When we debate user experience, it’s apparent that it’s the sum of a selection of moving parts. User experience relies heavily on human psychology, technical performance, aesthetics, intuitive operations, and more. So, when we talk about hiring someone to manage our ‘UX’, we could be talking about any one of a range of specialist teams or professionals and any kind of user experience agency.
Today, we’ll examine the differences between the most popular and regularly confused UX agency titles and their operations, what you need from each of them, and how to choose the ideal partner for your project.
UX research, UX design, or UX consultancy—and what’s the difference, anyway?
Each of these three factions caters towards a specific part of the UX journey. Many businesses will utilise teams capable of carrying out more than one part of the process, and some—the more prominent and ultimate all-rounders—will have the skills and members to cater for all of them. That’s where the full-service UX agencies come into play.
You can easily sense what’s coming from the paragraph heading. Clearly, the different terms answer the question all on their own, but we’re going to look a bit deeper into the details so you know what you should be looking for when picking your perfect team.
UX research agency
Who are you building your product for, and what do they need?
As you’d expect, researchers, and the teams that make up a user research agency, look into the whys and whats of a product’s needs and operations. To gather the data that delivers those answers, the people they study are the ones most likely to need your software, app, website, or product—your potential users.
Revealing the actual needs of users (and what irks them) creates an understanding of what needs to be included in the product and what doesn’t.
How does a user research agency do that? First, they gather qualitative and quantitative data by observing users, holding interviews, sending out surveys, prototyping, and usability testing.
That feedback is built into studies and reports that UX designers use to uncover the ideal operation flow for your product.
However, the research part of the process doesn’t end there. With the designers delivering workflows, wireframes, and prototype products, they also require testing, often returning to the researchers’ hands to find out how users respond.
UX design agency
Now you know what your users look like, how do you deliver their perfect product?
With a clear picture of who your users are—what they want and what they don’t—UX designers set to work delivering the ideal product.
User experience is about how each operator feels while interacting with a product, how easily they achieve their goals, and how much pleasure is elicited from opening an app to closing it.
Each stage needs to be as smooth and as simple as possible, and that’s where designers use their innovation, creativity, and problem-solving to make all those things happen.
UX design processes cater to information architecture and include techniques using mood boards, sketches, card sorting, wireframes, and prototypes to deliver how to get from A to B, testing each step and stage along the way, ensuring they’ve got everything just right.
They work with (and are not to be confused with) graphic designers who create all the visual elements, colour schemes and considered layouts, testing all options with hopeful end-users to ensure they’re picking the best possible performers.
What if it’s not the product that doesn’t work for your users? What if it’s the business or your brand?
The term UX consultant covers a broad range of expectations.
First, a consultant is a specialist, someone you turn to for expert advice. If you’ve got UX issues, they could be the first person you seek out for guidance and counselling. In many UX operations, your first port of call is often one of the sales team or an account manager. Hopefully, they’ll connect you with the right person for the task at hand, which could be any of their team heads. Whichever one that is, they’re undertaking the role of a consultant.
However, the industry understanding of a UX consultant is someone who looks beyond the product and examines the user experience of the company and brand.
They utilise the same skills, tests, and techniques as the rest of their teams, researching users and their problem points, strategically designing a preferable and higher-performing system, rolling it out, and testing, testing, testing.
Typically, UX consultants look less at product performance and more at marketing and customer relationships.
We’ve written about the various roles a UX consultancy undertakes in our blog and, more recently, about the differences between UX research and UX consulting; for those who’d like a deeper dive into the topic, feel free to explore our comparison.
Full-`service UX agency
Wouldn’t it be easier to use a one-stop all-in operation that handles every step in-house?
Of course it would. It sounds like the dream situation, but a full-service UX agency could cost more, with more employees and overheads. But, then, there’s always a chance that you could get lost or taken for granted amongst the numerous projects they take on to ensure they meet targets.
Picking teams from smaller or mid-sized operations can provide more personal relationships. Part of that decision will revolve around how your contacts communicate with you and how well they listen to your needs.
However, specialist operators could come with a higher charge, having less availability when in high demand.
Choosing one team or a selection of preferred operators takes due diligence and understanding.
A quick guide for selecting your ideal UX agency
We should consider the following list common sense for most business owners and startups. Yet, surprisingly, creators are often blindsided by one powerful selling point, overlooking this combination of simple and sensible requirements.
1. Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve; then create a brief for your possible partners
Ultimately, any UX operator will expect to know what you want to achieve above anything else, and the best way to outline your needs is with a clear and concise brief.
- What are your ultimate goals and any additional elements you expect to conquer?
- Who do you think your audience and perfect customer profile is?
- What’s your budget?
- What are your products’ must-have, should-have, could-have, would-like, and ultimate fantasy features?
- What’s your timeline and hopeful launch date?
2. Examine possible partners’ portfolios, previous projects, and testimonials
To get a clear idea of your UX agency partners’ levels of operation, check out their portfolio of previous work projects. However, don’t just read their website, as you know full well that they’ll have hand-picked their favourite projects and strongest testimonials.
Search out their actual reputation, entire back catalogue, and the type and quality of work they cater to most often. Are there highlights and lowlights on industry review pages or magazines that their website doesn’t reveal?
If possible, talk to previous customers to check if they deliver the quality of services you expect.
3. Consider communication
You’re putting a lot of expectation (and money) into your new partners’ hands, and you need to communicate clearly at every stage and about every issue. Your partners should be enthusiastic about your product, invested in its success, and determined to provide excellent service and results.
Talk about communication frequency, discussion tools, and who your points of contact will be within each department.
4. Don’t settle for a single point of contact—know the team
You will be working with a team or several teams within a user experience agency, so it’s imperative not only to feel comfortable discussing matters with your project manager or lead designer but also with the team heads.
5. Examine their project management process
Talking of project managers, no two are the same. Each will have strengths and weaknesses and play to them; understanding their processes is another crucial element.
Key areas of consideration include scheduling, delivering progress updates, and guaranteeing they’ll achieve what they commit to—and on time.
6. Pick a partner who fits your project parameters
Larger agencies will try to cater to every eventuality, whereas smaller specialist agencies often work in niche areas. If there’s an agency more experienced in your field, they’ll have acquired an understanding of your needs, able to hit the ground running faster and more efficiently than those who don’t.
UX agencies cater to various products, from branding and marketing to website design and app creation. A little time spent investigating possible partners could save much more further down the line.
7. Can your partner work within your budget?
One of the most significant discussions for any project is the budget. Of course, we’d all love to hire the best of the best, but we can’t always justify the costs, depending on the size of our operation.
Pricing conversations need to be open and transparent. Try not to compare different companies’ rates, but what you’ll get for your money. Always request in-depth breakdowns of projected costs, allowing you to estimate their true value.
Putting all the pieces together
With a basic understanding of what each user experience agency covers and a few more ideas about what to look for, you should know better what you need and from who.
Picking the right partners for a project is a huge decision; you’re putting a lot of responsibility in somebody else’s hands, so you need to ensure they really are the best people to work with. Hopefully, it’ll be the ideal marriage between supplier and customer, delivering the perfect product for your market.