Generally in an agile setup, you and the dev managers are both correct. Having a UX generalist per product/dev team with a research-focused person or team separate and in support of all dev teams is considered ideal. I’ve worked in each of the three setups (completely separate, only embedded, and hybrid) plus “team of one” as well as having done Lean Agile UX training (NN/g). Your instincts are correct about influence, although usually, the influence is the head-down nature of working through a dev sprint and the lack of influence the product teams can have on product strategy.
Advantages of embedded UX generalist per team:
- Support work during the sprint as the team is continually learning, dev and design should be iterative.
- Quicker to verify UIs before delivery than a separate team.
- If cross-platform, the developers and designers who work in the specific area (iOS, Android, etc) will learn from each other more consistently.
- Will have much more influence on the implementation of the UI throughout the sprint.
- Can facilitate feedback for the product team with stakeholders as work is getting done. This is more important with mobile UIs, where each fidelity of the design draws out different feedback. (wireframes, prototypes, working UIs). A separate team will be an inefficient bottleneck here.
- Avoids the hand-off mentality. In modern product cycles, there’s going to be ambiguity in solutions that embedded team members can iterate on.
- Cross-training UX skills with other team members is a powerful thing…
- In non-toxic environments, UX and dev working directly with each other creates understanding and respect for each others’ contributions and techniques.
Advantages of also having an independent role or team (best if UX research focused):
- Except for in-flight usability testing, research is difficult to do during a dev sprint. Research can be done in sprints, but it’s easier to do certain kinds of research in their own sprints and cadence.
- Keeps independent of the “rush for features” that product teams tend to focus too much on.
- Easier to stay involved at the product strategy level, researchers can be checking assumptions coming from internal stakeholders, exploring current issues, and keeping stakeholders aware of user needs.
- Scheduling research and keeping a good cadence of regular user research is a challenge if you are embedded in a product team.
- Easier to stay proactive instead of reactive and keep ahead of user understanding.
Embedded UX’ers should still coordinate across teams as a functional group to work on a unified design language, learn from each other, and encourage professional development. In high functioning agile environments, this is true for each product team role (POs, devs, QA, UX). Vertically you’re organized around a product or value stream and cross-team you are functionally organized for learning, functional coordination, and skills support.