UX Design at Digital Agencies is F*cked

I’ve worked at ad agencies for several years, first at Modernista!, a shop that was well-know for brilliant broadcast campaigns. And then at R/GA, a digital-centric agency. But invariably, it seems agencies always begin projects with the same flawed approach, and it’s damn time things change.

Big digital agencies especially, will kick off a project with a “discovery phase” (which may or may not actually discover anything), and quickly jump into a waterfall-style design process of UX sketching, wireframing, and client meetings/approvals. Then after many (many) rounds of visual design — and only then — will agencies start to move into the development and tech stage. Only after every pixel has been pushed and use-case documented, will something be made that is working and actually functional.

Developers and tech leaders intuitively get the problem with this. Websites (or anything digital) are not buildings, made to stand the test of time without change — websites and apps are meant to be modified, iterated, and improved continuously.

Meanwhile, there is a process that most startups and tech companies like Facebook use — a lean design approach. One with frequent sprints of design and development, working in quick, iterative cycles. Design artifacts are shared of whatever fidelity and polish is needed that day. Startups realize it’s not necessary to have pixel-perfect comps or wireframes. That’s wasted effort, as the feedback will undoubtedly force real changes. And feedback from stakeholders and actual customers is key. The goal is to have working code as you design, and a variety of design elements and technical progress that people can react to.

It’s time for agencies to take on this lean approach as a codified process. First off, by integrating developer teams with creative teams (and not just as lip-service to clients about how digital-centric they are). The notion that technology should be separate from the people making creative decisions is ludicrous at company that makes websites for clients. Can you image a PR agency outsourcing it’s account management to India? This is not any different.

Secondly, design teams at these agencies need to get out of the “make-it-pretty” business and get into the trenches of iterative design. There is so much wasted time on producing PDFs of pretty wireframes and layered PSD comps. Clients who hire an agency to build them a website or iPhone app want to see something on servers or in the iTunes store — they can’t do anything with PSDs. And yet all too often, agencies treat those design artifacts as the final project deliverable.

In fact, I’ve been on projects where the amount of time spent pushing pixels and designing wireframes would have been equal to the man-hours needed to actually code a prototype. So rather than flat images, the client could have a working experience to react to. There are many reasons agencies work the opposite waterfall way (comfort, dogma, and the ease of billing clients). But those reasons don’t outweigh the sheer absurdity of building something backwards.

So, what do agencies and design teams need to do? Sketch things out, rip them up, and re-sketch. Share designs and thinking daily with developers on your team. Review in-progress code weekly. Just because it’s always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that way works, or needs to continue. Starting with a change to the design process by a movement away from tools like omnigraffle and photoshop can trigger a sea change. Agency leadership needs to find UX designers with a passion and interest in coding, and encourage them to use prototyping frameworks to design out concepts.

It’s time for these digital agencies to take on the lean approach as a valuable process, and ditch their waterfall insanity — it’s not good for the creative product and it’s not good for clients.

Thanks for reading! Jump over to Part 2 of this post.