#1. Stay away from monolithic, large projects with expensive single line items.
If you don’t know enough about your project to break it up, then start with a small discovery phase and contract a larger project from there. The reason for this is that whatever you think is going to happen in the monolithic project is probably wrong. As you learn more and more about the shape of the project, you’ll have better accuracy about what is really going to happen in the project.
#2. You must have an internal resource that follows closely along the project.
This employee will then become your Subject Matter Expert for the project once the design agency has walked off into the sunset. In particular, it is very important that someone internal knows why certain decisions were made, so that you don’t get into an endless cycle of questioning the design work. See more on this topic in a previous blog post of mine.
#3. Your development team must be involved when it comes to concept ideation and further hardening.
Otherwise, you might get something back from the agency that your team cannot build. Some technologies are better than others for making good user interfaces. Or, you could easily propose some cool idea like collaborative filtering which would be prohibitively expensive to build. I personally have run into a lot of limits related to databases design, and also search indexing technology.
#4. Give careful thought to what is going to happen when the engagement is finished.
In particular, the agency will submit a number of deliverables to you. Will you need to modify these deliverables going forward? Yes — no project ever stays exactly the same from conception to implementation.
As a best practice, I recommend requesting that all source files such as psd, ai, Sketch, Omnigraffle, etc. How can you possibly carry the project forward if you can’t make minor changes to the plans?
#5. Give serious consideration to requesting detailed written specifications.
Documentation has really fallen out of style nowadays with the ascendency of Agile, but for complex applications a prototype is simply not enough (see the article I mentioned in Tip #2 for more on “Golden Path Thinking”).
Details are what make a project come together, and only with a complete specification do you get those details. (I have had good success with EchoUser on this front, and that makes them quite unique).
#6. Budget and plan for the agency to be around during implementation.
In my experience, the hardest part of getting UX right is the implementation. I like to tell people that UX is not rocket science; it’s building the damn thing that’s so hard. You’ll want a member of the external design team to answer questions from engineers, and also to review and validate what has been built.
#7. The Statement of Work is critical. Pay close attention to it.
While your in-house lawyers may bicker over the Master Services Agreement, from the perspective of likelihood of success, it is the Statement of Work (SOW) that is the important document.
You must own the SOW yourself — not your procurement department, and not the agency — and put in as much detail as you can.
For example, be clear about milestones and what you expect to be delivered in each milestone, including descriptions of deliverables format and type. Each milestone should have the equivalent of acceptance criteria, to borrow a term from Agile. Write as much detail as you can about what a successful deliverable will look like.
#8. Use a aloud-based tool to enhance the review phase.
I have had a lot of success with InVision: you can use their instance or your own. Tools like Invision and similar cloud collaboration utilities allow your stakeholders to review the agency’s design work without dealing with unwieldy files or version control issues.
Whenever someone on your side makes a comment, these tools allow the Agency’s designers to respond directly in place to that comment.
Sometimes, using an outside agency is viewed as a panacea for whatever problems you might be having internally. Indeed, getting outside help can be extremely valuable — but throwing a problem over the wall to an agency and expecting them to make everything better is wishful thinking.
As the one cutting the check, you still need to have a strong plan for how working with the agency is going to be successful before, during, and after the engagement.
About Strathearn Design
Strathearn Design is a consultancy that was formed to help businesses have better UX initiatives. They include working with a company before and after their engagement with a design agency to maximize their likelihood of success. Overall, for a project to be successful, you can’t just throw a project over the wall agency and then take it back at the end, or else it will certainly fail. Strathearn Design can help be that cushion between the Agency and your internal team.