How our clients became our team members
Working towards the perfect product as an agency
Jasper den Ouden
Dec 1, 2015
We’re doing what we love. We work for several startups and we get the chance to work on awesome products. We also have the luxury to iterate on our designs on a weekly basis, because we’re collaborating on the long-term. Life is good, you might think. Well, life was good for a while, but not so long ago we realized something troublesome.
In a pitch, where we were competing with other agencies and freelancers, the prospect asked: “Why should I hire you and not get somebody in-house?” It doesn’t happen very often, but we were lost for words honestly. Back in the office, we wondered what we should have said. Was he right? Wouldn’t all of our clients be better off with an in-house designer/design team? An in-house designer has got much more time to take effort in understanding the full problem, getting to know the users and testing his solutions…
“Why should I hire you and not get somebody in-house?”
The core of our problem
We can’t be the startup. Although we love to work dedicated on a product, we also like the variety of teams and products we had the chance to work with. Anyway… Most of our clients don’t seem to have a secret stash of gold stored at Gringotts, so we have only limited time and have no choice but spreading out available hours over multiple clients. We also don’t have the time to come up with entire business models and product ideas for every client so we’ll need at least some kind of idea for a product, before we can get to work. All of this lead to several obstacles along the wacky road called ‘our design process’.
First of all, as an agency we often lacked some essential understanding of the product and business of our clients. A startup moves fast and is able to switch his course within a few days. As an outsider it can be hard to adapt to these changes. It’s difficult to keep track of priorities, problems and user goals.
Our clients often have ideas for solutions themselves and in the briefing they describe exactly what we need to do. In some cases this might work. Sometimes their solutions are actually good and it might happen that we don’t have the budget to explore multiple solutions ourselves. For complicated and real design problems this won’t work, though. Then we need the client to brief us the problem instead of the solution. Solving it is what he’s hiring us for.
Which brings us to the next problem: getting feedback. We present a solution, the client points out that that’s not the solution he imagined and tells us how he wants to see it. That’s our own fault of course. In our approach we need to involve the client into our decision making and we need to urge the client to give feedback based on business rather than design.
Last but not least, we know that we should invest more time in meeting with the client and developer(s). If we don’t do that, our designs might be misunderstood and not developed the way we meant it. We need to keep in touch to check if new problems aroused and if everything is getting implemented like we intended.
As an outsider it can be hard to adapt to fast-moving changes in client’s priorities, problems and user goals.
We’re always up for improving our workflow and solving uncrackable puzzles and since problem-solving is our job, it happened that we found a solution.
Understanding the business and the goals
At the start of the project we have some catching up to do. In the first few days we collect valuable information about the team, their process, the product and their users, which we call sprint zero. It’s important to get a feeling with all these facets first (although we’re itching to start designing immediately). We need to get to know the user (by creating personas and customer journeys), but also our client (by creating a value proposition or business model canvas). In sprint zero the whole team defines what problems need to be solved. At the end of sprint zero we’ve framed the project and every single team member knows what’s the job to be done. At this point we’ll have a nice set of goals and user stories. They also serve as definite briefing. The goals and user stories will be our guides through the process.
Getting the right feedback
That sprint zero is also optimal to align the visions within the team. Everyone works with the same set of goals and user stories, so everyone understands what we’re trying to achieve. In some projects, when we rounded up sprint zero, we only see our clients at the end of each design sprint. We realized we need to take enough time getting ourselves around the client’s table to talk about our solutions (and maybe even problems) and educate them how we’d like to receive feedback. It’s something that can’t be done by mail (or even Slack). But it’s time we’re willing to invest. It’s important that both we and the client have the feeling that we’re on the same team. By telling them what kind of feedback we’d like to hear and asking them the right questions, we avoid getting the ‘make the logo bigger’ feedback. We’re not so interested in design feedback, but we desperately need the business feedback, because our clients know much more about their goals and brand than we do.
Want to learn more about how to deal with ‘make the logo bigger’ feedback? Read Mike Monteiro’s ‘Design is a Job’. Trust us, it’s worth it.
Face-to-face meetings beat InVision, Skype and Slack, although these are tools we really like to work with. At the start of a sprint a meeting is great for brainstorms and discussions about features, so any team member can give valuable input. But meetings are especially useful when we have finished our designs. We prefer to present our choices and talk our clients through the flows, instead of throwing them in at the deep end.
