Lean UX Design and Digital Agencies

Part 2: Lean UX at Digital Design Agencies

Last week’s post on Lean UX triggered some great conversation, way beyond what I’d have imagined from the venting of frustrations. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

One response was from Leisa Reichel, who wrote a brilliant take on the inherent tension of an agency client service model: clients effectively outsource the work, and also feel as though they’re outsourcing the risk.

Outsourcing the risk of innovation may work for traditional advertising. It has brought us the Old Spice guy, the Geico gecko, and other cultural riffs for years. But as agencies take on more complex projects like digital development work, outsourcing innovation increasingly fails.

Think about projects on a spectrum from advertising on one extreme to software development on the other. The further away a project gets from pure advertising — and the closer to tech development — this “outsourcing of risk” breaks the client service model and produces polished turds.

Marketing and advertising are not the same as digital product design. They are truly different and should be treated differently.

Lean UX Design and Digital Agencies

An example Digital Marketing Project could be: “Build awareness and drive online sales for the release of a new line of sports apparel.” For this type of project, art directors and copywriters are key roles, as the need is truly about communication and media. Digital agencies might have a UX designer on the team to “mock up” web page designs in low-fidelity.

A Product Design & Development project however is truly about building apps or software. A sample project for this: Build a multi-channel service for a publishing company to digitally distribute and sell their content to consumers. For this type of effort to be successful — to uncover new digital behaviors, build an audience, and a new revenue stream for a company — their agency partner needs to basically create a new company akin to Flipboard, from scratch.

To my utter surprise, big digital agencies are eager to take on these Product Design projects. They want to be responsible for building legit, robust digital experiences that lead to long-lasting client partnerships. It makes sense from a business development perspective. But these projects require agile development and lean UX as an absolutely necessity, and the old agency model absolutely fails at supporting that process.

So bottom line: agencies taking on product design does not work because of the fundamental ineptitude of big client companies and how they’re organized.

Firstly, there’s something inherently wrong with a client hiring an agency to: “build us a successful digital product that does [X]”. To do this can take years. You need to do the early legwork of prototyping a basic feature set, heavily communicate with early adopters, and be in a constant state of beta. How many clients are actually ready to invest in that type of multi-year project? Or better yet: how many agencies are able to work with a client that way?

If agencies even had the right skillsets needed to educate clients on this prototyping and validation phase, there’s also the huge issue that most agencies interface with their client’s marketing departments — with a CMO or a VP of Digital Marketing. And marketing is truly not digital product development. You need to understand consumer behavior yes, but you also need skills to build feature sets (think Instagram, Instapaper, Ban.jo, or Flipboard).

And to me, this points to the true crux of the issue (basically what Leisa Reichel wrote about): the agency model is f*cked because clients are f*cked.

Many big companies and clients treat their consumer facing websites as part of marketing. The main person responsible for a client website likely reports to the CMO. Any new innovation efforts to build digital IP like an app or a subscription service will likely stem from ownership of the website — from the marketing silo. And marketing is NOT digital product development. Startups know this — that’s why they have people with titles like “Head of Product.”

What Should Agencies Do?
One possible solution is for agencies to create product incubator departments that work totally different from the agency around them. Large agencies have teams all across the globe and hundreds of millions in revenue. If they want to successfully help clients build new digital products and services, they need to invest the money and resources in building a team specifically for that task. One that works differently and is fundamentally free from the constraints of “billable hours” and “death by client meetings.”

Another possible reality is that big digital agencies simply cannot change. That they are so reliant upon an antiquated mindset and an old way of working — one so deeply rooted in new biz pitches rather than client education. The real digital design shops that will do great work are small, nimble, and independent. Development teams like Pivotal Labs, product incubators like Prehype, or rapid development teams like Bright Mediums.

To those that have read all this way, I’d love to hear your take on Twitter or via email.

To the team or agency that’s ready to work this way: this whole business and industry is ripe for a true disruption — something that is far from “integration.”

To the CEO who may somehow come across this: if you want to build new types of digital products, you need a top team and you need to hire a Chief Product Officer. Start by interviewing me, maybe?