Column: UX is already a big part of your agency
October 30, 2013 | Jordan Julien | Comments
The case for integrating design disciplines into agency’s client service
Marketers and product designers have long-kept their distance. Marketers communicate to customers, product designers create things customers use. But innovative marketers have started building custom vehicles to better communicate messages. The creation of these vehicles often benefit from utilizing processes and procedures borrowed from the product design world. The realm of user experience (UX) is one of the biggest overlaps of these two industries. UX is already a big part of your agency, even if you don’t realize it or have anyone overseeing it.
“If you’re doing digital work, and you don’t have a UX professional on your team, your shortchanging yourselves, your clients and your end users,” says Damien Boyes, director, interaction design at Taxi.
Many UX professionals believe that everyone involved with the construction of a communication vehicle, like a website, a mobile app, or a piece of software, should keep the end user at the top of their mind. Whether they are a product manager, a designer, a developer, or any other role that has influence over the final experience. But it’s often difficult to discern the subtle gradations between what’s best for the user, and what’s best for the business
This is what you need to know about UX.
Everything is an experience
Although UX as we understand it today seems like a relatively new concept, the thoughtful planning of experiences has been around for centuries. I remember helping my mother shop for my brothers birthday party when I was young. I didn’t like shopping and, wanting to get out of the store as quickly as possible, haphazardly picked out some balloons, streamers, banners, cards, cake and candles. Later, during the party, I noticed some of my family were commenting on the balloon choices and some of the other selections I had made earlier. I was starting to realize that decisions I made in haste were having an effect on party-goers.
Satish Kanwar, partner at Jet Cooper, a Toronto-based user experience agency, says that “every product creates an experience, whether you like it or not.” So, like my brother’s birthday party, each decision that’s made from the commencement of a project contributes to the experiences users will have later. Kanwar says, “by putting the user at the centre of the decision-making process, UX helps companies deliver more meaningful experiences.”
UX is a mindset everyone should develop
Although most UX professionals believe this, the majority also believe there needs to be a dedicated person to keep the user at the centre of attention. Gerrard Dolan, UX lead at MacLaren McCann, recommends against making UX a hybrid role, suggesting that “there’s tremendous value in having an impartial voice of the user who is not also responsible for visual design or development.”
Having a UX champion is often not enough. Adrian Chong says “UX’s nature is inherently about people, their context and environment,” and although a dedicated person can help evangelize this, developing a general understanding the users context and environment can help anyone, from any department.
It’s not about wireframes
Creating a digital product, like an app or website, was often, metaphorically compared to building a house. The wireframes are like the blueprints, the visual design is like the interior design. This helped engrain wireframes into the marketing communities lexicon. Many stakeholders now understand what wireframes are and what kind of collaboration they should expect when reviewing them. Many agencies feel safe including them on projects. This wide acceptance of wireframes has caused two separate problems: UX type-casting and documentation-driven processes.
There’s a substantial number of marketing agencies who believe UX professionals create wireframes and nothing more. I’ve come to call this mentality UX type-casting. The fact of the matter is that UX professionals offer much of their value during the discovery and definition phases of projects regardless of any specific deliverables.
Sarah English, founder of Usability Matters, has noticed that clients often come to the table with business objectives well defined, but lack any understanding about what the users’ objectives might be.
“Business requirements? Users have requirements too. Measuring success? Clients have metrics, but users will measure the success of the product too, just in different ways,” she says, adding, “integrating UX is often about adding another voice to the table at each step of the project.” And although wireframes are a perfectly legitimate way of documenting decisions, they are far from the only way. Many UX professionals don’t even think wireframes are one of the better ways to integrate UX.
Documentation-driven processes, in general, are slowly being abandoned in favour of results-driven processes. English notes “Some design companies ascribe to the philosophy of “genius design” – wherein the designer knows best, above the needs of the business or the users.” This phenomena is pervasive across most disciplines. The days of the delicate-genius retreating to their cave to produce their work is coming to an end. Collaboration is the way of the future. Trying different solutions, getting feedback, and iterating will become more prominent within workflows.
David Gillis, a partner at Teehan + Lax, helps clients “conceive of, design, build, deploy, grow and sustain” digital products and services. He helps frame each phase with a UX lens, asking how users “perceive, feel, and decide to take action.” Michael Melnick, director of user experience at Klick Health, suggests agencies will need to “move faster without a drop-off in deliverable quality” in order to keep up with the fast-moving technology world.
Clients and partners want it
Being a UX hired gun, I’ve had the opportunity to work on both agency- and client-side projects. I’ll tell you, agency clients (brands) are not only becoming more savvy when it comes to user experience, but they’re engaging people like me to help evaluate agency work. If that wasn’t enough, some larger organizations are beginning to bring the role of UX in-house.
Over the past year, I’ve been engaged three times to embed myself as part of a project team that would have typically been outsourced to a marketing agency. David Gillis says “agencies practicing UX will need to look more like consultancies in the future, becoming highly embeddable and collaborative.” Avi Soudack, the director of user experience at Havas World Wide, mentions that, with the rise of cross-channel experiences clients will begin to “look for UX (whether they use the terminology or not) and … it will become an essential part of what the agency does.”
Karri Ojanen, user experience director at CGI, says “our clients often tell us that just the information they have got from the interviews we’ve done with their customers has been invaluable as it’s given them ideas they would have never come up with otherwise” This statement aligns with my observations too. User research has always been used to provide valuable insights within the marketing industry. It’s more imperative now than ever, to listen and learn from users. Sarah English adds “I also truly believe you can’t be a great designer without participating in design research.” The value of this research extends well beyond the immediate uses. Many clients want to conduct this type of research, and are just looking for an agency capable of leading or effectively integrating with the process.
The old saying “there are no stupid questions” is a bit misleading. There are questions that make the asker look like they don’t know what they’re talking about. This has lead to many people not raising legitimate questions. People who prove to be the best at UX are often curious. They want to understand why people do the things they do. They ask questions like, why are there door handles on the push side of some doors? They wonder, why calculators have numbers ascending from the bottom-left to the top-right, while telephones have numbers ascending from the top-left to the bottom-right.
Debra Luneau, director of digital planning at OgilvyOne, suggests trying to “understand your user at whatever level you can. Talk to people around you – show them what you’ve designed.” Getting feedback from real people, not directly involved with the project, can often uncover new considerations.
The one sure-thing about asking more questions is that you’ll receive more answers. If you’re still not convinced of the value of UX, CGI’s Ojanen suggests asking yourself “why are you not investing in user experience at the moment? If the answer is you’re afraid of the cost or the time that it adds, consider the amount of money you’re losing if your customers are currently having a bad experience. If you don’t invest in user experience design, there is a good chance that your competitors will.”
More and more problems are popping up for businesses that aren’t in touch with emerging technologies and trends. UX planning can help avoid long-term pitfalls while implementing tactics designed to meet shorter-term objectives. For all those agencies who don’t care about UX, don’t think it’s useful, or think good creative is only produced by creative directors; the UX industry is here to tell you you’re wrong. Agencies are investing in UX like never before; possibly in response to clients demanding UX be part of digital projects. Don’t force your clients to bring UX in-house; it’s time to invest in highly collaborative UX planning. It may be the exact answer to the struggles you’re facing.
Jordan Julien is a Toronto-based freelance experience strategist who has worked at Trapeze Media, Taxi and Capital C