Client/Agency Engagement is F*cked, Waterfall UX Design is a Symptom

Ross Popoff-Walker wrote a properly ranty blog post yesterday entitled ‘UX Design at Digital Agencies is F*cked‘ in which he discussed the typical waterfall methodology utilised by digital agencies he’s worked in.

Most of us with any agency experience would have no doubt been nodding in agreement to read:

Big digital agencies especially, will kick off a project with a “discovery phase” (which may or may not actually discover anything), and quickly jump into a waterfall-style design process of UX sketching, wireframing, and client meetings/approvals. Then after many (many) rounds of visual design… and only then… will agencies start to move into the development and tech stage. Only after every pixel has been pushed and use-case documented, will something be made that is working and actually functional.

Developers and tech leaders intuitively get the problem with this. Websites (or anything digital) are not buildings, made the stand the test of time without change — they are meant to be tested and iterated, and improved continuously. But in my experience, it has never made anything of real value to a client.

Ross goes on to advocate that agencies take up the Lean Startup methodology widely in use amongst start ups and some of the more forward thinking and/or buzzword aware larger companies. I concur. This is indeed a fine and very user focussed way to approach a project.

However, Ross glosses over the reason agencies work this way (‘comfort, dogma, and the ease of billing clients’ he suggests). I think a lot of agencies want to work in a more Lean or Agile way (and some attempt to do so), but the nature of the agency/client engagement will have to change substantially in order for this way of working to become widely adopted.

A few things happen when you hire an agency.

Firstly, the client effectively outsources the work.
They create a separation between themselves and the people who are doing the work.

Even the agencies who work most closely with their clients (and by this I mean properly in each others faces physically or virtually ALL the time). This creates a different dynamic than what you get in an inhouse team. There is an “us” and a “them” and they have very different realms of expertise and knowledge and often not a great way of combining these two sets of knowledge to make a great product.

The lack of integration between the company who needs the project done and the company who is doing the project creates a very different shape to a typical (effective) Agile or Lean team, and it makes it difficult to work effectively.

It also introduces another ‘customer’ to the mix – one that is not the end user customer, but one who will sign off the project and pay the bills – so, probably, a more important customer to the agency than the *real* customer that the project is being created to serve.

Complicated huh. Makes it hard to focus on what’s really important when there are actually TWO things, often in conflict, that are important. Agencies will always preference making their customer happy over making the customer’s customer happy. That’s understandably, but it doesn’t lead to good project outcomes.

Secondly, when the client outsources the work, they feel as though they’re outsourcing the risk.

They effectively pay a premium for an agency who knows what they’re doing to do that thing well. It tends not to play well for an agency to then spend the duration of the contract being actively uncertain, making hypotheses and validating them, using the client’s money to ‘learn’.

This, traditionally, is not what we pay a top class agency to do. We pay them to know stuff and to get stuff right, and to be the people we blame if it doesn’t work out well. Until clients get comfortable with this (will they ever?) it will be difficult, nigh impossible, for an agency to be properly Lean or even agile.

Thirdly, when you’re paying an agency a lot of money (and you usually do), you want to feel confident about what you’re going to get when then money is spent.

This is why clients are so desirous of spec work in the pitch process – it makes them feel more confident about what they’re going to get for their money. Getting them to let go to spec work in the pitch is hard enough, how much luck do you think the Biz Dev guys are going to have selling Lean, where all we have is a Build, Measure, Learn process that admits we don’t really know anything for sure, and the possibility of pivots along the way. (Not to mention that most biz dev guys probably don’t have the first idea what Lean is and have the wrong idea about Agile).

No one ever got fired hiring a big name agency to do waterfall, complete with functional specs and three different visual design variants for the marketing team to choose from. They probably didn’t get a good product at the end of the process either, but they got a thing that looks as though it probably took as much time as the agency said it was going to take, and looked kind of pretty, and so they don’t feel ripped off and angry. And they won’t get fired.

It takes a special kind of client to take the risk and develop the level of trust and integration required to work the way that Mr Popoff-Walker and many, many other inhabitants of agency world would like to work.

The agency model is certainly pretty broken, but both agencies and – I’d say more importantly – clients need to take responsibility for that, and take both action and a little risk to help mend it.

What software do you need to know to get started in UX?

I’ve been asked a few times recently about my opinion on what software people should know if they want to do UX so I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Of course, the first answer is – it depends.

