Build a Team with all 3 Skills: Research, Interactive Design, Visual Design
Each discipline is so different from the other that companies are best served with even part-time help from a specialist in each area rather than one full-time jack of all trades.
Product Managers and Design Researchers— Partners in Strategy
Sometimes a great product strategy might not even make it to market if it is first intercepted by internal executives with their own perceptions and biases. When a product manager and design researcher form a strong partnership, they can make sure they get the organization’s buy-in by focusing on the facts rather than opinions and speculation. The “facts” are a combination of user data and market data. Market data is crucial information about customer demographics, perceptions, market demand and market opportunities. User data provides specific and actionable information on your particular end user (who may be different from the person actually purchasing the product). This information offers insight into what customers and users actually need—not just what they say they want or what the company thinks they want.
What works best is when a product manager and design researcher co-present the user and market data to all internal stakeholders along with the plan for product design and rollout, using storyboards, narratives, charts, and concept designs.
Outsourcing UX Designers
Most companies are used to interviewing potential partners – asking them to deliver a presentation and written proposal, and sometimes even responding to a formal request for proposal (RFP). This is standard practice when interviewing a software development partner, a hardware partner, or even a Marketing agency, but this process breaks down when it comes to UX Design.
The most difficult aspect of choosing a UX Design partner is figuring out who you can trust. Every UX Design firm will have a strong sales process that involves putting their best people, visuals, and designs up front. They all make very similar claims about being innovative and engaging. Some may be exaggerating – others may not. It’s hard to tell.
Companies who follow a traditional procurement process will have a difficult time and often end up selecting the wrong partner – the one with the best sales person, or is a friend of a VP, or is simply the lowest common denominator (or vanilla) partner that no one can find a reason to vote out (not what you want in a creative field!). Partner interviews end up being an evaluation of the firms’ abilities to sell, not their ability to understand your users and design a solution that will ensure user adoption and market success. And, the presentation plus proposal RFP process provides little-to-no idea of whether the team cultures will mix – something that is extremely important in the design process.
Define your goals and your corresponding selection criteria
Why do you need help from a UX Design partner? If your answer is “because we need to add visual wow” or “because our product is so hard to use,” consider the root of the problem. Why do you need visual wow? What do you think it will bring?
Companies often pre-suppose that a workflow redesign or visual refresh is the goal when in fact the real business goals are better user adoption, increased market share, reduced helpdesk and training costs, improved support for sales and marketing, meeting customer-specific UI change requests, etc. The more precisely you articulate your business goals and reason for bringing in a UX Design partner, the easier it is to get alignment internally on the type of partner and to determine the selection criteria.
From these goals you can define vendor selection. What is most important to evaluate about the UX Design partner? Ensure that visual/creative and process/methodology elements are included.
A good UX Design vendor should be asking you upfront: “What are your business and product goals? How do you think UX Design can help? How will you select your partner?”
Interview references and avoid the old “bait-and-switch” tactics
Don’t be afraid to ask for at least three customer references. Impartial references tend to be great sources of insight on how the firm really works and how they deal with conflict and unexpected challenges like budget constraints and creative differences. You can also spot “paid” or biased references a mile away.
When meeting with potential firms, ensure that you meet the people who will work on your project from start to finish. All firms want to put their best foot forward and will use their top stars for the initial kick off meetings. However, these folks get changed out with junior staff once the project is kicked off.
The best way to find out whether there is a good cultural fit between the companies is to ask the top two contenders out on a trial run. Most UX Design engagements start with a creative workshop that involves a discussion on business goals and requirements as well as creative whiteboarding. Find out if they are open to arranging a half-day or full-day workshop to give you real insight into what working together will be like and if your respective cultures ‘fit’.
The best UX firms will embrace this opportunity, and use it to evaluate whether they think you are a cultural fit for them too.