About 10 years ago, It was a dark and stormy night…
Okay, it was actually hot and steamy typical tropical day in Bangkok and I was heading back to the UN headquarters to finish off a project to redesign a website for their ESCAP division.
Huge project and boy was I happy to put in a payment request and call it a day. It was the second project I had done as a web consultant and I learned a great deal from it.
A few months later the payment came through with a strange reference
“UX Consultancy – 30 hours.”
I looked at it wondering what UX was. I thought they had just hidden my name or something or maybe it was a secret mission! I had been a web designer since 1997 at this point and I thought I had been doing web consulting.
I asked my liaisons and they said, “yeah you have been doing UX. You did a great job thanks and the site is off to the designers and developers as we speak. We will let you know when we are ready for testing.”
OH, so I am a UX designer. Google showed me a few articles from Don Norman and then the usual fluff.
But was I any good? Did I give the UN good value for money? Most importantly did I help their target audience!
I didn’t know then but I certainly do now and this is what I want to share with you; how to know if you are working with a gutter/good or great UX agency or freelancer.
So let’s start at the beginning.
The first step is to think about why you need a UX designer.
Hopefully, it is not just because you read somewhere that UX makes you more money or that your new UI designer refuses to work without hi-fi wireframes or developer demands having user flows so complex that it makes a Behavior-Driven Development (BDD) looks like a post-it note.
You should be looking for a UX designer for the following base reasons (be it freelancers, agencies and remote teams):
Now I know there is a tonne of grey areas and micro requirements within macro cracks, but overall you need a UX researcher at the start, UX designer in the middle and UX tester at the end.
Let’s go deeper.
There are disadvantages to agencies too, such as availability to start, loads of paperwork, contract after contract, and cost!
It’s an important thing to think about…What you are looking for before you go looking for it!
Imagine looking for a needle in a haystack if you didn’t know you were looking for a needle in the first place.
I was at a UX conference in Bangkok last year and I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Jered Spool talk about UX. His talk changed the way I think of myself as a UX designer.
For example, I am passionate about the digital marketing side of UX, which includes things like UX writing/microcopy and of course overall message. My background is also accessibility and design so the visuals and message are super important to me.
This is what Jerad shared. He said there are many different flavours of UX designers including those with strong development front-end, back-end, systems architecture, writing and even psychology, to name a few.
So think about if you could hire two people in one who would you hire?
A big part of knowing if you are working with a good UX designer or firm is about making the right choice of recipe. Choose wisely or you will end up with a plate that will disappoint your dinner guests.
Yay! well done.
However, how you found them is also important. Let’s take a look at some pros and cons:
Just to keep in mind #nojudgement:
A good indication of how good they are is how they communicate.
Let’s look at this awesome document to map the type of communication we need at what stage:
Before the project I find that email and telephone/Skype/Zoom are the best ways to communicate. Email to agree stuff and video/audio chat to discuss works really well and keeps things moving nicely at the beginning.
Once the SOW/TOR’s (what you’re gonna do) are agreed this should go into a shared document using something like Google Docs as here you can make suggestions and easily agree on a set of deliverables. This shows they are willing to collaborate and be transparent.
Right now we have everything signed there should be a clear Output to Payment schedule.
And I do mean clear!
When working with that person are they very clear of:
Ask them how they will communicate with you and your team during updates etc. For me, this is where a good knowledge of Agile sorts the good from the bad and the ugly.
I like to hear which tools they include in their processes, such as Jira, Trello or even Basecamp for project management. Knowing UX is not enough these days. A good UX designer will be well versed in agile techniques and tools to help you track everything easily.
Not to mention to help you to, as the client/agency/, perform your duties as part of the project.
I expect to be updated on a daily / bi-daily basis on the project. This is something we teach all the time at our UX Academy here in Bangkok. “Communicate with your clients regularly even if there is nothing to say, just keep in touch.”
A nice way to do this is to set up a Slack channel / WhatsApp / Line group as they are really easy to use and facilitate real time conversations.
All the successful projects that I have been involved in had somewhere to share, ideate, warn and update through a mobile app.
DM’s help keep in touch. Yes they can cause their fair share of issues but I do recommend looking out for UX’er who enjoy having constant contact.
So we’ve found them, confirmed we can communicate with them and have maybe even decided to choose them. But, for the sake of this story, let’s say we are still deciding if they are a good UX’er or not.
This is where proof of work comes in and, personally, I don’t care for portfolios that don’t show their past work and processes.
Remember in school when the teacher asked you to “show your work”? This is what I look for in a good UX’ers portfolio.
Don’t just tell me what you did, or how you did it. TELL ME WHY! That is the key question that all good UX’ers need to ask. Be the annoying 3 year old always asking questions because it’s how you arrive at the best answers.
It is that curiosity and design conviction that shows you that the UX’er you are dealing with is worth the inevitable invoice.
