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.