Consultant Thursdays: Using Freelance Information Architects Vs. User Experience Agencies

This article from a firm called Persona in the United Kingdom came across one of the discussion boards over at LinkedIn:

User Experience at Persona is a cost effective and more produtive alternative to using freelance information architects and freelance user centred designers. A growing number of clients and digital agencies are choosing to work with Persona instead of freelancers and for good reason – just take a look at the points below and if you feel compelled by any of them, give us a ring. Simple.

Send this page as a link to your boss / project manager / HR department and take away the hassle of using freelance IA’s.

I get it.

We’re all evil, we over-bill, we under-deliver and should join agencies right now.

Never mind even with all their resources, they have a freakin’ typo on their site.

Pay for a copy editor, dammit, if you’re so freakin’ successful as an agency, yo!

A few truths across both:

  • Freelancers and agencies are always looking toward their next client.
  • Good freelancers and good agencies are always overbooked and hard to schedule.
  • No freelancer or agency will be a perfect fit for who you need.
  • Quality is an issue everywhere — full-timers, agencies and freelancers alike.

There are definite advantages of using an agency versus using freelance information architects (e.g. insurance, not knowing who you are getting, etc.), but the article is pretty much a bash session for freelance user experience folks. This, I find troubling because a) I’m a freelance user experience folk right now, and b) I used to manage a UX group about the size of Persona.

Some of their assertions are incorrect. Regarding rates, there is no way in hell they can charge less than a freelance information architect because they have far more overhead than freelancers do. The approach of trying to save its business is very dishonest to customers and probably will lose them a few clients and, more importantly, resources willing to work at a company like this in today’s free agent economy.

The real truth: as a resource manager, there’s always this game of providing the client with just enough of a resource, even knowing that the resource maybe junior. Quality will always be suspect from an agency, because the people they sell you are always that — sold to you. Scheduling is always an issue, quality of team members is another and even managing the billing is always an issue. Firms bill for services not performed all the time. Who’s fault is that?

Many firms are started by a rock-star user experience expert, or someone who thinks they are, but the expert is never the resource the client gets.

How often does the firm bring in the black belt, super ninja user experience grand poobah? Once the contract has started, a new group has arrived, and the new group can’t even pronounce information architect?

Oh, that was your last project!

When to use a freelancer

  • If you don’t know what you’re building. There are so many clients I’ve worked with where they had absolutely no idea where to start. The best way to get started is to bring in one person (exactly, one person) to start work on an idea.
  • If you know exactly what you’re building. One of the clients I’m currently talking to is looking at some agencies in addition to me. He’s doing a great job at coming up with a first stab at the application. The owner of one of the firms he was considering was someone who I had managed as a contractor and who had built part of her client list off of the company I worked for. In this case, there really is not enough work to support a whole agency, and it doesn’t make sense to use them when they don’t know the resource, especially when a senior resource is available for less money and can be more or less dedicated to the cause.
  • If you have an existing application and development team. Sometimes an application has already been built and needs a number of improvements or another set of eyes. Bringing in someone as a singleton to help guide the team to better results is a great way of improving ROI and keeping costs down. I can absolutely state in this scenario that a good freelance information architect will pay for themselves in improvements to the application, making it a worthwhile choice.
  • If you want to control costs. If you have the project management pieces in place and are looking to fill a few specific needs such as wireframes for improving an application, a freelancer is the way to go. This is because you will see a 30 to 60 percent reduction in resources hiring cost. For example, if I bill out at $90 per hour, I’m still going to be cheaper than some of the agencies and development firms that bill out at $200 per hour; and the quality of the work might actually be better.

When to use an agency

  • If it’s a really, really big brand and they have oodles of budget to spend. I truly believe in the law of diminishing user experience returns, but sometimes when you get a collective group of people together in one room, or one building, a truly outstanding idea comes out of the group, something off the charts. If the client is looking for that kind of agency experience, that’s great. The same idea could come out of a freelancer; but by the pure number of resources (one), the odds are against it.
  • When you need help with project management because you have no one internal to run it. If the project is really, really, really big, working with an agency might be a better idea, because you might need multiple resources, which comes with the overhead of managing all those resources. Working with an agency can mean outsourcing all that management and all the issues that come with it, like handling the hours and such. The only issue to watch for is how the agency manages the project. A plot of agencies that say they have some kind of methodology often don’t. If you want a primer, send me an email.
  • When you need the full lifecycle of user experience deliverables. If you have this pressing need to go through everything in the user experience arsenal, than the agency approach might be the way to go. I don’t do every part of the process as well as I would like, and it’s because I don’t have all the time in the day required to be good at it. Parts of the process now, I might outsource to people who I know can do better. The hope is that the agency would have enough of those resources to do it well, but to go through the whole process exceeds my user experience law of diminishing returns.

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