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6 Rules for Working With a UX Design Agency

April 12, 2019

You need to set communication standards and understand how the process works to have a productive partnership with a UX design agency.

When you work with an agency, you agree to a collaboration. And like any collaboration, it takes work from both sides to make the partnership successful.

Most failed engagements don’t occur because the agency couldn’t deliver or the client’s product couldn’t be saved. Rather, it’s a breakdown in the communication between the two parties that prevent a successful outcome.

The truth is, collaboration can be difficult, and it only gets more challenging during complex projects such as building or designing software. Putting in the time to develop efficient processes and provide clear feedback will yield a demonstrable return.

The design work will be of higher quality and will perform better with your audience. The entire project will move with greater efficiency, which saves you money. And your relationship with your agency counterparts will be more relaxed.

Sounds appealing, right?

Here are a collection of best practices that make working with any agency a better, more productive experience for all involved.

1. Assign a Dedicated Contact

This is project management 101. Before you even consider hiring an agency, make sure you choose someone from your organization to act as the point person.

This person will attend the weekly meetings, relay important information to other stakeholders, and otherwise act as a repository for everything that’s happening with the agency.

Otherwise, things will fall through the cracks, and the resulting miscommunications could lead to redundant work, wasted resources, and loads of frustration.

Who should this person be? Ideally, it would be someone who has:

  • A strong understanding of the business case for the design project
  • The project management skills to keep communication clear between the agency and other stakeholders in your organization

This is typically how our engagements at DePalma look:

Engagement at DePalma

We take care of the UX design and frontend development, while the client handles the business logic and the backend. That means the contact person needs to relay and gather information from various parties within the organization.

It’s an important job, and it’s absolutely essential to keeping everything running smoothly.

2. Start With a Shared Definition of Success

The best way to start a successful agency engagement is to lay out your expectations for success.

Is your definition of success a better-looking application, improved engagement metrics, or improved customer support costs? Let your agency friends know as early as possible. This will help them define a UX strategy and project roadmap that leads to the results you expect.

Here’s an example of a well-defined UX process. Notice strategy is the first thing that’s addressed.

Well-defined UX process

It’s tempting to dive into execution, but you must make time for strategy. Otherwise, you risk finding yourself wondering why none of the work coming from the agency serves the purpose you need it to.

3. Be Honest With Your Feedback

Although UX design relies heavily on research, creativity plays a starring role as well. When you’re critiquing someone else’s creative work, you may think it’s better to hold back and spare the designers’ feelings.

Don’t do it.

Your feedback is a fundamental part of the design process. And to get the best results – results that you’ll be pleased with in the end – you need to be honest in your critiques.

UX design relies on feedback from both stakeholders and users to inform the creative direction. If the designers you’re working with can’t handle that, they shouldn’t call themselves professionals.

With that said, there is a difference between good and bad design feedback. But regardless of how you articulate your critiques, honesty is always the best policy.

4. Invest in Research

UX design is a fundamentally different process than graphic design.

Where graphic design primarily relies on the creativity of the designer, experience design uses research from both users and stakeholders to uncover problems, identify possible solutions, and inform the general direction of the design.

Sure, creativity plays a large role, too, but UX design is a research-driven practice. Plus, there’s a growing body of evidence that supports the ROI of UX research.

Let me give you one example. Here’s a collection of survey responses we gathered for one of our recent projects:

Collection of survey responses

After collecting the data, we organized the responses thematically, which gave us a clear idea of what the users disliked about the current system and what they wanted from the new design.

Without this research, we would have been forced to guess the users’ pain points and by extension, how we should redesign the entire experience.

Unfortunately, it’s commonplace to want to skip the research stage. Some stakeholders believe they already know everything they need to about the users (they almost never do) or they simply want to move with all haste to visual design.

Whatever the motivations, skipping the research phase of the process is an exceptionally risky move.

Without understanding the needs of your audience, UX designers can’t create a solution with confidence. And if you create a solution based on assumptions, there’s always a chance your audience would like it even less than what you had before.

Just ask Snapchat. After a badly received redesign in 2018, user sentiment for the brand plummeted by 73%, which made an estimated 2 million users leave the platform.

 The company still hasn’t fully recovered.

If you want to get the best results from a UX agency, it’s wise to let the designers do the research. If they’re good, they should be able to fit their process within your budget constraints.

5. Prepare for Iteration

The first edition of your new user experience won’t be a masterpiece. In fact, it will probably be pretty rough. That’s by design.

Instead of doing all of the design work in isolation and showing you something when it’s almost done, UX designers get your input when the work is still in progress.

Most firms start with low-fidelity wireframes because making changes when the design is still unpolished is a lot cheaper than when it has been fully fleshed out. It also allows designers to validate their ideas with users before moving forward.

Here’s what low-fidelity wireframes look like:

Low-fidelity wireframes

After several rounds of iteration, these wireframes progress into more mature designs:

Wireframes progress to more mature designs

The thing to remember is that iteration is a good thing. Taking a step-by-step approach saves money and ensures the best designs become the final product.

Think about the process like sculpting. The designers start with a single stone slab and continue to make intermittent changes until they arrive at the finished piece. Each cut they make to the stone is driven by a combination of feedback and intuition, rather than personal preference.

6. Establish a Clear Approval Process

There has to be a clear sign-off process once the work has been reviewed. Perhaps this is the job of the point person you assign to the agency, or maybe the work needs to be approved by a stakeholder brain trust.

However you want it to work, just make sure you and your agency have a clear understanding. That way nothing moves ahead before it needs to, and everyone’s time and energy is used in the most efficient way.

Collaborate Successfully With a UX Agency

Working with a UX design agency can open up a world of possibilities. Every product or application has a user experience, so nearly any organization can realize significant benefits from optimizing their experience design.

But to truly get the most of your partnership, you need to set a few communication standards and become acquainted with how the process works.

Once you do that, you’ll be in prime position to enjoy a productive (and hopefully prosperous) collaboration.


About the Author

Headshot of Zach WatsonZach is the director of content at DePalma, where he writes about user experience design. Zach has spent his entire career writing about technology, and his work has been featured in Venturebeat, HubSpot, Entrepreneur, and Inc.com.