What in-house design taught me about consulting (Part 1)

May 14, 2013 Nina Mehta

In the design world, a river runs between the consultants and in-house designers.

I’ve worked at big start-ups, small start-ups, corporations, newspapers, non-profits and universities, and I have hired consultants myself. Having been on the other side, each job unique with its own challenges and joys, set me up to be an empathetic consultant.

Here’s what I believe all those years in-house taught me about consulting:

  1. Preparing for a consultant is hard
    Companies hire consultants when they’re short on time, ideas or people. And for those reasons, it can be hard for a company to get all their ducks in a row. This doesn’t mean they don’t care or can’t prioritize the project. In fact, usually it’s the opposite.

    Working in-house can mean running multiple (probably too many) projects in parallel, staying ahead of competitors, putting out fires, explaining why someone’s something got de-prioritized and all the other stuff that needs to get done, somehow. So, the companies hire a consultant, someone who can focus on one slice of the pie.

    Because the client is short on resources (time, energy, expertise), consultants end up having questions they didn’t even know they should be considering. After this, clients can be left looking and feeling unprepared and disinterested.

    Because our team was often short on time, money, ideas, people or resources, it made preparing for a consultant quite hard.

  2. This product, whatever it is, is the most important thing in the world
    For a consultant, projects come, projects go. But, for in-house designers, no project is ever done. Everything is an iteration and there’s always an opportunity, somewhere in the distance, to return to a project for another version.

    For many companies, especially young ones, that company and its product are the whole world – its bread and butter. They are out to change the world, to make it better. They have high hopes for massive adoption and high traffic, whether it be an overnight success or a slow and steady climb.

    A consultant doesn’t need to agree with the client’s world vision, but it is good to know the ingredients of their powdered Kool-Aid mix. It’s valuable to understand how and why this company, making this product, whatever it is, believes it is the most important thing in the world.

  3. User experience exists beyond the product
    As an in-house designer, I had the luxury to build on what I learned about the product and our users from project to project. Unlike consulting work, there is no starting from zero. Every project further deepens the understanding and relationship to how their customers, clients, users and site visitors think, make, explore, click, feel and tweet. The longer an in-house designer works for one company, the richer their understanding of how the product works and what an experience is like for their customers.

    An in-house designer learns from the sales, marketing and support teams, who can help guide a more holistic view of the wants, needs and desires of the users. Being this kind of designer helped me become better at knowing what questions to ask and when I can skip ahead to the nitty-gritty details. Working in-house taught me to see the nuances of user experience beyond product and interaction design.

  4. Consultants can be the bad guy
    Companies want to do things in house. Consultants are expensive, time consuming and can make the in-house team feel like they’re not good (fast, smart, creative) enough. Even for the most pragmatic creative (designer or developer), at the core, I’ve seen my teammates feel demoralized or defeated by needing to hire someone to do their job. Working in-house taught me, no matter how skilled and personable the consultant, sometimes the consultant is the bad guy.

  5. Clients are tough cookies
    In-house designers have clients, too. And they’re tough. Users? Oh yes, of course. I must mean those needy users always emailing, tweeting, wanting needing something. No! Those people are wonderful.

    In-house designers also have in-house clients – sales, marketing, recruiting, investors, designers, and developers.

    An in-house designer needs to weigh the needs and priorities of all the stakeholders – those shouting and those being spoken over – and make good judgements, arguments and compromises. And, when whatever project was done (the one that’s the most important project in the world), all those stakeholders were still my coworkers the next day. Those clients, they’re tough cookies.

I’ve been at at Pivotal Labs for only a week, so keep your oranges peeled for Part 2. In a few months, I’ll follow up on these initial thoughts and share new findings.


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