It depends on what *kind* of a UXer you want to be (there are many types – some are more design-y or research-ish, some some are closer to the business or the interface) and what kind of place you want to work for (there are many options there too).

The tools you use affect the work that you output, so I think you should be thoughtful about the toolkit you decide to use.

To begin with, I would say that no software will ever replace the advantages provided by a willingness and ability to sketch.

If you are not confident with sketching you will start designing into software and this is not something you want to do.

The minute you start designing into software you limit the number of options you explore, you move more quickly to high fidelity and are more likely to become attached to your own design. You sit by yourself at a desk instead of collaborating with your team.

Before you learn any software, get comfortable sketching in company.

Another important thing to understand is that most of the time, the tools we use are substitutes and shortcuts for the actual raw material for which we design.

Don’t think that because you have ninja skills in Axure, you don’t need to understand how HTML, CSS and JavaScript work or how a database is designed or how some importnt content management systems work. You don’t need to have advanced development skills but it is more important to me that you understand and have some hands on experience of the how the technology behind faceted navigation works, and what the challenges and restrictions and opportunities are, than being able to fake it in Axure. (I’m picking on Axure, I know.)

The last thing I would say before I give you the list you’re really here for,  is that it is less important which software you learn now, and more important that it doesn’t become your hammer.

(You know the saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Every day a new piece of software comes out that might be a great tool for you on the particular project that you’re working on. Get comfortable always exploring, evaluating and learning new tools. In fact, I’d go so far as saying, don’t even bother trying to be a master of one, be a jack of all software! And be prepared to change your mind.

But, tools you must have. Here’s my thoughts what you might find useful.

UX Design

  1. A  ‘diagramming’ tool for basic wire framing, sitemapping, content/data modelling and flow charting. Common choices are Omnigraffle (for Mac) or Visio (for PC). There are also a swathe of online (SAAS) alternatives including Balsamiq, Mockflow, Mockingbird, Hotgloo, Pencil, Pidoco and the list goes on (there’s a nice list with summaries here)
  2. A tool for making higher fidelity (prettier) wireframes/prototypes. Common choices include Fireworks, InDesign, Photoshop. Keynote (Mac) or Powerpoint (PC) are also increasingly popular with good reason I think – they’re easy to use, flexible and increasingly powerful little apps.
  3. A tool for making interactive prototypes. This used to be optional, it’s not anymore. Common choices are: Fireworks, Axure, Keynote, Powerpoint, also HTML/CSS/JavaScript incl. JQuery etc using Text Editing software (eg. Coda, Expresso etc.)
  4. A tool for image processing – a lot of people use Photoshop but most UXers could get away with Fireworks or even Preview (comes with Mac) for their requirements

Personally, I’ve moved away from Omnigraffle and towards Fireworks in the past 12 months or so for various reasons, but there are no perfect UX tools. I’ve seen people make a compelling case for moving back to Omnigraffle. Personally, I think Axure is more trouble than it’s worth, unless you are having to do all your detailed interaction design work in the absence of developers. (Which, if you know me, you’ll know I try very hard to avoid).

Some companies will only hire people who have skills in specific software, eg. Axure. This is idiotic as software is easy to learn, being a good UX designer is the hard part.

UX Research:

Good UX Designers will also read this section – there’s not a clear break and more and more designers should be integrating these tools into their daily practice.

If you’re doing UX Research then having some good Excel skills will come in handy for analysis. You might alway want to get handy with SPSS (although, again, this will be overkill for some). I’ve found having some good mind mapping software to be handing for research analysis as well.

Important note:  the best analysis, in my opinion, happens doing affinity sorting using post it notes on a wall – this is research’s equivalent to sketching.

You’ll also need some software to record the user research you do in person. The obvious contenders are Morae (if you’re working for a company with a decent budget) and Silverback which you can run on your Mac.

The tools I find most interesting for UX research tend to be newer web services such as:

This is by no means a definitive list – there are lots more great tools out there that I’ve no doubt neglected to mention. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments below.

Just remember – it’s not the tool you use (although they will no doubt leave their imprint), it’s the way that you use it that really matters.

Strategic UX – some recommended reading

I had the honour of doing a short talk about my thoughts on Strategic User Experience at the Content Strategy Meet Up last night and in my presentation I included a list of reading that I’ve found particularly useful in helping to understand how UX can work more strategically within organisations.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but is a good place to get started.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on the Harvard Business Review and Forrestor’s CX Blog.

If you’ve got any other recommendations you think people should know about, feel free to share below.

Happy reading.