Uxicorn: Choosing the Right Design and UX Agency

By Evelina Tapia | Apr 14, 2016

The buzzword UX, which stands for “User eXperience,” has escaped design world and infiltrated C-level suites at various companies that engage in everything under the sun except design. They need a design and UX agency.

As Nielsen and Norman define, “‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” Many companies now realize that their products are not user friendly nor a delight to use. They realize that engaging UX experts to help them improve  is a smart business move.

But many of these UX “experts” are no more real than a unicorn in a children’s fantasy book. Their lack of skills and/or incomplete team are the first issue of many that will arise from your project. So, how does one sift through the noise of UX specialists and find the team that can actually deliver desired results?

The Dream Team

Team composition and expertise will make or break a project. The core UX team should consist of a researcher, a designer and, an engineer. Researcher is someone who is trained in the scientific method of collecting data about users, their environment, workflows, attitudes, emotions, habits and so on. This person uses qualitative and quantitative data to inform business decisions that eventually shape design of a product or service. Researchers and designers work together to ensure that user insights and business data are addressed and implemented in the product.

Many designer specialties exist, but generally speaking in technology domain a designer is someone who creates the look and feel of the software or hardware product. When crafting software interfaces, designer makes decisions about how to layout and structure information in order to facilitate the users in their tasks, whether it is completing a purchase, or filling out financial information. Designer also determines how different sections of the interface are connected, what the flow through screens should be and so on. And let’s not forget, designers also make products that are aesthetically appealing, which contributes to perceived ease-of-use and overall positive experience for end users.  

Finally, an engineer brings the product to life through 0s and 1s. While user interface that designers craft is the most visible part of the product, engineer’s work outside of building the front-end is critical. Engineers make decisions about technology platforms to use, whether and how to cache data, what databases to build to support business needs of collecting and storing information, how stringent data security measures should be, whether product connects to any other device or software and so on. While the end-user may not appreciate the magic and complexity of back-end engineering, slow software performance, long load times, intermittent connectivity and other technical issues do affect how users experience the product.

The UX Agency “Uxicorn”

Many agencies and consultants position themselves as UX specialists but few offer expertise and skills of the dream team described above. In many instances, uxicorns are tasked with researching users, designing and engineering solutions to meet business needs. A uxicorn is a person with excellent skills in at least two, or even three of the disciplines: user research, design, and engineering. For instance, some uxicorns gather user insights through interviews and themselves create interfaces. Other uxicorns gather insights, design and engineer their proposed solutions. In other words, uxicorns offer two or three domains of expertise in the package of one!

While impressive at first glance, such combination of excellent skills in a single person is also questionable. As in any domain, perfecting a skill requires lots of time and practice; thus, multiple excellent skills are unlikely to manifest quickly and in a single individual, especially in the discipline that is young and continuously evolving. Additionally, deep knowledge of two related topics can also bring disadvantage in the form of biases and assumptions. For example, a front-end web engineer who also designs the interface is inherently limited in his or her creativity by the technical constraints of the current web technology. Similarly, a designer who lacks formal research training and interviews or surveys users is prone to ask biased questions and interpret data in less than optimal ways.

Making the Choice

This is in no way an argument about segregation of disciple knowledge. Researchers who have no exposure to design practices cannot effectively engage in discussions about usability of the interfaces. Similarly, designers who are naive about technology capabilities will dream up solutions fit only for science fiction books and movies, not for driving business prowess. However, there is a fine line between single discipline experts who are exposed to developments in other fields versus multi-discipline experts.

Businesses looking to engage UX experts should consider whether the project goal is a maintenance fix or a solution that drives competitive business edge and revolutionizes the market. If the former, uxicorns can deliver branded cookie-cutter solutions that maintain status quo. If the latter, only the dream team that’s pulling on the deep expertise of user researchers, designers and engineers will deliver the product that is innovative, effective and delivers solid ROI to the business. So, what kind of problem is your business trying to solve?

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