The Dawn of the User Experience Agency

Enterprises are realizing that the web is more than a sum of its content – the web is a software platform. In addition to simply delivering content and messaging, the web can deliver utility and drive customer-to-business value.

These same enterprises have also spent a tremendous amount of resources to commoditize their data and digital services. Now that most enterprises have created a robust “S.O.A.”, they are realizing it is time to take their online customer experience out of the hands of just their IT department and include all of the other important departments in their organization. However, marketing is struggling to bridge the gaps between technology, user engagement and brand consistency.

 

Traditional branding and internet agencies are struggling to produce valuable solutions in this new technological and creative ecosystem 


 

… the User Experience discipline was born

 

The major challenge with this discipline is that it is so new. Bill Buxton, author of Sketching User Interfaces, spoke about the User Experience discipline at the Microsoft Mix conference in 2009. He drew a connection between “Industrial Design” and “Experience Design” disciplines. He explained that in the 1920’s, there was no degree in Industrial Design, and that most people that were good were very unique individuals and that they from very diverse backgrounds. He continued to describe Experience Design is in much the same predicament today as Industrial Design was 80+ years ago. Steve Earley, a recent hire for us, describes the dawn of a new era. He says that  long ago, when he worked for Oracle, data was king – everything was about structured and organized data. Then came the time when he worked for SAP, where data storage became a commodity and process became all important. Now, as Steve puts it, “We are in the era of user experience, and that is why I joined EffectiveUI”.

 

What is a User Experience Agency?

I first want to point out that I draw a distinct difference between “Experience Design” and “User Experience”. I believe Experience Design incorporates a much larger gamut of human experience than does “User Experience”. For example, Experience Design could include the design of a customer’s experience inside of a Barnes and Noble store, or the design of a complete customer service and retention program. User Experience, on the other hand, is specifically focused on driving better software experiences. So a User Experience Agency” is an agency focused on creating great software experiences, no matter what the technology or channel. Also, our believe is that a UX Agency should be able to take a strategy from napkin to deployment. Having designers, strategists, usability experts, user centered developers and legacy integrators under one roof has distinct advantages. The agency does not have to do everything on your project, but they must know the language.

 

How do you execute on a UX strategy?

User Experience (UX) requires a complex understanding of 4 critical areas. 

  1. Business
  2. People
  3. Design
  4. Technology

At EffectiveUI, we believe it is too difficult to find a single individual that can understand these 4 areas deeply enough to really drive significant value. We had to engineer a methodology that requires a team of specialists to deeply collaborate. The team spends time understanding our customer’s business, our customer’s end users, our customer’s brand, and our customer’s existing technological landscape. This requires interaction designers and technology architects to interview and discover opportunities. It is why we struggle sometimes when our clients ask us to pitch them the “Big Idea”… big ideas for us usually come after interviews and reflection. They usually do not happen with us locked in a room and white-boarding out solutions like they do on The Apprentice. We do, however, designate a leader- called the Experience Architect. This person is primarily responsible for ensuring each of the 4 critical areas are equally balanced throughout the project. they also run our experience Planning phase.

During the short “Experience Planning” phase of a project, we interview, document, argue, collaborate, and argue some more. At the end, we produce:

  1. Business Requirements
  2. User Requirements
  3. Technology Constraints
  4. How we will measure success – AKA “The Win”
  5. The technology and design execution plan

The methods we use seem to be unique to us right now. We are slowly training our customers on how to think from a user experience perspective. We are even writing a book for O’Reilly about creating effective user interfaces. Our team sometimes calls our process “WAGILE”, a term we stole from one of our clients a while back. It describes a short, waterfall phase followed by an agile approach through completion. One thing is certain, the process is different for every client and every project – that is why we have hesitated to create a strict process document, even as our potential clients continue to ask to see our documented process. Although we have a ton of best practices and experience with software design & development, treating things in a cookie-cutter manner has never worked for us. I wrote once that you can not avoid the one truth in software development and that is software development is predictably unpredictable. Anyone that tells you different is either inexperienced or lying to get your business (a red flag either way).

 

The Future

As Forrester and Gartner try to wrangle this new space into something more definable, we are going to continue to use the term “User Experience Agency” to describe what EffectiveUI does. It is odd to see the list of our competition. Sometimes we are competing with very large, traditional agency types, and sometimes we are competing against very large system integrators. When we lose the bid on a project to an agency, it is because the company is convinced that the agency will somehow be able to bridge the gap from their design focus to technology implementation. When we lose to system integrators it is because the customer is convinced that usability is just not that important. The truth is that neither technology or design should take a back seat, you should treat each with equal importance. That way, the right amount of compromise happens from both departments. When speaking to a Forrester Analyst last month about what we do, the analyst said “wow- that is the future of software development”. I hope he’s right, and I hope we are not the only agency in this unique space for too much longer. After all, people deserve better software…

 

Feedback -

I really hope this post inspires feedback. This domain is new, and I would certainly appreciate it if you challenged our position. We want to help push the UX movement into the mainstream and we certainly can not do it alone…

12 comments
  1. Jusitn said:

    Anthony, i really like how you describe EUI and what you do, how you do it, and what it means. I agree with you on the difference between the User Experience and Experience Design and how important it is to make a distinction between the two. What I do want to bring up is the divide between creating a user experience and understanding the user expectation that commands the experience. Most users already have an expectation of an application if it is called 2.0 – this expectation defines certain qualities that the experience must follow in order for the application to be called successful. As you create more applications that push RIA, users develop expectations from using it, especially if it is successful and the result is a new experience the user can create an expectation from – but at the same time, is the RIA experience a different expectation from the desktop model of an application or just a hybrid integration of predefined expected interactions. Sorry for the overly complicated wording, but what i am trying to get at is most users go into applications with expectations and the success of the application is built upon exceeding those expectation by designing an experience match the expectations. So if you design an experience that does not correlate to expectations, would you not have to take the next step to educate? I would like to know how you define creating a new user experience and if it is linked to current paradigms or are you creating new ones? Sketching User Interfaces is one of my favorite readings and i feel Bill really explains that many of the current user experience we provide are not ground breaking and usually are hybrids of multiple things that cause users to be re-educated. It seems most UX applications really do not give user expectations justice and really hinder what a user can expect from an application.

