Product, Agency, or In-house Team? What To Look for in Your First UX Job

Samara Strauss, Former User Experience Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

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A couple weeks ago, Laura wrote a great post on starting her UX career at an agency. Having started my UX career at a product company, this sparked a conversation between the two of us about product vs. agency life and what qualities are most important in your first UX job. This post is the result of that conversation.

The Unique Aspects of Working at a Product Company

There are notable similarities between product and agency life. Both have the potential to offer projects that build a range of UX skills, allow you to work with talented folks across teams, and help hone your critical thinking skills.

However, the key differences between product and agency life is the variety of projects on which you work. At a product company, you’ll gain a deep understanding of one product. At an agency, you’ll work on a range of projects with different clients. Both have their own advantages and challenges.

Since Laura covered some of the benefits of working at an agency, I’d like to discuss some of the benefits I experienced at a product company:

  • Time for iteration – Working on a product affords you the luxury of diving deep into the iterative process, since strict client budgets are not a concern. As a first-time designer, this taught me to think critically about UX.
  • Customer relationships – At a product company, you get to build relationships with a customer base. Regularly talking to customers helps to build empathy, a critical skill for any UX designer.
  • Helping a product grow – There is nothing like the mental workout you get from learning to design in a way that helps a product grow while simultaneously leaving current customer’s workflows uninterrupted.

Which is Better for My First UX Job – Product Company, Agency, or In-house Team?

If you’re applying for your first UX job and you’ve read both Laura’s and my blog posts, you may be confused. Both agencies and product companies sound awesome. There’s also the option to work in-house. What’s the “right” place to start your career?

The good news is that the best place to start your career does not depend on company-type, but on your priorities. To decide whether an agency, product company, or in-house team would be best for you, I’d recommend considering the following:

  • Do you want to work on a variety of projects, explore different industries, or establish an area of interest? Are you looking for a fast-paced environment that comes with the possibility of putting in long-hours around a deadline? If the answer to these questions is yes, then agency life may be a good fit.
  • Are you interested in seeing how the iterative process helps a product grow over time? Do you want to work with a consistent customer base? Are you OK with your projects revolving around the same product for an extended period of time? If the answers to these questions is yes, then a product company may be your best bet.
  • Are you interested in working on a variety of projects in a specific field? Would you like to help form a UX-minded culture in an organization? If the answers to these questions is yes, you'll likely enjoy working on an in-house team.

Thinking about where you’d like to start out will help focus your job search and increase the likelihood you’ll find a good fit.

The Three Most Important Factors in Your First UX Job

Working at an agency, product company, or on an in-house team can provide opportunities for growth and challenge. However, there are three critical factors which I believe can make or break you first UX job.

  • Challenging work – You want to be learning rapidly. During an interview, make sure you’ll be doing challenging work, and not just doing menial work on flashy projects.
  • Talented team members – Working with a talented and excited team will help you grow as a UX designer. If people lack motivation, it will bring you down fast and hinder your professional growth.
  • Opportunities for mentorship – Ideally, there will be someone at your first UX job who is concerned about your professional development. To be clear, this is not a hand-holder, but someone who can provide guidance and make sure you’re working on projects that challenge and excite you.

Fortunately, you can find great projects, incredible people, and caring mentors in agencies, product companies, and on in-house teams. The challenging part is sussing out whether a prospective company provides these things. As long as you do your homework, there’s a good chance  you’ll start your career on the right path no matter what type of company you prefer.


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