Agencies Don’t Like Me Very Much

Jared Spool

June 10th, 2011

Lately, I haven’t been making friends with people who work at design agencies. I think it’s something I said.

It’s definitely something I said. In fact, I can tell you exactly what I said.

However, to do that, we need to revisit some research we’ve conducted over the last few years. We’ve been looking at the process of making design decisions and realized there are five distinct styles. (If you haven’t read or seen me talk about these, go read about them now. Otherwise this won’t make a lot of sense.)

If you’re a designer, any of these styles can produce great results that delights customers. However, for many, the most advanced styles, activity-focused and experience-focused design, are the more desirable projects. That’s where the really cool stuff happens and where the biggest challenges are found.

And this is where I get in trouble with the agency folks. As we’ve been researching these five styles, we found an interesting finding: agencies can’t do activity-focused or experience-focused design.

Many do self design. Some very successful agencies make a lot of money with genius design. (And there are many that do unintentional design, but they probably shouldn’t brag about that.) However, it seems activity-focused and experience-focused design is out of reach of the agency world.

Now, many agencies try to sell themselves as doing this work. And many agencies get clients to hire them to do this work. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about creating successful designs using these decision styles. That doesn’t happen with an agency. It can only happen in-house.

Activity-focused design takes a long time. It requires making an investment. The team accrues knowledge over a long period, studying users and their activities, implementing solutions, and seeing how those solutions work. It takes many iterations to do well.

Most agencies aren’t brought in for long-term iterative work. Eventually, all agencies leave. When they leave, the knowledge the team has gained walks out the door with them. Then the client is left with something they don’t know how to maintain or improve. The project fails.

Experience-focused design is even more difficult. The designs often require changes at touch points all over the organization. For example, for a retail business to create a seamless experience, they’ll have to change things on the web site, in the stores, at the call center, in the distribution centers, and in the merchandizing department.

Agencies can’t have this kind of reach. It takes commitment at all levels. It’s too expensive to teach an agency how your business works. They don’t have the political clout to make the hard decisions.

Sure, a company can hire an agency to give them ideas. Agencies have really smart folks with lots of great ideas. But the long-term, in-depth execution has to come from within. The company has to make the commitment to investing on their own.

Needless to say, statements like this don’t make me popular with agencies. Recently, I’ve found myself sitting in front of agency owners, defending this position. They don’t like it at all.

I could be wrong. (It’s happened before.) It could be that an agency could take over the management and operations of a business and build a fabulous design using activity-focused or experience-focused design. I haven’t found one yet, but it could happen.

I just hope that agency’s contract never ends, because then their (now former) client is screwed.

19 Responses to “Agencies Don’t Like Me Very Much”

  1. Marc Poulin Says:

    Great article. At first, I thought that you were going to mention that agencies are great at broadcasting (one way communication like TV or print) but that they have great difficulties with 2-way interactions like on websites.

  2. Lou Rosenfeld Says:

    Read my mind, Jared.

    And please stop doing that; it tickles.

  3. Ronnie Battista Says:

    Bang on the nail Jared. I think in the ideal situation, when considering the more strategic, enterprise level experience design work, that a combination of external and internal research teams can be particularly powerful. Leveraging both cultural/historical institutional knowledge of with fresh eyes/apolitical external thinking has a nice yin/yang to it …

  4. Rahul Says:

    Our (technical) agency observes the same thing: many competitors drop clients once the project is over and then the client is left with a website but no long term design plan in place. People sometimes ask me “when is the project going to be done?” and I always say “it doesn’t start until it’s finished”.

    You can’t really help a client until you’ve spent months with them and learned their business inside out and gotten to know their customers. You’re dead on when you say agencies can’t do that; by their very nature they’re fundamentally flawed.

    Ideally I’d want an agency that works for at most 3-4 clients at a time, on long term contracts for many years at a time, giving them time to do real design. But that’s often not financially viable, and part of the reason is because clients don’t really understand that they need this. They think you hire an agency to sprinkle faerie dust and once they’re done, everything’s suddenly better. The problem is that you need to sustain the improvements. And if you hired an agency because they can do that, why do you assume you can suddenly do it once they’re gone? That kind of skill set doesn’t transfer by proximity.