  2. Justin,

    Your question : So if you design an experience that does not correlate to expectations, would you not have to take the next step to educate? —

    The answer : it depends :) Most of the time I would say familiar is an important component of creating great software (see my post – http://anthonyfranco.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/the-8-criteria-for-usable-software/ ) . However, sometimes interaction metaphors are SO bad in existing technologies that you have to start from scratch and make something that breaks the mold; like the iPhone in the cellular market. Apple spent a significant amount of money educating us on how to use the phone, most of us do not have those kinds of budgets.

    overall – balance innovation with familiarity, introduce new things slowly and do as much user interviewing testing as you possibly can…

    -Anthony

  3. I’m going to keep checking back on your blog – this is an interesting post about something that as an outsider, I imagined happened as a matter of course. Does UX have to be so explicitly undertaken; aren’t software companies doing this anyway?

  4. Very Cool Post. I can’t tell you how many people do not think about user experience. You raised some very interesting thoughts. I hope you post on this again soon. Keep up the great work..

  5. sam said:

    Anthony, I liked your post but then I saw the date – 2009 not 2000 as I was expecting!

    I can’t believe that you are calling UX a new thing, I (along with quite a few others over here in the UK) have had it as my job title for about the last 10 years or so. And doing for even longer, albeit with different titles before the term UX became popular.

    There are plenty of great UX resources out there on the web, a good starting point is http://uxnet.org/ but a quick google of the term will provide lots more.

    But one thing is certain as you are finding out – despite the fact that UX has been around for a long time, it has been marginalised by many of the developers and managers of software design as something that (usually wrongly!) doesn’t need specialist input. It is only now that they are slowly beginning to realise the benefits to be had of a UX approach. And once converted, they do realise the benefits, in terms of a better product and a better bottom line!

  6. I will tell you this..You are probably the only ones who have taken this process to the extreme you have, in creating a whole agency based on it, which is a great thing, and something you should be very proud of. However, if you think you are the only people utilizing these techniques in designing software, you are very mistaken. Your process simply reflects what is needed to make a great user experience. You did not invent the process, it’s been there for all of us to discover…and you we’re among the ones smart enough to realize it. I believe you may be the only company doing this now because the only other people who would actually do it, would be younger people, who probably don’t have enough money to start an agency like this.

    As a software architect, a company President with international business experience, a developer, and a young person, I like to pride myself on having a complex understanding of Business, People, Design and Technology, and I believe the user experiences I’ve designed in my software reflect that completely. Unfortunately my software is still in beta, but will be available soon. What I have done is taken my skills and instead of creating a company to create software for other people, I’ve created a company of my own that utilizes my software to help our users solve their problems, in order to generate money.

    My point: Yes this is an extremely new, extremely innovative, and extremely cool field to be in, however, to someone like me..21 years old..this stuff is common, everyday stuff. I ultimately believe we need to have that kind of attitude towards it, so that it can become properly integrated within our everyday lives. If we treat it as anything but that, what will be the end result? Think about the user experience in some of the video games out right now..have you ever been a bad ass demon with insane weapons and powers, sent to destroy gods and other mystical creatures 8 times your size..I have…and then I brushed my teeth and went to bed..and this was normal for me.

    I assure you, you are not the only ones doing what you’re doing, I just think that the other people who are joining you are a lot younger, and probably less experienced in the business world, and are still competing with wasteful and needless gauntlets of low level commands to mold the “green horns” into supposed full fledged gladiators…who now need someone like you or me to explain to them how the world works now. Since we are essentially the creators of experience, we need to have no block on where that experience can go..and this is something young ppl have no problem with..just a little reality check that you do have competition..just maybe not for your contracts.

    I fully applaud everything you’re doing. I am even giving this post a mention in my blog…http://beatplay.wordpress.com. I wish you a lot of luck, which I think you will get because of the high need for this kind of thing. I will definitely track your progress. Thanks for the discussion opportunity. Please contact me if you ever want to talk.

    -Dante Cullari Founder & President Beat-Play, LLC

  7. A great article, Anthony.

  8. Russ said:

    Wow, I’m a bit late reading this post but absolutely love it! Specifically the term WAGILE! Now that it’s been two years though, have your thoughts changed at all?

    I definitely think that mobile apps will be pushing this idea along much faster, since they take generally much shorter to produce, cheaper to purchase, and easier to criticize (and thus be more susceptible to the harsher/immediate versions of it).

    With regard to your mention of the difficulty to finding people trained in the areas those four critical errors, there’s a new Major popping up in business schools that focuses them: Management Information Systems. So hopefully you all wont continue to feel this shortage of diversity.

    Thanks again for the great article!
    Russ
    russelllamb.info

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