Imagine this: The path in front of you is split into three directions, and you’ve got to make a choice.
Down path number one is an agency.
Down the second path is an in-house position.
And finally, down path number three is freelancing. But path number three is covered in heavy fog and overgrown bushes.
While you can technically go down any path, it’s best to avoid the wild and untamed third path until later on in your career. Freelancing requires a particular set of skills that are acquired over a long career. If you attempt to freelance too early, you may fall prey to zombies or werewolves or whatever other evils lie down that path. So, freelancing is out for now.
But you still have two viable choices: One is to work for a UX agency and the second is to get hired on as an in-house designer for a business. Which option makes the most sense for you?
Let’s explore the pros and cons of each:
1. Working at a UX Agency
There’s no better place to start your career as a fledgling UX designer than with a UX agency. UX design agencies offer a steady stream of work across multiple industries. But not every UX designer is suited for agency life.
Here’s what you need to know about working at a UX agency.
2. The Benefits of Working at a UX Agency
Let’s look at the pros of becoming part of a UX agency.
Variety of Projects
Do like the idea of working on something new every few weeks? If you get bored easily, you’ll love agency life. With an agency, your clients are constantly changing. You’ll meet new people and work with new companies, each with their own way of doing things. You’ll also work on different types of problems. You may need to design a product one week and research a target audience the next.
This is particularly true if you’re working at a smaller agency. At small agencies, you’ll wear multiple hats. And this variety keeps life interesting.
But variety isn’t always guaranteed at a UX agency. This is especially true if you get employed by a larger agency. For UX design agencies with over 100 employers, you may be assigned to a single industry, client, or task.
Work With Multiple Industries
Eventually, in your career, you may wish to settle into one particular industry. Perhaps you have a natural affinity for technology or hospitality or the medical sector. Because you’ll work across various industries at your UX agency, you’ll inevitably get matched up with an industry that makes your heart sing.
Become Jack of All Trades
At an agency, you won’t just work with multiple industries. You’ll also work at multiple tasks. This increases your skill set, and improves your marketability for future jobs. Of course, the downside to learning so many things in a short amount of time is that you never get a chance to truly master any of those things. You’ll just know a little about a lot.
As a new UX designer, you won’t know what in the heck you’re doing. You may understand the core job, but you need guidance to help you complete your tasks in the real world. This is another benefit to working at an agency. You’ll be surrounded by other UX designers, many of whom have been in the game for years, and who can provide you with much-needed mentorship.
A Course in the Art of Pitching
Because agencies work with so many clients, you’ll often be called upon to pitch your idea to these clients. After a while, you’ll get good at it. You’ll learn how to use storytelling to communicate your thoughts and persuade your clients.
This skill will continue to be useful throughout your career, especially if you plan to freelance in the future.
Exposure to New Tools and Processes
In an agency, you’re not stuck to just one way of doing things. You’ll likely use dozens of tools, based on the requirements of the job or the preferences of your clients. And this is a good thing because you can use your extensive knowledge to land better-paying jobs in the future.
Build Your Portfolio
Because you’ll work on so many projects at an agency, you’ll be able to build your portfolio in no-time. When working in-house, you’ll only have one product to showcase.
3. Here’s What to Consider Before Applying to a UX Agency
Working at an agency sounds great, right? Not so fast. Here are a few things to consider before applying at a UX agency.
Easy to Burnout
When you work at a UX agency, it’s really easy to get burned out. You’ll have a steady stream of projects, but that can get tiring after a while.
But this isn’t true for all agencies.
And, to be honest, you can get burned out at any creative job, whether you’re working in an agency, for a company, or for yourself. The key to avoiding burnout is to take time frequently to refresh your creative reserves. Check out sites like Dribbble to see what other designers are up to. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to your manager if you need to adjust your workload.
Can’t See the Rest of the Project
When working at a UX agency, you’ll likely be responsible for a small part of the project. You probably hand over the project when your role is done, but you may never see how your work impacted the project.
Less Earning Potential
This isn’t true across the board, but it’s common for UX designers to earn less at an agency. Even though agencies charge more for their services, you’ll get a smaller cut of the pie because you’ll work with a larger design team.
Constantly Working Towards a Deadline
Adrenal fatigue is real. And it can really happen to you if you’re constantly working feverishly towards a deadline. Some clients are demanding, and will add more tasks without pushing back your deadline. This can be stressful. But it’s life at an agency.
Alternatively, if you work in-house, there’s no real “end” to your work. You may have self-imposed deadlines, but they can often be re-arranged and prioritized because you are the boss, and not the client.
