Enemies of UX and how to kill them: #2 “Real” design agencies

Real Design Agencies


Know your enemy and know yourself, and you will win a hundred battles without defeat… Know neither your enemy nor yourself, and you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War


You might think the role of design is to help users navigate your site easily and enjoyably – but you’re not the second coming of Leonardo da Vinci, are you? You don’t know what you’re talking about.

If the design on your website doesn’t discombobulate users, they’ll have no reason to stare at it. If they don’t stare at it, how will they recognise the depth of its beauty? If they don’t recognise the depth of its beauty, how will your design agency win awards?

“Real” design agencies will never spend money on user research because users don’t know what they want. Yet it’s essential to splash out on an office pooch – the more inbred and expensive to keep alive, the better.

That’s how you know an agency is the dog’s bollocks.


“Real” Design Agencies

“We create web-based wonderlands that nurture people-love (which is better than designing websites that are easy to use).”


  • Award-winning BS vending machine
  • Tortured non-genius
  • Poor man’s Don Draper


Often found:

  • At award shows – seeking validation from a panel of judges, for work they created to show how little they care about the validation of others
  • At seminars – where people like them talk to people like them, about things only people like them care about
  • Not with the punters because mixing the inspired with the mundane is like mixing an 18-year-old sherry-cask whisky with Tesco Value cola


  • Rat King – an easily-eradicated cluster of small pests
  • Nessie Monster – a rarely-seen giant that wreaks havoc beneath the surface
  • Cthulhu Rage – a cosmic power requiring only a glance to induce insanity 


The most dangerous thing about design agencies who are too arrogant to test is that their clients are often too ignorant to know they should be testing. No one sees the damage until it’s too late.

So they design digital assets that are a reimagining of Frankenstein’s monster – high-minded ideas from the client and the agency, stitched together unevenly.

Victor Lombardi, an agency designer, explains (with refreshing honesty) how this approach led the website redesign of a financial services client to certain failure. It’s telling that one of the reasons he cites for that failure is, “our client hadn’t actually done any research with his customers to understand if they would like his ideas. And neither had we.”

“UX” isn’t something you memorise and carry around with you just because you have the letters in front of your job title. It’s unending – “UX without research is not UX.” The moment you stop regular user research is the moment you should shut up about user experience.

Here are some other dangers of working with design agencies who think they know it all:


Skull and crossbonesGETTING FIRED

because you’re the one who convinced your company to hire them

Skull and crossbones


…because parallax scrolling, flashing images and gamification aren’t just for arcade shooters

Skull and crossbones


…because even if people don’t know what they want, they definitely know what they don’t want – your website


Art/Design School


Art School

This is a world where “creative” is a noun, “concept” is a verb, and your “copy” is supposed to be original – how can you not be screwed in the head?

In this ideas factory (not unlike a doll factory), newbies are taught to flex their creative muscles, but rarely how to control them. They’re taught what to think but not how to think. They’re taught that design is valuable but not how to add value using design.

There’s just one problem – when designers are released into the big, bad world, they’re not hired by eccentric artists and 500-year-old art galleries. They’re hired by failing companies and businesses whose customers hate their websites.

Faced with the frustrating reality that aesthetic appeal is subservient to business priorities, designers come up with hot messes (like the one in the video below, which reduced the client’s conversion rate):


This user complains that this returns policy page is “cool but quite annoying.”


Some designers think user research and data will stifle their creativity – I disagree. The “creative” part of the job lies in coming up with elegant solutions, not imaginary problems. And having a clear idea of user problems is the best creative direction you can get.


“The belligerent genius” complex


Mad Men


I don’t know why, but people seem drawn to the idea of really clever but really mean people.

We’ve seen different versions of the dogmatic genius who, in the end, is proven right – from the fiction of Don Draper to the semi-fiction of Steve Jobs. And many creative professionals now feel under pressure to make at least one person cry during a project, for fear of being labelled “too normal”.

But here’s the thing – Don Draper’s family left him and there was certainly a dark side to Steve Jobs’ meanness.

Maybe these people are successful in spite of not listening to anyone, not because of it.

A headstrong and disagreeable personality has no correlation with intellectual ability or craftsmanship – it may help you push through truly innovative ideas, if you’re already capable of having them. But being a mean, dismissive bastard is no free ticket to Geniusville.


