can influence across those touchpoints. It’s hard but worth focusing on.

You don’t need to do this alone. Each&Other offers team augmentation where we help in-house teams build and level up their teams. We offer all levels of designers from Junior to Director and we offer consulting and coaching services for your design leadership teams to help them get the most out of their design team.

When the design function becomes strategic, it moves from simply executing orders to thinking about and contributing to the strategy of the product and how it’s marketed. Getting to this point can involve tension, so to recap my earlier point about finding allies, it’s absolutely essential to find good product partners to work with. When design leaders take the time to build those relationships, the design function can do amazing work.

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