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.

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.

Improving UX and CX through Customer Journey Mapping

Lately I’ve been asking the same set of questions to UX people.

How many weeks in the past year did you feel as though you were doing the right kind of work, on the right kind of project. How often do you feel as though you’re really being properly utilised, that you’re using your skills and experience in a way that is really helping companies make a difference?

Based on my own experience, my hypothesis was that the answer would be pretty depressing. And, with a few exceptions, it has been.

At a time where companies are crying out for User Experience people to come help them solve problems – and there are so many problems to solve – the people who are at the coal face generally feel as though they’re either not able to work effectively, or they are doing great work but tackling the wrong problems.

What a tragic waste of talent, of time, of money, of life.

The last few months I’ve seen a lot of movement in the UX field – people moving in house out of agencies, starting their own companies, leaving freelancing – it feels like we’re generally a little restless at the moment, and it’s a feeling I’m familiar with. I need to stop taking briefs and trying to reshape them, and instead to work with companies to give them the tools to make better decisions, to give better briefs, to allow teams to work together more productively. We need to get out of the design or UX department to solve these problems.

So I’m shifting my focus to Customer Journey Mapping.

In workshops and conference talks I’ve done recently I’ve waxed lyrical about the Customer Journey Map and how it has, without doubt, been the thing that has most transformed my practice as a User Experience practitioner over the past few years. In particular it does three things that immediately accelerate an organisation’s customer focus:

  1. Makes the customer experience understandable and addressable – even for quite small companies, understanding what it is like to be your customer at all points of the customer lifecycle and across all channels can be difficult. Creating a customer journey map helps make the big picture of customer experience understandable so that even as we deep dive on specific projects, we’re maintaining a consistent and coherent experience at all times. By picking out the critical moments of truth and focusing on those touchpoints, we make significant improvements much more achievable and measurable.
  2. Unites the silos, ignites customer focus – often organisations are filled with people who are passionate about customer experience but who are functionally separated from each other and have difficulty communicating effectively and aligning their efforts across the organisational silos. A customer journey map gives them a focal point and a shared language and way of communicating the insight they have and activity within their functional group, improving the organisation’s ability to maximise the efforts and expertise of its customer champions.
  3. Visibly connects business value and customer value – Peter Drucker tells us that the purpose of the business is to create value for our customers and that profit is the feedback we get from doing it well, but the connection between customer and business value is often difficult to see in today’s organisations. A customer journey map provides a way to show how the critical moments of truth for customers – the touchpoints that should be most thoughtfully designed – almost always maps to places where money flows in or out of an organisation. Customer journey maps provide a way to measure CX metrics that directly impact the organisations bottom line.

I’m not giving up the usual research, design and strategic UX work I’ve done over the years, but I’d like to spend more of my time working on making Customer Journey Maps with clients and helping to focus their energies on the UX projects that will really make a difference for their organisation, and also to bring some more ‘design’ into the world of Customer Experience (CX) (yes, CX is different to UX, and yes, I totally understand how confusing that sounds).

So, if your organisation needs some customer experience mapping done, or you hear of someone who does, I’d love it if you’d send them my way. With a bit of luck and good management I can do my bit to help make sure more UXers are working on real and important UX projects in the coming years.

Customer Experience v User Experience

In the process of writing the book (A Practical Guide to Strategic User Experience, yes, it’s coming, I promise!) I found myself surprisingly flummoxed when it came to writing about Experience Strategy and the role it plays (or should play) in business strategy. I’ve talked about Experience Strategy with clients over the years, written Experience Strategies for projects I’ve worked on, and worked under the illusion that I was clear about what this actually entailed… however, in coming to write about and thereby define what it meant, it all of a sudden felt very fuzzy.

What is Experience Strategy?

Having done a review of some of the significant contributions to this topic from the UX community, I found myself dissatisfied… Steve Baty wrote a detailed essay on the topic for Johnny Holland some time ago. This essay does address a lot of significant issues around what businesses should be doing to create better experiences as differentiating opportunities… but at the end of it I can’t help asking myself – isn’t this just a part of a good value proposition? And where and how does/should a User Experience person get involved in these kind of activities that go way beyond the interface and into the mechanics of how the entire company functions?

Then I discovered Customer Experience (CX).

Turns out there is this whole other profession, born, it seems, mostly from the marketing discipline, who have an active interest in orchestrating company wide good experience for their customers. They are experienced in making strong, financially driven business cases to management at the highest level, getting decent budgets and then investing in infrastructure that enables an organisation to deliver good customer experience (such as ‘single view of the customer’  and ‘voice of the customer’ programs that enable an organisation to aggregate their understanding of a customer into one view (how rare is this for most established organisations, and how crippling is the typical fragmentation), and enables an organisation to hear and respond to what their customers are saying to and about them.

Reading some of their books (I particularly enjoyed this one) it strikes me that they have a much more mature and structured way to approaching company wide good experience than we User Experience people (generally) do. Given the choice of having a Chief Experience Officer (CXO from a UX background) or a Chief Customer Office (CCO from a marketing/CX background), I’d probably choose the latter – for the more comprehensive, well rounded view of the organisation and all its working parts than the interface obsessed UXer is likely to be.  And I’m more confused about where Service Design fits into all of this than ever.

I’m writing up a lot more about what people who do CX do, and what they think about in the book (and I’ll no doubt share some more of that here, now that I’m back writing again!) but I wanted to take a moment to flag how – from my own experience and a lot of the people i’ve been talking to – we don’t really know people who do Customer Experience, in fact, most of us probably don’t even know they exist and will be immediately skeptical upon discovering them.

Similarly, in reading what they write about, it is disturbing how little reference Customer Experience people make to User Experience people. I’ve come across several references to human factors and usability, but you’ll almost never find Customer Experience and User Experience in the same book/article/room.

This worries me.

It worries me because I think that actually, this is possibly one of the best, strongest alliances that could exist in companies. It worries me because so much of what CX people do is what we need done so that the experiences we’re designing have a real chance of being good. And it worries be because I think we as UXers could really benefit from understanding, in greater detail,  a lot of the structure and discipline and business focus that CXers bring to our combined cause.

We’ve done a lot of hand waving about Good Experience and Experience Strategy over the past few years, but we’ve done very little to explain HOW to make this happen. Getting to know our Customer Experience colleagues, getting more of them in our organisations and  making them aware of our existence could really help move this forward.