The recent news about Teehan+Lax and the earlier acquisition of Adaptive Path by Capital One have prompted some to ask where the future of design agencies is going. Does user experience design have to be done in-house to be effective? My answer to that would be, “It depends.” I know that sounds like a cop-out, but agencies come in all shapes and sizes, and to generalize would just result in wild inaccuracies. I can only speak for the ways we incorporate UX design into the work we do at Prolific. We haven’t figured it all out yet, but we’re always learning how to do things better and constantly redefining what an agency can be and do.

Partners, Not Clients

UX design is all about user research and advocacy. But what happens when you throw a client into the mix? It may seem counterintuitive to push for what the user wants when you’re working for a client. Aren’t we hired to do what the client wants us to do? But the way we think about clients at Prolific is a little different. In fact, it’s strange to even call them “clients” – we prefer the term “partners.” We consider ourselves to be all on the same team. We’re not passing problems and solutions back and forth over a wall and waiting for feedback. A lot of how we handle this boils down to picking the right clients in the first place. First and foremost, we are seeking a partnership, and we choose partners who understand that and are aligned with how we think about users and customers when developing a product.

An Immersive Engagement

Because each team works on only one product at a time, we are able to get deeply engaged in the project and really immerse ourselves in the world of our partner. We learn about their users like they are our own and are involved in the process from strategy to conception to implementation, engaging in all parts of the UX process. We don’t drop off a user research report, a couple mockups, and call it a day. We’re invested in it until the end.

As UX designers, our output is not measured by deliverables or documentation, but by the outcome of the product itself. We do the research that is necessary to answer the questions in our heads. Because we’re working closely with the product designer and engineers on the actual final product, rather than sending over a series of conceptual solutions, we can really influence the end product and how it works in the real world with real users, contending with the interesting and unexpected problems that occur when a product is developed and then when it’s released “into the wild.”

Researching Their World

We work with our partners, not for them. We work at their office, we work shifts behind the desk, we’re in the same meetings. We seek to understand the world in which they operate. We set this expectation from the beginning, including design studio or affinity mapping exercises into our kickoff meetings, making sure we understand their vision and the problems they face. We’re very cognizant that our partners are entrusting us with their brand and inner workings, so it’s only natural that we work together as one team.

Understanding the company we’re working with is part of understanding the existing and potential users of their product. Similarly, it’s our job to get them to understand our process as well, especially the UX process, which may be perceived as a relatively new concept. They have the opportunity to observe user interviews live and watch Lookback videos of all our user testing sessions. User quotes, survey results, and research insights are communicated across our hybrid team. An understanding of how users interact with their existing products is forged by these shared observations.

The Learning Continues

Due to the nature of agency work, these immersive engagements will eventually end, but we can bring our learnings and new ideas to the next project we work on. We can also discuss our approaches and strategies with our fellow UX designers working with other clients. With this cross-pollination of ideas among different products, we can generate new, innovative ideas. We are also able to learn from our mistakes, whether it be regarding process or execution. However, we’re careful not to carry over one-size-fits-all solutions. Every product brings along its own unique challenges and requires its own research into its users and surrounding context. We seek out the problems first before we even begin to formulate the solutions.

It’s not necessarily easy to reconcile client interests with a user-focused mindset, but there is always common ground if we are open to finding it. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have all the answers. But finding companies who are open-minded and care about their users is a good start. Including them in the process and collaborating as much as possible, with no big reveals, helps as well. At the end of the day, we’re all just learning the best ways to work together and create a successful product.

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