Why agencies and developers struggle with UX

I have a thesis that agency people have a strong bias that is antithetical to good UX (user experience) design. And, like all biases, it must be overcome to achieve the best outcomes possible.

I’ve worked in the agency business for several decades. I started as a graphic designer and eventually became a creative director. Early in the internet age I was intrigued by the emerging importance of the digital world and started building websites for clients. We used what we called the “4D web design process.” (I’ve seen 4D expressed a couple different ways as either Discovery, Definition, Design, Development; or, Discovery, Design, Development, Deployment.) Amazingly, despite my chagrin, the 4D process is still in use by many agencies and web design companies today, but that’s a topic for another post. Eventually I studied, read and learned as much as I could about user experience design, and earned a certificate in UX design from Rutgers. That journey was enlightening because I soon realized that after many years of designing and building websites for clients, I hadn’t been going about it the right way. Because of an innate bias (that I believe is still inherent in most agency people) I used the 4D process, leaving out many of the essentials of good UX design.

The nature of the agency bias

The innate bias that I’m talking about is created by the desire — and even the obligation — to solve clients’ problems. Normally this is a good thing. In fact, it’s essential for agencies to provide counsel and leadership to their clients. Clients want agencies to solve their problems and agencies do their best to oblige. In a good client relationship, the agency is looked upon as a knowledgeable, trusted expert. That is, in fact, what a good agency does: provide strategy and services to help clients achieve their marketing goals. In the case of agency creative people (designers, writers, art directors, creative directors) there is a parallel impulse to solve clients’ problems and achieve their marketing objectives using creativity. The bias, then, might be summarized by saying that as an agency creative person, “I know how to apply my talent experience to get results for my clients.”

When can this bias become problematic?

Quite simply, a problem develops when the user is left out of the equation. That happens when agency people lack understanding of the most fundamental axioms of UX:

  • You are not the user.
  • The user doesn’t think like you do.
  • The moment you design something, you can never again view from someone else’s perspective.

In my experience, these simple principles are easy to grasp but very difficult for most agency people to truly internalize. Especially so, it seems, for creative people. But account people and clients can certainly fall into the same trap. Too often there is a trio of clients, account managers and creative people applying their thinking to a problem, and the user’s point of view is left out of the picture.

What about agency research and account planning?

In reputable agencies, researchers study the target audience and try to figure out what makes them tick. Account planners look for insights. Audience are defined. Personas are developed. Insights are uncovered. Briefs are written. The client signs off. Work begins. Concepts are presented, refined and sometimes even tested with the audience. But here’s the run — I don’t believe that this focus on understanding the target audience overcomes the bias I’ve been talking about. In some ways it may even exacerbate it. Armed with research, insights, briefs, client buy-in and concept testing results, the agency creative people feel empowed. They are like doctors of old: experts who know far better than the patients. They use their creative powers to conjure up the black magic that will solve the client’s problem. When it comes to the development of breakthrough creative concepts, this may work just fine. But when it comes to applying that creative magic to tactical digital deliverables, if the user is left out, it can all break down.

What can happen is the art director or designer starts being creative in places and ways that he or she shouldn’t. For example, in their desire for novelty, when designing a website they might think, “why not invent a completely creative and never-before-seen navigational scheme?” Conventional, expected, predictable and orderly UIs become the enemy of “creative.” The designer believes that something original, innovative, distinctive and even chaotic is a better way to break through the clutter of the ordinary. Should there happen to be a UX designer in the picture, they may even start to fight each other, the tension eventually leading to a breaking point. And who loses in that struggle? The user. And also, the client — because frustrated consumers will flee for better experiences delivered by competitors.

Surprise and delight: UX and creativity in perfect harmony

Of course, as with all biases, enlightenment can lead to a better way. Creative people and UX designers should work hand-in-hand from beginning to end. Making that happen may require forcing UX best practices into the process. By respecting each other’s knowledge and talent, they can get to solutions representing the perfect balance of creativity and user-friendly design. Of course the opposite problem can be just as troublesome if the UX designer’s efforts influence the creation of something that’s too boring and uninspired. The UX designer may need to learn to stretch a little — sometimes solutions that have never been tried before can still deliver delightful user experiences. Of course, the creative person may need to compromise as well — realizing that reinventing the wheel often does not produce the desired outcomes. Fortunately, user experience done well can always validate the design through user testing.

In short, by working closely together with the end game in sight, the creative person can deliver a truly surprising idea and the UX designer can ensure an absolutely delightful experience. As Don Norman put it in this Fast Company post, “We need to teach designers the importance of teamwork with the other disciplines.” That’s most effectively achieved by the creative team and the UX team working hand-in-hand from the very beginning of a project and all the way through it. The goal is to achieve the prefect balance and deliver both surprise and delight. What brand would not want to benefit from that kind of work?

The content in this post is a small part of what’s covered in my UX Lunch & Learn – a free one-hour training session for small to mid-size agencies, developers and corporate marketing/communication departments that want to incorporate UX design best practices in a more intentional way. Let me know if you’d like me to present it to your staff.

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