They are forever asking “why do you put what we do on the homepage at the top when it’s in our About page” and my answer is always the same. “New users don’t know you, they need a clear idea of what you do (WHAT), why you do it (WHY) and why you are different from others (HOW) to give context to everything that comes after.”
This curiosity should permeate into everything the UX designer/researcher does. For example, when I am doing user testing I try to always see the full body language of the participants. I look at things like where their eyes are focusing, their breathing (to see if they feel comfortable using the app and even their feet to see if they feel frustrated.
It’s these why’s that I look for in a good UX’er and his/her/their portfolio.
If they do not explain things in detail in their portfolio then dig deeper during the interview/discussions. Ask them why they did what they did on the project, sit back, and see if the edges of your mouth go down, your eyebrows go up and you nod in agreeance. Without these telltale signs, you might not be talking to the right person.
I learned this recently and it came in very useful. Again you want this project to go swimmingly and the best way to do that is to make sure you know when it is complete.
Other than Wireframes it’s sometimes easy for a UX project to not be seen as complete as there is always research to be done, refines to be made and data to analyse; so lookout for a somewhat militant view on what is done and you can be confident you have caught a good one.
Many people fear asking a contractor for recommendations.
I have personally thousands of people who can attest to what and how I do my work. Asking an experienced professional for a few recommendations should not be a big issue for them if they are good at their work…
This is just one of a few different places you can get recommendations for someone’s work:
LET’S TAKE A BREATH
At this point, I want to make sure we all understand the importance of a good UX’er to a project. It seems like I am giving you a LOT of work for just one person(s), but they are instrumental to a successful project.
In my personal experience, I have been the type of consultant pulled in at the last moment to help fix what has gone wrong before. I am doing it every day at the moment and it is a difficult situation for everyone involved.
Taking the time to do proper and quality UX will be the difference between a successful and failed start-up, it’s that simple!
This was a big fault of mine in my early career and still to this day if I am honest.
What I ended up doing is a lot of extra hours and not giving a smooth delivery, on time but sometimes rushed.
This all ended when I learned how to be more agile and not over promising. So now I know when I hear big promises from other contractors, the alarm bell rings straight away.
“This is going to be easy”, “Don’t worry, I got this”, “We have done this hundred of times and it always worked out”, “Let’s do it a completely different way because I know better”, “omg why did they do it like this, it’s totally wrong, we will fix it easily”
You hear anything like this then dig right into each thing they are promising and ask lots of how’s and why’s.
Over promising is part of the initial sales technique but you are not here to buy their word but their work so make sure they can deliver what they are claiming by digging into anything they are claiming.
Recommendations and Reflections
During the initial meetings when you are explaining your project listen out for recommendations and reflections.
I believe a good designer always has ideas overflowing and is willing to share at least some of them initially. I totally get those who keep their ideas close to their chest but that is not me. I am open about my ideas as they are what allow me to solve problems.
Then listen carefully to how they talk about previous projects and how it worked.
I recently interviewed someone for Design Lead and I asked her about previous projects and what worked and what didn’t and she had nothing. I asked her for times where she helped her team’s knowledge grow and again nothing.
“Don’t tell me what I want, ask me”.
I find overpowering consultants and designers every day. I personally hate the way they want to do it their way and that is why I love UX; we ask and give the best options.
So If the person on the opposite end of the email/messenger/table is telling you your needs then proceed with caution.
Let’s take a look at where UX lives:
Right in the middle of the User, Business and Developers ( in that order ).
“We need to listen and connect the dots. We are problem solvers and UX gives us a set of tools so it’s up to the designer to listen to you carefully and then suggest the best tools to find the questions and answer them”. – Carl Heaton 2019
At the end of the meetings ask them to summarise verbally and in an email, so you are clear they know what you need. Never assume!
For me, the best designers have blown me away when they create a presentation of their understanding and ideas.
From there we have a proposal and contract.
So back to the presenting of ideas; here is where a real pro can shine as they succinctly tell you the issues and ideas you never know you had or needed.
A clear well thoughtout insight is what can Harduken your ass and you can’t get to your accountant fast enough to pay the deposit.
Let me give you an example.
When I was designing our Web Professional we invited all the experts in the area to help us come up with a list of topics to make the perfect Web Designer. In that meeting, we had an awesome guy called Robin from Omise who listened to me blather on about our target audience.
He took a moment and softly spoke to the group.
“Sounds like you have three people: people wanting to upskill, people wanting to just do a project and then people who want careers.”
He literally cut the room in half and we all just sat there as we realized he’d solved the core issue: for whom are we designing this course.
Needless to say Omise has gone onto being a massive success and so as our course.
This is what I want you to look out for in the proposal:
That’s it ladies and gents. Well done! You made it.
I hope this really helps, even if you just cheated and skipped to the summary!