Should you do UX Research yourself, or hire an agency?

The Pros and Cons of these two options — plus a third you might have ignored

UX Research: Do it yourself, or hire an agency? Pros and Cons of each

The number at the end of the agency’s proposal was over one million Euros.

I was floored.

A client of mine had sent me a proposal from the latest research consulting firm in the runnings to help them explore a new market. Of the handful of consultancies my client was evaluating, this was the biggest company yet. But one million Euros for new market research was the highest rate I’d ever seen.

My client asked me to evaluate the offers so far, and advise them.

Should they accept one of the offers, and accept the huge budget? Or should they find a way to do the research themselves?

For younger companies, and those with young design teams, it’s a hard decision. Unless someone in the team has prior experience with this scenario, it’s hard to know how to make the right choice.

I’ve worked in UX Research, UX Design and Strategy for 12 years, and seen my share of agency proposals. I’ve worked on the agency side — been a line-item in a proposal myself —as well as in-house, choosing external partners.

Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of the pros and cons that I find most helpful in guiding teams toward the right decision for them.

Option 1: Learn to do UX Research yourself

The Pros of doing your own UX Research:

The Cons of doing your own UX Research from the start:

Hiring an agency to do your UX Research for you

The Pros of hiring an agency to do your UX Research:

The Cons of hiring an agency to do your UX Research:

  • You don’t actually get to be hands-off — they take your lead. You still have to tell them what to do, which takes far more time and communication than you might expect.
  • Leaning on an agency drives the business value down. If your startup team wants further investment, plans a sale or an exit, then this isn’t ideal. Big consultancy firms make it their business to make teams like yours dependent on them for insights. But if a startup depends on an agency for insights, then it doesn’t know how to understand its customers without it.
  • You might not get to hand over all recruiting tasks to an agency. That pesky, time-consuming recruiting step isn’t simply handed over when you hire an agency. If existing customers are the target participants, an agency likely needs your support and permission to recruit your own users.
  • Research agencies charge extra premium fees, and add roles that you don’t need. They put together big teams for even small projects. Proposals include “strategic partners” and “advisors” for hundreds per hour. Such roles aren’t necessary for a new market exploration or most other UX research.

There is a third option.

Working with an independent UX research freelancer or consultant who can guide you to start UX research on the right path can significantly speed up the process of running research yourself — and doing it well.

The downside can be similar to that of agency work: if they can’t help your team learn to do research, then they leave and take your team’s only insights processes with them.

Look for someone who can do the following four things:

  1. They can work with you to do foundational research quickly so your team gets a solid sense of who your customers are, and what they need from you right away.
  2. They can teach you how to run your own research with a simple getting-started framework. They have a process and templates in place to get you researching on your own in a matter of weeks.
  3. They include you in the research process. Even before they begin to teach you how to do UX research yourself, they can invite you to live sessions with users as an observer, and involve you in workshops to analyze results together.
  4. They can scale if needed. They have a network of other highly experienced freelancers with relevant industry expertise, who can jump in to help get more work done, faster on a need basis.


All three options for starting your team’s insights-gathering have their pros and cons.

It’s important to see that the expectation of agencies taking over the full burden of time and effort isn’t often the case, though they likely eliminate many forms of biases as outsiders and may have deep industry knowledge.

While it typically takes more effort and time to lead research internally when starting out, the value remains internal as you own your insights processes and learn how to improve them over time.

An experienced UX Research consultant can save you time, money, and can teach your team how to do research correctly from the start. But depending on the consultant, they may also take their expertise with them when they leave, and may not be a long-term solution for your team. A List Apart has a helpful article that covers the internal company situations and project types that are best suited for help from external consultants.

It’s important to clarify which obectives are most important for your team before making a choice between these options. Is the priority to teach the internal team to research, have the fastest possible deliver of insights now, gather the most reliable insight with the least bias, benefit from external industry expertise, retain company value, or a combination of a few of these objectives?

One team’s best solution may not be best for the next. Before jumping into a project with an agency, internal team member, or consultant, taking the time to thoroughly assess your team’s near-term and long-term goals with UX Research work will help point you to the right path.

References for further reading:

Should You Work With a UX Design Agency or Hire In-House? Here’s How to Decide.

Should We Hire An Outside UX Agency or an In-House UX Designer?

UX Design & Research: Why Hiring an External Design Agency is the Right Move For Your Business

What is Empathy and Why Is It So Important In Design Thinking? (Interaction Design Foundation)

Working with External User Researchers: Part I (A List Apart)

Should you do UX Research yourself, or hire an agency? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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