UI Design: How to Use an Agency

If you’re reading this, chances are high that you’re in need of software design or development assistance for your project. Maybe you’re in marketing and need some custom analytics or digital product designed or developed. Perhaps you’re an engineering or product management leader in an enterprise software company or an IT leader with a legacy application full of disgruntled users. Maybe you’re the founder of a startup looking to secure additional funding and need a custom pitch-deck. Whatever the case may be, you’re doing your due-diligence and evaluating other agencies—we think that’s great! Ensuring you find the right fit based on your goals will go a long way in establishing a great working relationship and more importantly, a great product with happy users.

We’ve been doing this for a while (14 years) and have seen it all, so we’ve put together a few tips for your consideration as you begin to narrow your search.

Define your goals
It’s important that you have an idea of your end-goal and what you wish to achieve. This helps to establish an actionable high-level plan that adheres to your team’s working style (as well as budget). This crucial first step will prevent scope creep and miscommunication down the road.

Identify your needs
Do you need a team that can design, develop, and deliver a mobile prototype in two months? Have a visual design in place and just need some front-end firepower? How about a responsive landing page to complement your new app? Do you need to establish a brand language? Does this team need to be co-located or can they work remote? These examples require very different skill sets, and every agency has its own specific strength. It’s important to find an agency that specializes in the kind of work you need, so be sure to have your list ready when you speak to an account manager. But what should you look for?

Do your homework
Every agency has a portfolio that will show off some of their work. Review it and see if they have completed projects in the same industry or have worked with the same technology stack you require. Most agencies also have a pitch deck or two that they would be happy to present after an initial discussion. When on the phone, listen and note their strengths and current bandwidth. If you’re looking to have work done prior to a tradeshow, timing will be critical to your success, so be sure to have a target deadline in mind as well. You should also be sure to check the agency’s references to ensure they have a great track record. If the above checks out, ask to review their master services agreement (MSA) and ask for a proposal. This is a signal to the agency that they are on the shortlist of being awarded the contract and they can start the initial stages of resource allocation. If those two documents checkout, then the agency will provide you with a statement of work (SOW) to begin the project.

Take the kickoff seriously
Helping the agency understand the goals, priorities, and initial scope of your project is fundamental to ensuring its success. That said, no matter the size of the project, it all starts with a kickoff. This can be done remotely or on site. You will often receive a list of questions about the project, which include background on the company, users of the app, short and long-term goals, as well as competitors, etc. prior to the meeting. Answer the questions to ensure all parties are in alignment regarding goals, priorities, risks, and constraints.

Get all stakeholders involved. Anyone that could have an influence on the decisions being made throughout the project should be at this meeting. For example, if someone from marketing or sales needs to be involved, keep a seat at the table so they are aware of the expectations being set and have an opportunity to meet the team.

One point of contact
Imagine three members of your project team all giving feedback during the design process. The points being made have the potential to be conflicting or not actionable. This is something that can easily be avoided by assigning one point of contact to consolidate and submit all feedback. This forces your team to get on the same page and avoid giving multiple directions to the designers.

Build a collaborative partnership
A collaborative relationship is essential for the project’s success. To get the best work from an agency, treat them like partners rather than vendors. This means keeping the communication lines open to discussing new ideas. You know your product inside and out, so share those insights. In return, the team at the agency will also share their expertise and perspective in order to provide a solution.

Be engaged
For example, an agency needs your feedback and approval to move along in the design process. Timely and frequent communication is essential to a project’s success. A project manager will be sure to set a deadline for feedback, so stick to it. By doing so, the team can iterate earlier and more often without going too far in the wrong direction. This will also save you time and preserve your budget.

Give thorough and constructive feedback
Again, you should think of an agency as business partners. When you give feedback to your fellow co-workers, you don’t just tell them to change the red button to green just because you aren’t a big fan of the color red, right? You tell them the specific reasons and ask them for their original intention. It should be the same when you work with agencies. Communicate your feedback in a way that is clear, constructive and thorough. Explain your reasoning! Put personal objectives aside, and work with the agency’s team to create the best experience for your users.

Summary
While you should work with the agency like a collaborator, clear boundaries should be set and you need to remember that ultimately, the agency’s team are not your employees. Stick to the SOW and the schedule you’ve agreed to with your project manager and communicate changes clearly so that they can be accounted for and planned on. Respect is a two-way street and it could not be more true in this case. Treat the agency like a business partner and they will provide invaluable perspective to you and your project.

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