Dealing With Difficult Clients
Working with a carousel of clients can be tough. But it’s even worse when some of those clients are rude, condescending, impolite, rigid, you get the drift…
You’re more likely to encounter negative clients when working at an agency. That’s because your job will be client-facing. However, when you work in-house, you’ll only need to answer directly to your manager.
4. Is a UX Agency the Right Choice for Your Career?
UX agencies are great for fresh designers with small portfolios but big dreams. If you want to learn from others, seek out an agency position. You’ll be surrounded by fellow creatives who can help you grow into a better designer. Plus, the job is never boring.
5. Working as an In-House UX Designer
The major difference between working in-house and working at an agency can be summed up in one word: Depth.
When you work at an agency, you’ll work on multiple projects in a short span of time (often simultaneously). This means that you don’t have the time to go in-depth with any project.
You will understand your product, and your users, deeply. After all, it’s your only job. Comparatively, there’s no way you could do that at an agency.
6. The Benefits of Working as an In-House UX Designer
Let’s look at some of the great things you can look forward to when working in-house:
When you’re hired on as an UX designer for a company, you’re often the only one. That gives you a lot of control over the product. You decide what happens and when.
Deeply Understand a Product
By working in-house, you can deep dive into your product. You’ll get a chance to understand every aspect of the product. And also how the user interacts with the product. This enables you to build stronger and better versions of your product. Due to time restraints, this is something you couldn’t do at an agency.
As an in-house employee, you become part of the team. You have a greater sense of ownership because you’re now directly attached to the success of your product. That can be scary, but it’s more so empowering. You own the product that you create—not an agency.
Ability to See a Product From Start to Finish
You get a chance to see the product in its finalized state when working in-house. In fact, your product is never done. You’ll always be working on it as test improved solutions to the same old conundrum.
Working in-house makes you an instant specialist. Instead of working on multiple projects across multiple industries, you’ll focus on just one thing. That thing could be improving the product itself or honing a specific set of skills, such as research or designing the product’s structure and flow.
Agencies are fun, but they’re also unstable. With your fingers crossed, you can hope to get steady work, but there are ebbs and flows in agency work. However, when you work in-house, you’re paid a steady salary which includes employee benefits (such as insurance). Stability is a huge reason to go for an agency.
With an agency, there are no hard and fast deadlines. You have infinitely more time because your work on improving the product is never finished.
you’re each working on the same overall product, even if you’re coming at it from different ways…
Cross-Collaboration With Other Teams
At an agency, you’ll get an opportunity to work with multiple teams—not just fellow designers. You’ll work with engineers, customer support, accounting, etc. This cross-collaboration helps you understand what other teams do, which improves your empathy. Plus, working with others who don’t do what you do also forces you to communicate your needs/ desires better.
And last, but not least, is the financial benefit of working in-house. As an in-house designer, you can command a higher salary than you would at an agency.
7. Consider This Before Applying to Work as an In-House UX Designer
Ready to look for an in-house position? Don’t run off just yet. Here are a few potentially negative things to consider first:
As mentioned before, you’ll need to work directly with multiple teams. Many people won’t understand what you do or the value that you bring. They may even come after your job. This means that you’ll need to be diplomatic, and oftentimes political, when dealing with others.
If you sign up as an in-house designer, your fate is sealed: For the foreseeable future, you’ll stare at the same problem, and usually the same problem, every single day.
That can get boring after a while.
You’re staring at the same product, and often-times the same problem, every single day. That can get boring after a while, especially if you thrive on new challenges.
But one person’s monotony is another person’s deep dive. Working in-house is perfect for some designers who want to explore all aspects of a problem and come up with creative solutions.
What’s the difference between an in-house UX designer and a maintenance person? Nothing. When you work in-house, you’re mostly maintaining a product that’s up and running. You’re not creating new products from scratch.
May Get Overwhelmed
Ownership is a benefit to working in-house. Here’s the dark side of that benefit: Taking on too much and feeling overwhelmed. You may demand too much of yourself, but often, it’s the employer who’s asking too much of you. They may expect you to do five jobs, which is more than you can reasonably do by yourself. And this inevitably leads to lack of productivity across the board.
Easy to Burnout
Burnout can happen at an agency and in-house. As a creative, it’s easy to burnout, especially when you’re doing the same task over and over again. And this is exactly what will happen when you’re hired as an in-house UX designer.
8. Final Thoughts
The choice between working at an agency or in-house boils down to three things: What you want, what you need, and how far along you are in your career.
Junior UX designers will benefit from working in the fast-paced environment of an agency, where you have a chance to learn all sorts of skills and tools rapidly.
But if you’re tired of the often-frenetic pace of agency life and ready to settle into your career as a mid- to senior-level UX designer, you’ll find a greater sense of reward and achievement in-house.