  5. Gabby Hon Says:

    You’re not wrong, Jared, but you’re just short of the real problem: the reason we know that agencies can’t fully deliver the kind of design styles that deliver quality results is because clients keep hiring them to tilt at windmills. This is, as ever, a client-centered problem: in-house agencies are, philosophically, de rigeur at the moment but their reality is deeply troubling. I’ve worked client-side and seen nearly every type of failed design initiative imaginable. Corporations do not understand design at all. They understand ‘quick hits’ and weekly balance sheets and shareholder meetings. There is a complete absence of a holistic, long-term view particularly where design is concerned.

  6. Jared Caponi Says:

    This makes total sense.

    But I think the we all need to come to a mutual understanding about this. Yes, Agencies practice plenty of unintended design, self design and some genius design.

    And that’s just fine.

    Especially fine for sites that need to lay some kind of foundation, and lay it down relatively quickly. Clients should walk into relationships with this understanding. If their site is a long term value proposition, that value will come later when there is time to iterate on Activity or User-focused design. You hire an agency to build the thing to iterate on. I love @Raul’s “it doesn’t start until it’s finished.” I will be stealing that.

    The problem is both that agencies sell the idea that they can do a job properly out of the gate and clients expect that to be true. Agencies need to stop selling it and Clients ned to stop buying it.

    If Agencies sold self/genius design for what it was and if clients understood its value we’d all be better for it.

  7. Planting seeds and tilling soil | Involution Studios Says:

    [...] Jared Spool delights in being provocative. Listen: I like provocative. Much of the way people frame our professional world is outdated or out-of-touch. It takes provocateurs to get most of us to look in a different direction and consider new things. Unfortunately, many of those who make provocative statements as a matter of routine espouse half-baked and incorrect things alongside their other good ideas. Such is the case with Jared’s latest attempt to stir up a shit storm, Agencies Don’t Like Me Very Much. [...]

  8. Kenna Dian Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I have seen this unfortunate process play out all too many times. A design firm comes in, produces some innovative work (usually), then leaves once its done. That’s where the design sits until the event passes or the information is subsumed into the existing design. Sunk cost.

    Every time I see a new design, approach, or bright and shiny object I wonder how long it will last and whether it will make its way to any other areas of the site. I’ve found the larger the site, the lower the chance the design will go anywhere–no matter how beneficial it is.

    But there are those rare Website teams that have the right headset for successfully using design firms. They are very selective about when to use them, who they hire, and the project’s exit strategy. These teams understand that Websites are an evolution, not a revolution, and use design firms accordingly. As a result their sites consistently deliver useful innovations and a solid user experience.

  9. Indi Young Says:

    True, there definitely needs to be a long-term effort in-house. Agencies can help start the effort, teach processes, offer adjustment advice, and recommend strategies, as well as do part of the initial or intermittent work. In-house must take on the responsibility to drive the effort, or else ineffectually “tilt at windmills,” like Gabby Hon says above.

    Part of the reason I created mental model diagrams was as a way to preserve the user-focused research, and even have a place to capture a few team experiences with customers. I’ve seen these diagrams help the effort gain momentum, spread knowledge to different divisions, and focus the design decision process. (Yeah, tooting my own horn.)

  10. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    The problem is not in your rhetoric, my dear coauthor, it’s in your logic. Consider the following two points:

    1. Your divisions of some of the design “styles,” as you refer to them, are a little too black and white to be thorough.

    First, for example, in your view of activity-focused design, you assume that all activities take great lengths of time to understand. This is false; not all activities — including the photo-sharing activity you cited — are as time-consuming as you make them out to be.

    Second, your view of self-design is that it is the result of teams designing for themselves, and that it is a “low-end” approach, the conclusion being that self-design is essentially always bad. But self-design can be a direct result of activity-focused research. Consider it an analogy to first-person journalism, in which a journalist immerses himself/herself into a situation and then reports on it from the inside out. Researching an activity in this way, one can then design with an inside perspective while still making the service’s real users the focus of the design decisions. “Self-design,” in other words, doesn’t have to mean “selfish design,” it can mean designing for users from a first-person perspective.

    But then, this is a semantic debate. My version of self-design and yours could just as easily have different labels. But if so, then you’ve left at least one style out of your article on design styles, and it’s one which blurs and smudges and erases the lines you tried so diligently to draw.

    2. You said: “Experience-focused design is even more difficult. The designs often require changes at touch points all over the organization.”

