Digital design agencies: Taking the U out of UCD

By Tim Loo @timothyloo

A few years ago Tom and I sat in a kick-off meeting with a major UK bank and their digital design agency initiating a major redesign of one of their product channels.

As the new kid on the block (our prior engagement with this team was late-in-the-day validation testing) we had a supporting role. It was our chance to see this award-winning agency in action.

And how did they start the design process of creating user journeys and requirements? What were the foundations for the experience architecture?

The old persona trick or “Customers are at the heart of our design process, we’re using personas”.

Beautifully designed and lovingly art-worked they represented a dream set of customers – affluent, online savvy, confident with products, totally bought into the brand. It was complete tosh. They even had the nerve to make one of the personas a thirty year old web designer!

The client loved it.

You can probably guess how this project went. The personas gave the agency carte blanche to pursue the creative-driven approach they wanted. The project didn’t deliver the step change in commercial performance which everyone hoped for. Bummer.

Don’t get me wrong personas are a valuable tool in the experience designer’s kitbag - we often use them. They can provide a consistent reference point for teams throughout the process about how high priority customers will respond to design decisions. Problems arise when they are abused or badly used.

Abusing personas

Classic Abuse #1

No insight: In this scenario, said personas had been developed without any reference to user insight to inform realistic, needs, preferences and mental models. This is especially a problem if the creative director has already made their mind up about their approach and the research is simply a prop to sell it to the client. I’m often surprised how often digital design agencies do this. I’m staggered by how often their clients let them get away with it.

Classic Abuse #2

Thinking the client’s segmentation data is insight: Another classic problem we see arises where the client hands over their customer profiling and segmentation and the design agency simplify turns them into personas. Using demographic data without any observational insights on actual customer behaviour can be fraught with danger.

Classic Abuse #3:

Badly designed research: Many agencies do actually try to deliver a discovery phase but the process often falls over because they don’t have the expertise to design research or interpret findings from discovery research. We’ve been handed some totally unrealistic project timings by agencies which reflect a complete lack of interest or understanding about how to plan this phase appropriately.

Don’t let your agency get away with it

If your agency claims that they have enough experience or customer insight to forgo a robust discovery phase, really push them to show evidence and challenge their interpretations. Don’t allow your agency to claim customer centricity of their approach without investing in real customer insight.

If your design agency kicks off your design process with personas, promise me you’ll do this. It can literally mean the difference between a poor design project and a great one.

Tim Loo

I’m the Strategy Director at Foolproof and head up our Experience Strategy practice. I take a lead role when our clients are looking to formally create an experience strategy, plan and measurement framework. It’s an exciting area to work in and an increasingly critical and integral part of many a corporate’s business strategy.

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