It’s been nearly two years since I wrote anything here. Life has been busy in that time. Much of my energy has gone into work and diving deeper into experience design in an in-house software development environment. I expect to write more around this in future posts as well.
The biggest change with this role compared to my previous roles is that it’s in an in-house environment. It has also been the most UX and interaction design focused role I’ve had to date (rather than predominantly visual design and/or front-end development).
I had previously been working in agency environments for about a decade. I felt I needed a change from the kind of work I was doing, to something that would be a challenge to my comfort zone and an environment in which I could learn more. I can say I am now in a role that satisfies both of those needs, in a great place to work.
There are many differences in this kind of environment. Some things are the perks of working at a great company. Like being able to choose which operating system you want to use and being able to purchase the tools you need without having to raise a fuss. There are apparent job satisfaction benefits that arise from a business model that involves pleasing customers and end-users with your products. With some luck, this kind of environment can create the conditions for doing your greatest work.
Serving two masters
At a digital agency, the buck always stops with the client. If you’re lucky, they are just as invested as you are in putting users in the centre of the picture, but often, for various reasons, they simply aren’t. A question that interaction designers should ask themselves is “how do I know that I have made the right design decisions?” In the average agency environment it comes down to using heuristics and being an “expert”. The success metric for most digital agency projects is the client sign-off. There is often very little involvement with users and analysis of their behaviour once the product has been built.
From my time at digital agencies, and from speaking with designers from these environments, it’s apparent that there are very few that engage in activities designed to properly understand user needs, motivations and expectations. Understanding users is either left to the client, farmed out to research partners (when there’s budget for it), or just purely based on unvalidated assumptions.
Often when a product or enhancement is built and deployed, that’s the end of the project and you move onto the next one. If there’s an ongoing relationship with the client, there might be the opportunity to analyse usage data and do some follow up work as part of a broader digital strategy. In a product business, the first release is the beginning of a journey, with many opportunities for measuring and nurturing the product experience over time.
Conversely, product work tends toward working on a few products or just a single product. This isn’t for everyone. At an agency, you get a lot of variety in what you work on and the people you work with. In just a few years you can often expect exposure to a wide variety of projects, clients and solutions. This is good for learning quickly as well as for populating your portfolio. With in-house product work you deep-dive into one area, while often needing to be a generalist in the broad field of experience design.
Uncertainty and emergent design
Agencies and their clients are often allergic to uncertainty. Clients want to know at the beginning of a project exactly what they are going to get for their money. Having the full details of the design and solution emerge over time is seen as an unacceptable risk. This lends itself to big design upfront and wasting effort on polished deliverables. Of course, a lot of big companies do this in-house too, but it’s easier to get away from in a culture that prioritises value to the customer. It’s definitely liberating to do just enough work to gain a shared understanding amongst the team in order to progress, and then adding granular detail over time.
Isn’t this a bit of a generalisation?
Of course, I can’t tar all agencies with the same brush. I know there are exceptions, but the approach will always be influenced by the business model behind it. This is certainly what I’ve observed from my experiences with digital agencies and the designers I have interviewed or otherwise met.
UX, experience design and service design consultancies are different, in my experience, to those that identify themselves as “digital” agencies. I’ve had less experience with these consultancies, but I expect that they would naturally handle UX a lot better. I do wonder if these consultancies are able to effectively analyse, iterate and nurture what they’ve delivered after launch. But maybe that’s a whole other discussion.