Small agencies must get on the UX bandwagon

Many agencies are new to the user experience design party. UXD has been practiced at large corporations for nearly two decades now. Large digital specialist agencies incorporate UXD best practices as part of their core service offerings. But many if not most small to mid-size advertising agencies and design firms have not yet adopted UXD to the extent they should. At the same time, these firms find themselves less in the traditional ad business, and more and more in the digital development business.

Bringing USD best practices to smaller firms for the first time can be a bit daunting. But if you are in any way involved in making websites, apps, banner ads, broadcast emails or anything else that people interact with via a computer, a tablet, a smartphone, or another kind of screen, you need UXD. And you need it desperately.

User experience design (UXD) is a field that has been around since the early 1990s, but awareness of its importance has been exploding over the past few years. That’s because use of the Internet, websites, social media and apps via all manner of digital devices and electronic gadgets are ubiquitous in daily life for most of us. Today, ad agencies and design studios are looking a lot more like web and app development firms — we’re turning into code jockeys. With my years in the agency business, I’ve seen digital go from non-existent (yes there was life before the Internet), to that stuff the nerds did in that stand-alone “interactive department,” to being fully integrated into everything that happens in every area of the agency. As the digital economy eclipses traditional marketing communications practices, the demand for UX continues to grow in importance. And there’s no end in sight.

If you’re like the majority of small firms that regularly create websites and apps, you may not think you have enough volume to justify dedicated UX practitioners. Because of that, user experience design is rolled in — consciously or more likely, unconsciously — under other parts of the creative or development process. Probably the people who do the design or coding are also handling UXD.

If you’re thinking your art directors, graphic designers or programmers are handing UXD and you’re good to go, then I’ll argue that you are probably wrong — unless they have the specialized knowledge required. Plus, even with the training and specialized knowledge to manage specific UX disciplines, it’s very difficult for the same people to do UXD and to also be responsible for designing or coding a site or app. It’s just hard for any of us to get out of our own heads and see things the way an ordinary person who uses our digital thing will see it.

I was visiting with a colleague recently who is a consultant in the printing industry. She made the observation that when she speaks as conferences, she often sees people in the audience feverishly taking notes on what she considers to be the most basic and obvious points she is making. Just common sense stuff. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in the agency business about some very basic aspects of user experience design. I don’t think this is because people in agencies are not smart — quite the contrary. And I don’t think it’s because they don’t have common sense — although that may sometimes be the case. I think it’s because some of the principles of UXD run counter to the agency paradigm. Agency people are problem solvers. They are hired by clients to deliver strategy, media and creative recommendations and they do it very well. But they also can fall into an ego trap. When seeing themselves as the experts they indeed are, that posture can become dangerous from a UXD standpoint. From that paradigm, some of the most fundamental ideas of UXD just either don’t occur to them, or they don’t seem necessary. For example, talking to users to understand their needs may not happen because the agency just plows ahead – they just think they know what to do.

Creative arrogance will backfire. Expectations are very high among those who consume the digital stuff we make. Industry leaders like Apple and Google have trained consumers to expect nothing less than beautiful, useful, functional user interfaces, devices and content that all deliver exactly what people want with ease and instant gratification. When we as agencies deliver anything less, our clients will suffer brand damage.

But the good news is that there is a flip side, which is that good UXD translates to stronger brands, better connection to the end user, development cost savings and ultimately better return on investment for our clients. As people’s daily lives revolve more and more around interaction with electronic devices and digital applications, the opportunity for us to make their lives more livable, productive or fun increases all the time. That’s ultimately what good UXD does — whether in very small or very large ways — it makes people’s lives better.

Incorporating UXD best practices into the small- to mid-sized agency or design firm will allow you to reap the benefits of more successful digital products, better engagement with target audiences, and happier clients.

Perry Fair
Perry Fair

One of the judges for the 2013 Communication Arts Interactive Annual was Perry Fair, Chief Creative Officer for JWT Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, who was ranked as one of the top 25 young advertisers in America by the American Advertising Federation. In that issue of CA, Fair says, “User experience design has become just as important as the concept.” That’s an incredible statement, but one with which I wholeheartedly agree. Agencies that embrace that philosophy truly demonstrate that the have the vision to help with clients succeed and prosper in the digital age.

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