We also take more time to talk a lot with the developing side. We talk with them before we come up with solutions, we talk with them while we’re coming up with solutions and we talk with them while they’re implementing our solutions. We’re a good soundboard for the developer and vice versa when we’re doing our jobs. When the communication between both parties is perfect, we won’t come up with impossible (or very hard-to-build) solutions and the developer won’t overlook important details.
When a project is rounded up, we already see new chances and improvements for the product. We’re eager to keep tweaking. That’s why we’re always in for long-term collaborations.
It’s important that either the agency and the client have the feeling that they’re on the same team.
Product Design Agency vs. In-house Designer
Unquestionably, we like to have a close collaboration and we’re more and more growing towards client & agency collaborations rather than client vs. agency confrontations. But the question remains: why shouldn’t a company just hire a designer employee or freelancer? Most of the problems we stated in the section above don’t relate to an in-house designer.
Still, it might be difficult to choose between hiring a product design agency or hiring an in-house designer, because both sides have certain benefits. Are you choosing for fresh and open minds or are you choosing for deep understanding of the brand?
The disadvantages of hiring an agency
First, let us tell you what our disadvantages are over an in-house designer. We should be honest about that, as we unfortunately already gave away in-house designers have certain benefits.
We need time to prepare working for a client. An agency has to find out everything about the business and the audience. An in-house designer might get used to this quicker, because he works with them every day.
Agencies don’t have all the time in the world. It might happen that a client needs us to work a few days a week, which won’t fit in our schedule. Luckily we and our clients often come up with something that will make it work.
Although we always aim for long term client relationships, we’re freeto go when our work is done. We’re committed to the client’s cause, but we’re not bound to it.
The benefits of hiring an agency
That was one hell of a pitch, wasn’t it? Luckily there are also, maybe even more, advantages of hiring a product design agency instead of an in-house designer.
Being free to go also can be a huge benefit. If the client has had enough of our whining about missing pixels and illogical flows, he gives us a paycheck, waves us goodbye and he never has to see us again. No really, if the work is done and he wants to put design activities on hold, it’s very easy to do so. He just has to give us a call later to put us back on. Points for flexibility!
We’re an agency. We have to cover risks and we have many expenses. Nonetheless we have a relatively low hourly rate, which is similar to a freelancer’s rate.
“But you don’t know enough about my brand and my goals.” No, we don’t. But you do. We really enjoy working together with our clients. Especially by using sprint zero we get to know the company, the goals and the audience. A design agency knows everything about design and the client knows everything about their business. Hell of a team, right?
We’re unbiased. We say whatever we want. We only have one goal: to help our client out and to get him what he wants. Ironically he hires us to say things he doesn’t want to hear. It’s for the best: we’re not hired to become his buddies (we have more than enough birthday parties to attend already), but to get him the best product imaginable.
We believe it can be good to bring fresh and open minds to a company, because it’s easy to develop tunnel vision when you’re working so dedicated and intensively on a single project. A fresh look opens many new doors and might get rid of those that s(t)uck!
Design agencies know a thing or two about other businesses and already came up with many solutions for their design problems. Everything we learned from that, all our experiences, can be yours!
This might be difficult to hear and we’re not comfortable saying it out loud, but for startups it can be hard to get good designers in. Designers often want to work for big brands or for greater agencies. Hiring a agency might be a good solution to add good designers toyour team anyway!
And what’s the major benefit about Strakzat: we’re a team and we’re perfectly complementary! So a client always gets all the design disciplines he needs, which results in delicious user experiences and good-looking products!
A fresh look opens many new doors and might get rid of those that s(t)uck!
Hiring an agency to join the team
So yeah, hiring a product design agency might work pretty well. For us it’s possible to practically join a client’s team and work on awesome product(s). We don’t like to only scratch the surface of the design problems we’re dealing with, so getting an essential understanding of the business, product and users is something we really need. We now know our clients are one of the greatest sources to provide us with that kind of information. That’s why we rather team up than keep our distance.
Clients provide a great source of information about their business, their product and their users
Our collaboration method works perfectly for us at this moment, but we’re sure there are other (and maybe even better) ways to solve our problem. We’re more than open to suggestions!