    In this line, you’re essentially positing that if an agency can’t do “experience-focused design” (I love this term, by the way) that affects an entire organization, then the agency can’t do it at all. If the agency can’t achieve the business understanding and political clout to drive far-reaching change, it can’t affect anything at all. This is, of course, ridiculous. Agencies affect all kinds of experiences every single day. The problem is not that they can’t do experience-focused design, it’s that what they think is far-reaching is really just a sliver of the complete experience. A single app is not an entire company. A single call center is not an entire business. Agencies can and frequently do positively affect user experiences. They just don’t typically affect every aspect of those experiences.

    Kudos for being provocative. The world needs provocation. I just hope that your readers’ pursuit of the truth never ends, because then their (now current) world view is screwed.

  11. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    One more point:

    As a consultant, my goals for every project include (but certainly are not limited to) the following two things:

    1. Educate the client on the issues they need to focus on as much as possible.
    2. Leave the client with a strategy and direction and vision that will serve to guide their decisions in the future.

    The fact that, yes, I will eventually leave a project, is something that bothers me a great deal. My goal is not to swoop in and save the day, but rather turn those who stay into superheroes. I don’t make products better, I make people better. If agency staff are not doing this, they are most certainly prone to becoming guilty of everything you said here. But if they care about the long-term outcome, they’re leaving clients with much more than deliverables and innovations. They’re leaving clients with a path to better decisions.

  12. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Like this –

    “But the long-term, in-depth execution has to come from within. The company has to make the commitment to investing on their own.”

    Agree and a large part of what we do should be about building UX strength/capability inside the business. At the end of the day, they should own it.

    Perhaps we are also assuming that the UX industry in general is keeping up with market demands for UX in and around:

    * New waves of people entering UX
    * Growth in interest/demand in the term “UX” but not enough professional maturity in supply (hard to find good people)
    * Lack of training on soft skills required (perhaps)
    * Confusion from our buyers about what is required to make up a UX team or form a UX strategy
    * Agencies (who may not have come from a UCD, UX, IXD, Usability) background now in the market to sell those services without having adequate skill sets to back it up.

    rgds,
    Dan

  13. Daniel Szuc Says:

    “They understand ‘quick hits’ and weekly balance sheets and shareholder meetings. There is a complete absence of a holistic, long-term view particularly where design is concerned.”

    Nice one Gabby :)

    rgds,
    Dan

  14. Van Shea Sedita Says:

    I zoomed in on Mr. Hoekman’s comments and agree. “Making people better” as I see it here, involves teaching business managers/stakeholders the company vision and how to better understand the user, consumer, patron as the walk through the door, visit the first landing page or look up at the selection of coffee choices on the board.

    How these businesses managers, and the like, try to identify themselves and their objectives to other people (consumers) is something only THEY can own and modify at quickly if asked.

    These days, many executives like to “switch gears” because they feel that their “instinct” tells them they need to. Skilled and informed managers need to be able to help and encourage such a shift OR discourage it depending on what they’ve learned from being as close to the consumer mind set as possible. And agencies, just by their nature are never as close to one brand’s consumer as hopefully that brand is, or better be.

  15. Abarshad Says:

    Jared

    Excellent read.

    Question; In your opinion. What are names of some agencies/consultancies/companies that are doing the activity/user based design ?

    Thanks in advance,

    Take care,

    P.S. Love to see more YouTube videos of yours

  16. Livia Labate Says:

    Side note: check this smart fellow describing how he deals with the problems of being in those circumstances (context: content strategy/delivery platforms) http://www.marketingtechnologyplatform.com/content-strategy-needs-content-architecture/

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  18. James Says:

    This assumes short term relationships. The bigger agencies sign very long term contracts that they tend to renew and therefore have the knowledge and experience that comes with working for a brand for an existing period.

    This also doesn’t take into account staff turnover; which can often be great with in-house teams therefore leaving the possibility that you’ll actually have more ‘in-house knowledge’ banked with your agency than your own staff.

  19. Jiim Says:

    I like the article very much good points.

    Gabby Hon,
    I think you are slightly unfair to companies. Quite a lot do want to have a holistic, long-term view. It’s just that they are only able to fund projects on a fix-it-once, when-I-pay-this-money-the-problem-must-be-gone-forever basis.

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