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In this case it would be for a small company that can't afford lots of specialized positions, developing a new (browser based, this time) version of an enterprise application. The new version is a total rewrite and part of the process is to rethink - well, everything (though there are existing clients who are accustomed to the current software).

So, if the answers incline towards "as early as possible", as I suspect they may, bear in mind that we are in the requirements and analysis phase, so we are still deciding what we want.

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Can you elaborate on what you want your UX contractor to do ,will he be working on wireframes or helping in defining the information architecture or will he be doing UI work or will he be conducting usability tests ,the role will define which stage the person will have to come in. –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 26 '12 at 18:32
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we are still deciding what we want = 'we are still trying to understand what our users need', yes? A clue maybe? Honestly, I cannot emphasise enough the need to consider UX from day 0. –  Roger Attrill Jan 26 '12 at 18:51
    
if ever, ASAP.. –  jberger Jan 26 '12 at 21:55
    
What did you end up deciding to do? And how did things work out for you? Did you find the answers provided useful at all? –  Michael Lai Jul 15 '13 at 22:55
    
@MichaelLai - We ended up hiring someone who had a background of some web designer, some UX, and some UI development, with a title of web developer. There were enough delays that it's too soon to know how it worked out. The answers were nice but presumed (as did my question, so quite reasonably so) someone with more control over who got hired than I actually had. Possibly someone with more budget - I doubt many small projects have a pure UX person. –  psr Jul 15 '13 at 23:27

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

A user experience designer is a fantastic asset during the requirements and analysis phase, so you should hire one as soon as possible.

Part of requirements and analysis is determining what the product should do, possibly based on experience you've gained from the prior iteration. UX people are expertly trained to help out here. Their experience with user research can help extract fundamentally important knowledge from your user base as well as determine what people who don't yet use the product may be looking for in a future version of the product.

UX designers can also help get your team on the same path and executing a singular vision. Through approaches like card sorting and mental modeling they can figure out what the various stakeholders on the team care about and help align those with an overall goal for the product whlie simultaneously considering the needs and desires of your end users.

On top of doing all that communication work, part of the user experience design process includes information architecture and the documenting of the aforementioned research processes into documents that convey what has been learned. These can then be translated further into sitemaps, wireframes and ultimately prototypes, again, all while keeping what users want in mind.

It's perfectly possible to continue without a UX designer. But your understanding of your audience's needs will drastically improve when you add someone whose job and passion it is to fight for user happiness to your team. Ultimately it will save you time and money in the long run and improve your ability to deliver a satisfying, engaging product to your audience.

User experience designers aren't just people who make wireframes. The user experience is an umbrella term encompassing how people interact with your product. If you're just looking for someone who can help you draw wireframes and translate those into working screens, you should narrow your search to user interface designers.

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+1 I sincerely approve of every syllable and sentiment in that answer –  Roger Attrill Jan 26 '12 at 19:00
    
And the best thing about a contractor is that if you decide that they are not needed anymore or want to get them back later you can! –  Michael Lai Jul 15 '13 at 22:56

ALWAYS IN THE BEGINNING! Unless you are just looking for someone to make something "pretty", which doesn't add enough value to be worth anything for the company, then hire your UX professional at the start of the project. If you can't keep them all the way through the project, then determine a set of directional deliverables which only touch key functionality that will set the direction for the rest of the team to build upon, such as wireframes for key flows, and visual designs for key screens.

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If you want something to look "pretty," you would need a graphic designer, not a UX professional. –  Brian Jul 16 '13 at 21:19

From the early beginning, or even before that so that he/she has time to get familiar with the business and it's products.

Frontloading is the key here.

If you bring one on in a later stage it still does make sense. But if you then want to carry out his/her advice, it's going to cost you more, because it means you may have to redo certain things.

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The UX process needs to extend the entire life of the project. As to when you get the most value out of bringing in a contractor, it will depend on what areas of UX your teams are most lacking in.

But since you stated "we don't know what we want" I'd say right there is your weakness. Get the UX person in now.

Remember, the ideal solution doesn't provide you with what you want, it provides you with what you need. A UX person can help at this step to better separate the wants from the needs.

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The issue here is actually wider, as @joecullin hinted at. There is so often a tendency for the analysts and similar to be involved at the early definition stage of a project, where they understnad and interpret the business objectives and requirements. Then they hand these over to the developers ( including the UX people ) and say "make it happen". Sometimes with "it shouldn't take you long, as we have defined everything you need to do".

That approach is heading for disaster. Getting someone from UX involved AT THE START will pay benefits and dividends throughout the project. Getting someone from the development team involved from the start will pay dividends. Both of these can provide ideas or suggestions to make things work in the appropriate way, in a way that makes sense to both UX and development, and should be able to provide early answers to "can we do that" questions, with reasons.

Yes costs are an issue. But getting someone really good from these teams involved early on should mean that the system design is right, which will save money later. It may also mean that they can do some of the complex work, if relevant, before moving off the project. Whatever, it should mean that the work of producing the finished product is then much easier and straightforward, because all of the really difficult decisions have already been identified and progressed, including, one hopes, the interaction between the designers and the developers.

In all projects, the actual development should be "trivial" - that is, it should be well defined, well understood, and straightforward. Of course it rarely happens, but then so does proper involvement of dev and UX at an early stage.

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Right now is the time to start. Hopefully, you can quickly find someone who can help you understand your current users' pains, your prospective users' needs, and, ultimately, improve your business requirements. I was a but if a skeptic before experiencing all of these things with a UX consultant. We learned a lot, but the early analysis was the most valuable to our product.

My experience was also in the redesign if an established enterprise product.

A suggestion: invite the finalists to solve an early analysis question, or to tell you how they'd approach it before choosing the consultant.

Involve your developers early. Designer-developer trust is also very valuable.

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Ideally you want to aim to test** it more than once (** if the budget doesn't run to actual user testing - get an expert to do a cognitive walkthrough on it).

Test it once in alpha while you've still got time before launch to fix big issues.

And then test it again fairly close to launch to check that those last minute improvements haven't broken something.

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My experience is that if you get them in early then it takes much less time for them to understand the scope and complexity of the project. If you bring them in later then usually there are more constraints that will have been placed on the project (both time and resources), or that they will still have to get up to speed on everything anyway. You can certainly get some valuable input from them at the conceptual stage as well as the testing and evaluation stage (not just the design phase).

If you are not sure about the scope of the project or your resourcing, then you can also get them in early to help you figure some of these things out. If you leave it until much later, you might actually not find much use for the UX designer. This is a case of you having to commit some time and resources to find out what you don't know.

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