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.Tweet