What’s the difference?
I’d always seen consulting as more business-oriented. A consulting firm analyzes your position in the market, your competitors, and all the various factors contributing to your success (or lack thereof). Based on this analysis, recommendations for improvements are presented and, if bought into, developed. This could be as simple as improving public perception by redesigning your corporate dot-com. It could be more internal: creating an application that allows for improved cross-office communication and planning. Or it could involve recommendations on completely restructuring an organization and its processes, and providing software-based solutions to help realize this.
When I think of an agency, I think of micro-sites, dot-com redesigns, and the like. The focus is on marketing within a digital space. Sometimes this marketing takes the shape of larger, more complex products and applications, such as an airline app or an online storefront; sometimes it’s as simple as a fun little micro-site that lets you create video montages to share with your friends.
What does this mean for UX?
Ha! Honestly, I have zero clue.
Honestly, part 2: It probably doesn’t mean all that much in reality. But let’s play with theories because it’s fun and, shit, why not?
Theory 1: More research and analysis
A shift to a more consultancy-like model would be a great thing for agency UX-ers because greater value (and thus emphasis) would be placed on pointed, focused research. This is a huge part of what consulting firms do. If the freedom to do more research, observations, interviews, etc. comes with a shift in process then basically everyone will benefit. Having worked at and for various agencies, I have zero reservations about saying that every single project I’ve worked on would have had better results if there was more time for initial research. I mean, every now and then there will be a discovery phase that technically should be used for research, but ends up being spent on competitor analysis and stakeholder interviews. Of course, these are important, but what you really want is demographic info: research and data on the client’s customers/users/fans. Time & budget (or lack thereof), however, is typically a preventative factor here.
A good agency wears the skin of its clients: It’s staff immerses themselves in the company and gets a truly deep understanding of not just the brand, but what the brand means to people, what products/services they provide, how they provide them, and why they provide them in the way that they do.
Unfortunately, not all agencies are good (sorry!), so a lot of one-off projects are executed without a deep level of understanding of or affinity with the client.
As agencies morph and move towards the consulting model, staff will be expected to do the same. As such, you will need to know and understand your clients on an extremely intimate level. Because your insights will be needed for more than just marketing, but to help your client grow and progress in terms of visibility, market share, and (of course) revenue. You’ll be asked to provide more than just designs for specific applications/sites; you’ll be a subject-matter expert with insight on what moves the client should make before any competitors do the same.3
Developers and, to an extent, visual designers can probably carry on unaffected, but for so many of us UX and strategy work hand in hand. It’s actually a really exciting time to be in UX, given that we’re at a tipping point where UX is something that is namechecked by lots of biz types who only have a vague understanding of what it is and why it’s important. Being proactively strategic can not just make you look good, but will also help legitimize the discipline of UX as a whole in the eyes of the un- and only-somewhat-initiated.
This is an area that I’m on the fence about, so I’ll just be a lame, noncommittal duck and ride the fence here:
Flexibility will need to increase. Agencies will start to accept the fact that as more clients are asking for complex, multi-device applications, the move towards a more typical ‘agile’ design/development—or at least the flexibility required to do this for certain engagements—is coming. Agencies tend to skew very waterfall, so a shift to agile, iterative design will prove difficult and those companies unable to adapt will get left behind, remnants of the early-millenial digital era.
Of course, the anti-waterfall argument has been around for a while now, and has made a lot of noise, but seemingly little impact (within agencies, anwyay), which makes me think that the above could easily not happen at all until client organizations begin to request it. Personally, that seems to be a little ways away: most organizations with a solid enough understanding of agile practices tend to be designing and developing in-house for the most part, so any work agencies are contracted to do would be smaller marketing efforts for which a waterfall approach would make sense.
The point here is that our business, like all businesses, is evolving and shifting to meet the needs of the present day. Whether you work at an agency, consultancy, in-house, or as a freelancer/independent contractor, it’s important to think about how it’s changing so that you can stay relevant. Be more than a designer; be more than a researcher: Be an expert. Experts get paid, son.4
- This post, even moreso than any others i may have written up to this point, is purely my opinion and thus potentially full of what readers might perceive to be crap. Just an FYI for you. [↩]
- Consulting firms may have made moves towards being more agency-like, too; but I have less insight into that, so let’s just put that aside for now! [↩]
- This might seem a bit lofty and unlikely, but think about it: you are hired as an expert in the digital space. We carry the digital space with us in our pockets basically every waking moment; digital is basically EVERYTHING at this point, so being the expert on digital really means you are an expert on what your clients need to do IN GENERAL. Specifically, being an expert on user experience means you’re an expert on users, which means you are an expert on what people want. [↩]
- So, this post ended up being super rambly, even by my standards. I apologize for this. If you are reading this footnote, there is a good chance this entire post will be scratched and revamped to be coherent and to have an actual point [↩]