Over the weekend, I ran across several ads for UI / UX contractors from web and mobile startups, looking for someone to come in and design their app. I also noticed a story on Hacker News today, calling on designers to reject Skype’s attempt to get UI design work done for basically $0.
It got me thinking about product design in general and made me aware of my skepticism that a company could successfully outsource the UI / UX design of a substantial product to contractors. I’ll explain my reasons and invite people who have been successful with this to prove me wrong. This theoretically shouldn’t be too hard because my opinions are based primarily on my own, admittedly limited, experience.

Why don’t I think you can outsource product UI / UX?

First, let me make very clear what I am talking about. I’m talking about outsourcing all (or at least the majority of) your UI and / or UX work to a freelance designer or firm. I’m not talking about website design (another topic entirely), or smaller design projects. I’m talking about having an external contractor define how your users will interact with your app, web, mobile or otherwise.
As I was building GinzaMetrics, I was tempted many times to hire an “expert” but with an application that is as specialized as mine is, the chances of being able to find some who know how to build a good experience were almost zero.
There are many reasons for this. One is that I learned far more about the UX that my customers needed after launching than I did before launching. If I had committed to an outsourced designer, every time I wanted to make fundamental changes to the user experience, I would be stuck in a cycle that required getting their time, communicating the problem and going through an even longer cycle of the inevitable revisions.
Also, despite the fact that I’ve been building marketing apps for over 5 years, I’m still learning about the shape of the data and how to make it usable in the most efficient way possible. I don’t consider myself a super-strong designer (though I’ve learned a lot over the last year), but knowing what I know now about my users, I don’t think a freelance designer could possibly design a user experience to meet their needs. It’s not a question of skill but of intimacy.

Hiring Designers

All of that should not be taken to say that I wouldn’t hire a designer. I would – full-time. And we’re going to at some point. The benefits that you get with a full-time designer include being able to train them in the intricacies of your product space, dedicate time and a far deeper understanding of your product vision. I’m guessing that it would take 3-6 months to take a quality designer off the street, hire them full-time and train them to the point where they would be fully productive in your industry. I’m sure I’ll find out for sure at some point.

Is there no room for outsourced design?

So, what am I missing? There is obviously a huge freelance design market and clearly many other companies out there are trying to do exactly what I’m arguing against in this post.
Although I personally wouldn’t outsource the UX of my major products, I do consider the following to be legitimate opportunities to work with freelancers.

Concepts / Mockups / Layouts / Inspiration

While I wouldn’t outsource my whole product UX to another firm, I do think that tremendous value can be gained from asking for an expert’s take on our product. This is the type of project where a freelancer can take our existing product, gain a high-level understanding of the problem we are trying to solve and build mockups that embody both their own UX recommendations and inspiration. I know that I could gain a ton of new ideas and see my product in a different light if a strong designer came in and provided their own insight.

Usability Enhancement

There are many places within Ginzametrics where I know we could benefit from the expertise of a UI / UX expert. Once we get a little breathing room (things are nuts right now), this is going to be one of our highest priorities. I’ll be sure to document how well this goes. Perhaps the biggest risk for these sorts of projects is that designers want to own the entire design and not just contribute to what they consider “tweaks.” More to come on this topic, I’m sure.

Cheaper / Long Tail Products

One of the more interesting consequences of the ever-diminishing hurdles to building new apps — both web and mobile — is that the associated costs of development are approaching (though still not anywhere near) what it costs to produce content. We’re already starting to see this with apps that are cheap to produce, are effectively content wrappers or simply more interactive content. For these types of products (if I were building them – I’m not), I could personally see engaging with a freelancer because it wouldn’t be the right use of my time to do it myself.
This also relates to some of the thinking that I outlined in my post on SEO Strategy and content creation. Different topic, to be sure, but the framework that I use (company stage, content (or app) quality goals, and market competitiveness can also be used to figure out the right team configuration for your project.

You Can’t Commoditize Good Design

In all of the above ideas, I have the feeling that designers aren’t going to appreciate what might seem to be an attempt to marginalize their work. But that’s not what this is.
As I wrote above, I would hire a full-time designer as soon as the timing was right for our company. I just wouldn’t ask someone who wasn’t fully onboard with us to solve our problems for us.

Parallels to Outsourced Development

I’ll admit that I am also a skeptic on outsourced development. I know it happens all the time and I actually do have quite a bit of personal experience with this myself. I’ve managed large projects in India, China, Mexico, Argentina and probably a few other places. In many cases, I was able to get decent results but I inevitably found myself replacing the remote teams with local developers. The gains in productivity, speed, quality and knowledge transfer were astronomical. It’s not because the outsourced developers were bad developers or less intelligent. It’s primarily because they weren’t dedicated to the problem — and the product — in the same way that we were. That dedication is critical, literally your lifeblood, in a startup.

Discussion

Like I wrote at the beginning of this post, I hope others have had a different experience and are willing to share. If this is something that startups can learn how to do, then it would help all of us to understand how. You can email us at hello@ginzametrics.com or join the discussion on Hacker News.