Award associations

Award Associations

Julian Koenig, who helped create the classic VW Beetle ads of the ’50s and ’60s, had the best response to winning an award:

He expressed his gratitude by skewering the association for giving awards based on creativity or artfulness. Sales, he suggested, were the only important measure.

“The hardest thing in the world to resist is applause,” he said at his induction. “Your job is to reveal how good the product is, not how good you are, and the simpler the better.”

I love the paintings of Francis Bacon and I love the ads of Julian Koenig. But if people had been too galvanized by Bacon’s paintings to wait around staring at them, or too hypnotized by Koenig’s ads to run to the shop and buy stuff, neither would’ve been successful.

As Koenig’s VW ads show, aesthetically pleasing design and effective design are not mutually exclusive. But it’s important to remember that in a commercial setting, the former exists solely to service the latter. Always.




If your criteria for selecting an agency are shoddy, the results you get will be too. And if an agency’s competency at conducting user research (or outsourcing to someone who can) isn’t one of your criteria, then standards will almost certainly be poor.

Many agencies will not involve the perspective of the user unless the client requests it. Why bring in a point of view that might contradict their “expert opinion”, create more work for the same money and deliver news the client doesn’t want to hear?

Because that point of view is the most profitable one for all parties.

If you don’t get the user’s view before it starts costing you money, you’ll certainly get it after.

Strong arm


“Real” design agencies are big fans of nature documentaries. Naturally, one of their greatest strengths is borrowed from Mother herself – aggressive mimicry.

Just as the harmless milk snake mimics the appearance of the highly venomous coral snake, some design agencies mimic the appearance of more potent creative relatives.

There’ll likely be someone with Einsteinesque unkempt hair, a well-dressed renegade who moonlights as a guitarist on the edgy side of town and at least one human canvas of really nice tattoos.

But there isn’t necessarily genius bubbling underneath all that craziness. You need to go for an agency that shows, through work which elegantly solves user pains, that they can walk the walk.

Weaknesses… aka how to defeat “real” design agencies

The Bullshit-o-Meter™




This is really at the heart of all standard tactics for disarming design agency poseurs.

They’ll try and overwhelm you with a stream of bullshit that’s so unrelenting, you can’t breathe without getting manure stuck in your nasal hairs. Do not get sucked in.

Don’t let them tell you what’s important to them – find out what’s important to you:



Ask these questions to weed out the poseurs when selecting an agency:


How many user research professionals do they have?


 If none, how do they involve the expertise of user research professionals?


 Which user research tools do they use? Is at least one of these tools for observing users’ behaviours, rather than simply for collecting data?


 What percentage of the budget you give them will be spent on user research?


 Are there examples of when insight from testing with users has influenced a design approach? (This is a trick question – the right answer is, “It always does,” or “There’s no other way to design, is there?”)


 Download this checklist right now to take it out into the real world and start causing havoc…

User sign-off




Instead of having some HiPPO in your company or the agency sign off design, try and assign final sign-off to the users.

A WhatUsersDo client used this approach to great effect. Rather than people who’ll never use an asset having final say, the people who’ll use it all the time can tell you what to go with. The only thing with this approach is internal views can often be at serious odds with the views of users.

But in this age of relatively cheap and super-fast remote UX testing, you can suggest that it’s a more efficient and bullet-proof way of creating a new design. Just keep iterating and testing with users throughout the design process (even early stage SCAMPS and half-baked prototypes). Then launch the resulting design.

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As you could probably tell from the article, we don’t think all design agencies are guilty – in fact, some are incredible champions of user voice. Our issue is with agencies who care more about winning awards than creating design that users love and helps clients reach their goals.

So here are some exceptions to all the points made above.


Design agencies who conduct user research

We’ve worked with some talented design agencies who involve the goals and needs of users, every step of the way.

If you’re an agency and don’t know that user experience testing can help you win more pitches and deliver better results, we really should have a chat.


Clients with terrible briefs

I’ve seen it before, so I do empathise with agencies whose clients have convoluted, contradictory or incomprehensible briefs.

There’s a scientific method to UX research, and if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answers. So if an agency doesn’t even know which aspect of a site the client thinks is broken, how can the designers go about improving it – aside from simply making the design “prettier”?

Still mad? Check out the other Enemies of UX!

Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

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