Summary: Hiring the wrong UX designer or UX agency can cost you, not only in your delivery but also in your confidence to benefit from the latest in UX leadership and ROI. Making the right hire is critical, but first you have to be able to spot weakness which is difficult if you are new to the subject of UX hiring.
Characteristics of the Wrong Hire
In our experience of working with clients who complain of being burned by low quality UX firms, we've noticed some patterns over the past 15 years.
1. Flashy offices: Large windows, a comfy hammock and fun meeting rooms have nothing to do with the whole point of UX which is to be an expert in a user's environment (physical and cognitive). We were once told by a client of a UX firm that paraded their prospective clients around the office to show them it was all legit. Sleek whiteboards and lots of bodies crowded around large Mac computer screens in swanky downtown offices might look impressive, but is the firm doing regular and consistent User Centered Design? User Centered Design is the methodology that governs UX and Human Centered Design as an industry and ISO standard.
2. Lack of user involvement: The biggest problem with failed software development projects has to do with not involving users. UX design is not something a Creative Director or clever "UX Designer" comes up with. Forrester Research, who interview dozens of UX firms, told us a few years back, "You (Experience Dynamics) do more user research than any other firm we've talked to" (Harley Manning of Forrester Research). That's flattering, but worrying for our peers. The specific issue he pointed out was the number of users involved in studies. He said most firms do a field study with 5-7 users, where our studies are typically 15-40 users. Note: We've found with field studies, more is better-- whereas with usability testing there is a set number of users to test with and less is often more.
3. Weak on field studies: Specifically, many UX agencies do user testing and don't really know how to execute field studies, or worse, do not have the ethnographic/ behavioral research chops to pull off high quality data gathering exercises.
4. Low number of users: This has to do with the Forrester insight above. If your UX agency is including a handful of users, it typically means they are short-changing you. Let's face it, it's easier to cook up UX internally, than to go out and do the hard work of recruiting, moderating, capturing data, analyzing data and transforming a design assumption from the Outside-In. The root of this problem has to do with the 5 User Sample Size Myth..
5. Lots of process, little User Centered Design maturity: Selling what looks like a well thought out process is often used as a cover for a lack of maturity. This is going to be difficult for you to detect, so you might want to hire a UX consultant or Subject Matter Expert to help you evaluate. Try using LinkedIn or ask your UX friends or colleagues for an opinion. An example of this, is the following: A global firn with over 150 awards that does UX and UCD listed "emotion" as part of their methodology. They described emotion as "making it easy to use". In our opinion that has little to do with emotion, it's a completely surface level understanding of how to design with emotion.
6. Too much Photoshop, not enough U in UX: Good visual design does not constitute UX! We recently reviewed half a dozen UX firms who are using good visual design to describe their UX work. That's cheating! UX designers and UX design does not start with Photoshop! Many clients make the mistake of looking to hire a UX designer thinking the hire will make their UI pretty and intuitive at the same time. Intuitive interfaces come from doing good User Centered Design. UX Design is not a creative task, it's a behavioral one. Visual design is important but that typically comes after you nail a UX strategy.
7. Creative agencies, UX agencies or Interactive agencies: Typically coming from a creative,marketing or communications background many advertising and interactive boutiques have weak UX capabilities and competency. Since the dot com bubble of 2001, jaded clients have been demanding that their Ad and interactive agencies give them UX to accompany 'pretty designs'. As a result most agencies now either call themselves UX agencies, UCD firms or include Experience Design, UX design, UI/UX as part of their process. Since we've worked for many Portland UX agencies and global advertising firms, we know most of their UX work to be paper thin. Specifically, they do not understand field research and do not value UCD, instead the focus is on wireframes and maybe a usability test--maybe.
When you get it wrong
Above we've laid out the "wild west" of navigating the UX landscape for hiring a UX agency or UX designer. But what about when you get it wrong? Here are the common mistakes we've noticed clients making:
1. You assume UX means Photoshop (Sketch etc) or just wireframes. UX derives from taking a systematic research-based approach to design (think lots of up-front planning). Decisions are made based on empathy gained from user research (field studies and usability testing).
2. You think your UX Designer can do UX. UX Designers are typically either Interaction Designers (more UX oriented) or Visual Designers (more art or graphic design oriented). The term UX Design is a mish-mash term that is extremely ambiguous, and can mean many things, yet we all use it! Assess your UX designer's true capabilities, not perceived ones. UX and its' field (Human Computer Interaction) are multi-disciplinary and come from marrying research with design, so expect UX Designers to do research and wireframes and Visual Designers to do mostly wireframes or just graphic design.
Note: If you are hiring or looking for a hybrid role (part research/ part or part designer) be clear about the precise scope and actual capabilities of that person or team. Trying to pile it all on to get a unicorn can end up giving you a pack mule, too burdened to perform well.
3. Being fooled by eye-candy. Sounds easy to detect, but we humans do it all the time! In one of our B2B buyer persona field studies, an executive director said (of her buying decision) "I don't look at the interfaces of the vendor I am buying from until I have done my due diligence. I don't want to be biased by the visuals, otherwise I get pulled in and my decision gets biased too early". Great advice for UX hiring! Assess process maturity, not just visual capability.
Conclusion: Do your due diligence, know what you are buying. Understand what UX design really entails. Get to know the tasks and roles UX agencies and UX designers should be doing. Get clear with your expectations of your UX designer (or UX consultant) so you are not disappointed with the outcome. Don't let a bad UX hire stop you from benefiting from the depth of ROI benefits good UX (INFOGRAPHIC) can provide.