Five Tips to help Designers Find the Perfect UX Agency

Most UX designers I know aren’t masochists, but boy do they love chaos! Why else would they choose a field where, depending on where you work, a “matrix” could be a reference to content or Keanu Reeves? The fact is: unless they are the Che Guevara type, designers are often as good as the ecosystem and culture of their employer.

Consider the following scenario: your recent start up fails but you learn a lot about Lean UX along the way. Soon thereafter, you get a job offer to build the UX department at a major agency. However, at that agency, the project managers aren’t even sure what a task analysis is!

Introducing Lean UX there will probably take you a very long time (as will the cancerous growth on your UX soul).

Fear not, fellow UX designer! If you’re considering joining an agency, here are a couple of tips to make your search a little easier.

Don’t find a job, find a culture

A bacterial culture

Everything has a culture. What’s theirs like?

You can’t do it alone. Even if you’re Donald Norman. Does this agency simply want a voice in the room that can pull usability principles out of their hat during design reviews? Don’t work there.

UX designers need a culture that appreciates the vast, overlapping universe of experience design. Of course: unless you work at an Adaptive Path, IDEO or EffectiveUI, you’re most likely not going to find a place that are deeply knowledgeable about user experience. That’s okay. Perform your own gap analysis and understand to what degree the culture has a passion for learning user experience. That way, the majority of work you do will be focused on the client, not your team’s culture.

Look for receptive leadership

This is a big one. Get a sense of whether or not the leadership truly cares about the people doing the work. If you’ve ever seen Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas then you’ll know what I mean. Disconnected leaders see their team mates as pawns used to advance their goals.

When staffing a project, does management take into account people’s personalities in addition to their skillsets? …or are they just checking items off a list? While managers should always care about profit, the best also care about their team’s experience. This kind of receptive leadership implies two-way communication. It means that there’s an emotional maturity in place so that an organization can course-correct by listening to (and acting in the best interest of) its members.

Next comes the leadership part. Will they say no to a client? This is key. If an account manager is told to “compromise for client happiness at all costs” then it’s unlikely that their agency can lead the client and help their team produce its best work.

Finally, does the leadership express core principles the agency must abide by? I’d settle for something like “we’ll never deliver bad work, no matter the timeline.” Regardless, ask them what they stand for. Next, see if they walk the walk: talk to their junior designers.

Ensure tolerance to uncertainty

My favorite quote from the Effective UI book is “intolerance to uncertainty is intolerable.” If only every agency I worked for had this chiseled in marble! A tolerant organization recognizes an essential and undeniable reality about good design: no solution is obvious.

A sword

Look for good values. The best agency will be steadfast on some issues and lax on others.

Do projects at this agency often begin without a signed Statement of Work (SOW)? This can happen when clients have an urgent deadline and/or when both sides “act on good faith.” In this case, the agency must communicate that work without an SOW is an investigation into what’s possible.

Next, note whether or not this agency explains working assumptions to their clients. If not, they’re vulnerable to scope creep and/or client bullying.

On the flip side, always avoid agencies that spell out every feature exhaustively. How can you find the best solution if the SOW already has? Without doing research there’s no way you can know what the best solution for a user should be.

Identify their process

Clients will always want work produced faster, for less money, and with more certainty. And while I feel for them (many have jobs riding on a project), agencies must do their part to both educate clients and earn their trust. A large part of that comes from managing expectations.

Scope is simply a measure of how much of their design problem a client wants to solve at any given time. Grill the agency as to what their scoping process is. Don’t look at the “cool” infographic they have on their website; talk to people on the ground and understand how plans come together.

Regardless of their actual methodology, an agency’s process should always protect the integrity of its design endeavors. Nothing wastes client money more than the internal kickoff in which someone says “what deliverables should we do?” The rest of the kickoff is then spent discussing how the design will be communicated rather than how design itself should communicate!

Look for checks and balances

An agency’s team dynamic should encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and debate. Design is a human endeavor, making camaraderie critical. One person who’s only out to make themselves look good can take the whole thing down.

How does this agency handle conflict resolution? What if, say, an Account Manager and a Project Manager don’t get along? Does the agency prefers to “let people work it out?” That’s not leadership.

Alternately, if they run witch hunts in their post-mortems then they’re running on a culture of fear. No one department should be favored over another. All departments – including UX – should be treated with respect to ensure a democratic system of checks and balances.

In sum

No agency is perfect. No company. No client. No person. It comes down to intention, really: does this group of people want to transform human experiences for the better?

Any agency can become a great place to practice experience design. But you can save yourself a lot of heartache by interviewing your future employers with the same rigor and diligence which which they’ll undoubtedly interview you. In the process you’ll really learn why you do what you do.

About the Author

Jod Kaftan

Jod Kaftan is currently an Experience Director at BLITZ Agency in Santa Monica, CA. At BLITZ, Jod focuses on such things as story-driven design, gamification tactics and content strategy. Jod's dilettantism has taken him from print to digital to print and back to digital again—prior to BLITZ, Jod worked at The Los Angeles Times, where he once had the opportunity to drink the world's finest mezcal.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed reading it. Your last paragraph really sums everything up, “interviewing your future employers with the same rigor and diligence which which they’ll undoubtedly interview you.”

  2. Funny that I’ve been looking for agencies that are “different.” I am a Che Guevara type misplaced in the DC-area job market (too much gov work – got to relocate). Anyway, I stumbled on Blitz’s process flow and it is the diagram of my dreams. It reinvests ideas in product development. Cheers to being innovative!

  3. Ok, most of that is common sense. You left out the hard/useful part though. How do you approach a company and determine these things? Not so easy as it turns out. It’s not like you can ask them “Do you value your UX team?” and expect a real answer.

  4. Completely agree with you. No one is perfect. These are the best tips to help designers. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  5. Interesting article! I would love to know more about the subject. What are good methods for “interviewing” your future employer? I would like to know the tools and processes others have successfully used to investigate a future employer (apart from asking around). Do tools like “ratemyemployer.com” help?

  6. Hi Raluca, I think the secret is really talking to the people that are doing the production. These are the people who will tell you whether the agency really practices what they preach. I’d insist on interviewing with designers, devs and client management people that will tell you whether the agency is on the same page in terms of process and values.

  7. Quite amusing Jod! Finding a perfect agency where you can bring out your best is a challenge today because nothing falls in place perfectly, however, you have mentioned some vital points to consider by a UX designer. Moreover I would like to add that these points are not specific to just a UX designer coz’ the same applies to any individual associated with the field of website designing. Receptive leadership is something very rare in organizations as leadership by example is just another long gone concept in the books of management that I used to read for hours. I believe communication should be two way instead of a ‘Grapevine’, which messes up things. Nice Post..looking forward to more like this!! :)

  8. Thanks Jod! Much appreciated.

  9. Great tips for finding the right fit for a UX agency. When it comes to finding one you need to make sure you find the right fit.

  10. Too nice post and right said non of in this world id perfect and alot of thanks to write about design and designer.

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