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.

Why are you looking for a UX Designer?

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.

“UX designers are for life, not just wireframes” – Carl Heaton 2019

You should be looking for a UX designer for the following base reasons (be it freelancers, agencies and remote teams):

  • To identify and understand your users for a new project and create a list of requirements for the product to meet their needs.
  • To map the user needs and business vision to create a useful product
  • To make recommendations on how a product can be improved through testing and provide a report for the product owners to give to their teams
  • To help designers, developers and brand teams work better together (yup this is a huge part of what a good UX designer/firm can bring)

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.

 

  • UX Freelancer –you are looking for someone with experience in a wide variety of disciplines. All the amazing UX designers worth their salt have experience in building what they are designing (the article says no but the comments prove it’s a renowned yes!). So look for someone with a history of development as well as all the normal UX jazz.
    • The general benefits of freelancers are that they are cheaper than agencies and maybe willing to come in and work at your office.
    • The downside is that they can only take on certain size projects and often will require further outsourcing to access focus groups and rent out spaces to run user testing workshops etc.

 

  • UX Agency – My wallet starts to shake every time I write those words as they are notoriously expensive, but you know why? Because they give a potentially amazing ROI. Advantages of an agency include:
    • access to bigger teams. They can do a lot of the testing and research in-house as well as having access to testing labs.
    • better processes in place and more in-house skills and experience
    • a broad set of experience and potentially many teams to help your project in a variety of channels. For freelancers, they can only do one thing at a time. For example, I am working on a project for an Ultra Lux tour company and they are super keen to get all the UI done, but I am still on the UX and there are only a certain number of hours in a day.

 

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.

What Flavour of UX Designer do you need?

Design thinking training by Web Courses Bangkok and H+H Works

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?

  • UX + Digital Marketer
  • UX + UI
  • UX + Front-end development
  • UX + Back-end development
  • UX + Usability / Accessibility
  • UX + Branding
  • UX + Writing
  • UX + Project Management

 

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.

You Found a Designer, now what?

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:

Communication with your UX Designer / Agency

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:

Project Initiation and Planning

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:

  • Scope of work which will include the output and quality
  • Timeline and milestones
  • Definition of done, they should be asking for your assistance and sign off

 

Execution Time

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.

Proof of Work (Portfolio) and having a confident answer to “why”

ux portfolio by web courses bangkok

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.

 

Let’s take a simple issue I have had with a lot of my own Web Design clients. 

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.

Controlling the Project and Closure

“Can you define done for me?”

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.

Recommendations

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:

  • Look on the play/app store for any apps they have been part of and check out the reviews (be careful to be relevant as they may have been part of a project many iterations ago)
  • Business reviews on yelp/google/FB that mention the work that they have done
  • LinkedIn recommendations and check out who made them
  • Check out any groups they may be part of, it’s amazing to see how people act online vs in-person / professionally. For me, you need integrity across all channels.
  • This is a very hyperlocal idea but go to meetups and ask around. For example, if you ask anyone in Bangkok if Jeremie from Morphosis is any good, you get a resounding “Jeremie is hands down the Design, UX and UI expert in Thailand.” (actually referenced from Google Business)
  • Finally contact their previous clients directly.
    • In a reversed scenario, we also did this for a client we were not sure to work with. They seemed flaky and it was hard to communicate with them at the start. We tracked down the previous agency they worked with and they gave a gleaming review which convinced us to work with that client and we delivered a great little app design.

 

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!

Over Promising

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.

Understanding the Need

“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!

Presenting the Proposal

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:

  • Nice design and clear brand – yes, they need to have a taste!
  • Clear process of explaining your project and what is asked of them to do
  • Ideas of what UX tools they will need to use to find the questions and answer them
  • Relevant example projects
  • Team profiles/process of working e.g. will this project need a discovery phase or will they use an agile method right away
  • Timeline, resource requirements, and expected outputs
  • Definition of done
  • What is required from you as the client
  • Payment schedule (even if this is just for discovery)

In Summary of how to know if you are working with a good, great or the best UX designer:

  1. 1.  Think carefully as to why you are looking for a UX designer.
  2. 2. What flavor of ux designer/researcher suits your project and stage that it is at e.g. do you need a UX researcher or User Testing expert?
  3. 3. When you found them do they communicate well, often and succinctly
  4. 4. Do they have clear processes that you feel safe and involved with
  5. 5. Does their portfolio explain the why behind the what, are they clear on what the brief, problem, and solutions achieved in their projects?
  6. 6. Do you get the feeling that they know how to complete a course and give you a sense of completion and closure?
  7. 7. They are willing to give you contact details of people who they have worked with and you can see online reviews reflect well on their brand or projects worked on.
  8. 8. Their promises are always prefaced and realistic with not a single hint of hyperbole.
  9. 9. When they are listening about your project they give relevant and insightful ideas based on their previous results
  10. 10. They listen carefully to both what you are saying and ask the right questions to highlight what areas they may need to explore
  11. 11. Their proposal uses the language you used in the meetings, they have done some initial ideation that blows you away when you read it. (okay blows you away might be a bit strong but hay, let’s aim high people)
  12. 12. You’d grab a beer with them 🙂

 

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!

If I can help in any way, you can find me teaching UX at Web Courses Bangkok and working as a UX consulting at UX Bangkok.