Inside-out vs. outside-in strategy

A company’s strategy can be driven either by internal or external factors. Even though it usually consists of a mix, the strategy usually tends to put more focus on one than the other. The model I use primarily focuses on the three lower levels in my Levels of UX Strategies framework: Company, UX division and project.

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Inside-out companies

These companies usually look at their internal resources and capabilities then try to find a way to leverage them to reach their business goals. The analysis they use can be Porter’s five forces, SWOT, etc. and from these form a strategy that leverages their strengths and downplays their weaknesses. As they go through analysis they might also identify areas of improvement in order to execute their desired strategy.

For example, a company might create a never-before-seen chemical composition. After discovering it, they have to come up with a utilization of this material in order to monetize it. University spinoffs are a good example of this type of company.

Outside-in companies

Outside-in companies on the other hand start by trying to identify what problems the customers have, then try to figure out how to solve it. After conducting marketing/user research, they might conclude that their customers want a certain product or service to fulfill their needs. Then they try to figure out how they can deliver that product or service to their customers. They might also be looking at competitors and world events that might provide ideas of how to better serve their customers.

For example, Amazon has realized free shipping and rapid delivery are important to customers, so they are continuously trying to improve the delivery time while keeping shipping costs low. Amazon did not have experience with alternative shipping methods such as drones, but they realized it would be a crucial step to deliver packages rapidly so they acquired this competency to satisfy their customers.

Basically, an outside-in company looks for ideas outside of the company, while inside-out companies look within the company.

Considerations at the company level

It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that it is better to be an outside-in company, but don’t be too quick to judge. In the events when customers don’t know what they want, the outside-in company might make the wrong conclusions. For example, would a hotel customer have verbalized they wanted a service such as Airbnb? Or would the cell phone customers have told Apple they wanted Appstore before it was built? These type of innovations usually have to come from ides within the company (or requires an organization with a very high design thinking maturity).

You can also run in to the problem with conflicting “wants” from customers. For example, if Southwest airlines finds out that passengers want to be served lobster on their flights, should they start to serve the lobster? It is true that the customers want it, but they also want a cheap flight. Since Southwest knows their cheap flights are of more value to customers than gourmet meals, the lobster is a “want” they should ignore.

As you can see, it is extremely important for outside-in companies to interpret the research accurately and to understand customers’ underlying desires and how they stack up against each other. This is a very hard task and giants such as Coca Cola made a tremendous fail when they introduced “New Coke”.

I can’t say that one or the other strategic choice is better than the other, but the important thing is that the mix blends well with other strategic decisions that the company makes.
The reason it is important to understand if the company is an inside-out or an outside-in is because it will influence the role of UX within the company. For the companies leaning towards an outside-in strategy, UX can take a more central role and bring new insights and ideas that can lead to initiation of new projects. On the other hand, companies that lean towards an inside-out strategy, the UX role is more as a supportive function that has a limited ability to drive change. Also, within the inside-out company, it might be hard to sell research or design that is based on insights gained from competitors since the culture are more focused on the internal parts of the company.

UX Division

When looking at the inside-out/outside-in scale for the UX division level, it is more about how the UX processes within the division are set up. An inside-out division has more of a focus on building their own methodologies for design and research, while the outside-in company have more of an inclination to search outside the company for inspiration of methodologies.

As an example, let’s say a UX division realizes they need to work in a more agile way. The inside-out division would look inside the company and might notice the developers are using scrum (an agile development method) and then decide to send some staff members to scrum training. This training might even be provided internally from someone in the development team.

On the other hand, the outside-in UX division might send a person to a conference in order to learn how other UX divisions successfully implemented agile methods. Afterwards, they decide if they should use scrum or some other agile method. Once they decide on the method, they can send staff off to third-party training.

In this example, the inside-out division would most likely implement something that works well when collaborating with developers and other divisions in the company, but might not be as efficient within the UX division. The outside-in division would instead find a method that works very well internally, but might not be as efficient when collaborating with other divisions in the company.

Further on, since the inside-out division has a tendency to build their own methodologies, they also tend to have well established processes and methods they rely on. The benefit is a more streamlined process that better predict time estimates. It will also be easier to communicate with other stakeholders that only know the very basics of UX. The outside-in UX divisions on the other hand, tend to allow designers and researchers more freedom in selecting methods and procedures. The benefit of more freedom is that designers and researchers can apply more appropriate methods if it is required.

The strategic choice between inside-out or outside-in will have an impact on the staffing of the UX division. The outside-in companies need more of the “A-type” individuals. Their employees need to be self-motivated, taking initiative, and have a broad skill set so they can apply the right methodologies for different situations. The inside-out company can have more junior employees as well as more of the B and C individuals that might not have enough self-motivation to expand their knowledge on their spare time. The reason the inside-out companies can get away with more junior employees is because they can lean on the processes to support them in their role. This result in the inside-out division being able to operate with a lower cost, not just from a salary perspective, but also since they train employees internally and might not have to send staff off to learn skills unfamiliar to the company.

An inside-out UX division is able to operate on a lower budget. It tries to maximize the value delivered through standardized procedures at the same time as keeping the cost down. Outside-in divisions can often deliver higher quality work for an additional cost. The decision regarding the mix of inside-out and outside-in strategy the UX division consist of depends on the company’s setup and what can provide the highest net benefit for the company. In other words, the UX division should strive for the mix that provide the greatest gap between the additional value created and the cost.

UX Projects

Let’s face it, most UX projects (should) involve users to some extent so it is easy to think of them as outside-in projects where knowledge is gained from participants outside the company. However, UX projects also have inside-out attributes to them. Consider this example. An online company is concerned why their shopping cart abandonment rate is high. Therefore they initiate a project that will investigate this. A UX researcher investigates it and finds out their shipping time is too long.

Another company might launch a project with the goal to see how they can improve the experience for their customers. After the UX researcher has done some investigation they find out that the customers think their delivery times are unacceptable. This example is more of an outside-in project than the first company’s project since this one starts at the user, while the first one starts from the business analytics.

So why does it matter where on the inside-out/outside-in scale the project falls? I would say that it has to do with funding. A project based on internal data (more inside-out) and a concrete problem to solve is more likely to be funded since it is easier to make a business case and gain stakeholder buy-in. I.e. it is clearer what the return of investment will be. When selling the more outside-in projects (more exploratory), the business sponsors (or someone else), whose budget it is coming from, are taking a larger risk than if they invest in a project with a narrow focus. If exploratory studies are important to the organization, one way to circumvent this tendency (to pick the safer projects) would be to provide the UX division with a budget to conduct their own exploratory projects.

Conclusion

The inside-out vs. outside-in framework is very simplified, yet all companies fall somewhere between these two extremes. Even though the framework is simple, it is worth considering where your company/UX division/projects fall and how this impacts your company.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

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