Xavier Bertels
15 Oct 2015

How to Hire a Design Firm

Some business people I meet are sceptical about hiring a design firm. They need help to design their web app, native app or software, but they suffer from Post Traumatic Design Disease. They worked with designers, who helped them think up a great product. They created paper prototypes and persona’s. They sorted cards and conducted user tests on a greyscale clickable prototype. The designers did everything they promised and solved the problem.

Desk covered in Post-Its
The Product. Photo by Michael Arrighi

The company then fired up their developer army and built the product the design consultants came up with. The end result is something that technically works, but apparently does not perform well in customer satisfaction surveys. “But we hired designers!” sounds the very understandable complaint.

Your product probably never had a real chance because there is a missing link. A communication gap.

The Communication Gap

If you turn an abstract idea into a prototype and hand it over to developers, you did half the job. Like they say in tennis: when you hit the ball, you have to follow through. You cannot trick your body into thinking you are following through. It will result in a half-baked forehand, every single time. You have to do the actual work to make it count.

That is the primary reason we deliver the code that makes an interface come to life. And it is the reason we talk with developers and help them implement that code. We go back and forth between design, code and communication many times during a project. Not because we love coding per se. Not because we can outsource the coding to India and make a profit from that. Not because we can bill more. It is because when we hit, we like to follow through.

The following anecdote explains it well:

It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

This is Steve Jobs, who talks about his return to a dwindling Apple.

Those words paint an exquisit picture of how good (digital) products come about. You need a balanced symbiosis between high-level thinking and meticulous execution. Next time you hire a design firm, do yourself a favour and ask them whether they follow through.

Xavier Bertels

About the author: Xavier Bertels is a designer and managing partner at Mono, where he helps companies deliver simple, useful & beautiful digital products. He tweets as @xavez.

One thought on “How to Hire a Design Firm”

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Nice post, I too reject the idea that design can be done well as some sort of upfront sand boxed service. Too many assumptions, too many leaps of faith and too much confirmation bias = BIG mistakes. I would say that what you describe doesn’t 100% ‘follow though’ the stroke in your analogy thogh. Little can be learned about a digital product until the product is in someone’s hands. Too much changes after ‘first contact’ with customers to be able to effectively design anything other than small, incremental amounts of work based on prioritisation. This requires design to be further embedded in the product development strategy. There is no end to design as there’s no end to development assuming a product doesn’t fail. Continuous learning from end users, adapting the product design and capabilities and re-testing. This is why design – even as you’ve described – is a very difficult service to deliver if you aren’t actually building the product and defining the learning strategy as opposed to supplying an external service.

I say difficult but not impossible, it’s something we’ve had to grapple with over the years and I would agree that your way of doing things, if you’re only delivering the design / user experience is the best alternative to a fully embedded design team. It’s certainly what we do in these circumstances. But there’s still compromise over an optimal workflow, we shouldn’t kid ourselves.

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