Ask DN: UX Designers at agencies, what's your process?

4 years ago from , Senior UI & UX Designer @ Erste Group / George Labs

I'm currently working as a UX designer at an advertising agency, and I find it hard to make good use of my skills with all the last-minute decisions and constant pitches to different clients going on. I come from a product team background where we had time to refine ideas, user journeys/flows, wireframes, conduct usability tests and the like. But here it seems to be more important to design something that's convincing visually (I'm talking pixel-perfect mockups from the get-go), but might not work well from a UX standpoint at first blush.

UX Designers at agencies, how do you mix in your skills with team members, and what's your process/timeframe working with different clients?


  • Liz Jones, 4 years ago

    I am a UX designer at an ad agency; I started as a mid-level "interactive designer" (web & mobile apps) and after a few years bullied my way into having them create a UX Design position and move me into it. Basically, I complained a lot about UX mistakes we were making until they realized we needed to change our process so I'd stop it, haha (half-joking... more like they realized the points I was making had value but by the time I was pointing them out it was too late in the process, so we needed to revise our process).

    I'm now heavily involved in every interactive project from start to finish in various degrees so I created an account here to breakdown what I do. I hope this helps!

    1. Pitches: Light involvement. I'll weigh in on concepts from a user perspective, especially if it's for an existing client where we have data from past campaigns to take into consideration. I'll also point out areas where we can expand one pitch into other areas that the content strategist may have missed, for example "we could integrate this to our social strategy for Q4 by..."

    2. Planning & Research (happens both before and after pitching): Heavy involvement. I do a ton of research on the users we're targeting and will conduct initial research such as stakeholder interviews, customer surveys or interviews, etc, depending on project needs. This is combined with market research from the content strategist.

    3. Wireframes & Specifications: Heavy involvement, my time to shine. Once we've done all the research, I begin to create the functional requirements (used by designers and content strategists/copywriters) and specifications (used by developers). I also create wireframes and/or user flows for 80% of our interactive projects; for the other 20% we do prototypes or other forms of mockups. This is a highly collaborative process where all teams (content strategy/copywriting, developers, designers, and me) have a say before we finalize our first presentation to the client. I have a strong influence on shaping our design approach at this stage.

    4. Sometimes we present this process work to the client, sometimes it's solely for internal use. If we are presenting to a client at this phase I will create the deck and lead the presentation.

    5. Visual Design: Moderate involvement. Yes, we do pixel perfect mockups, often 2-3 versions, at various sizes (mobile, desktop). We haven't found a better way, though we've tried. I stay involved throughout the visual design process to make sure the requirements are being met and advise on UX best practices for UI design ("this text is too low contrast" / "How is this going to collapse as we go from X to Y resolution" / "The error state for this form is too ambiguous" / "How will this hover state be handled on mobile" etc). I'm also at a point where designers will come to me as a resource on the latest research on UX best practices for UI design, after years of working on being seen as such a person, so I'm basically in a consultation role at this stage which is great!

    6. For VERY UI heavy projects (vs conceptual or marketing-focused projects), I will handle the UI design myself. For example, a mobile app that consists of a monitoring dashboard and adjusting settings on the service it's monitoring – that's something I'd fully design. I do maybe 1 of these a year.

    7. Design Presentation & Iteration: Moderate involvement. I serve in a support role in these presentations, supplying justification and relevant research for decisions made, and sometimes suppling suggestions for how to handle frustrating client feedback in a way the designer may not have thought of.

    8. Development: Moderate involvement: I've been refining the functional specifications through the design process and the developers use these as a roadmap for development. I work as a technical liaison between the design and development teams to come to compromises on fallbacks for older browsers or issues with the design that come up in the dev process, when the issues are too technical for our project managers to facilitate on their own. I also continue to make sure our project requirements are being met, especially around accessibility.

    9. Analytics: Heavy involvement. I define what analytics tracking needs to be implemented based on our goals and KPIs, and advise on interpreting various metrics in the context of others. I'll also check on our sites' analytics dashboards periodically to see if any worrying or surprising trends are going on.

    10. QA: Moderate involvement. I am generally one of several QA testers.

    11. Reporting: Moderate involvement. If we are doing ongoing KPI reporting or anything like that, our account managers usually handle it if we're just passing on the flat numbers with light interpretation, but if we're doing complex interpretation and analysis of trends etc I will create the reports.

    So that's how we do it. As you see, many of my roles overlap with designers', content strategists', and project managers' roles at other agencies, but it works for us. Overall, my job can be summed up by "Making sure our original vision is fully executed, and advocating for the user at every step."

    (edit: Attempted to fix the messed up numbering. Also, added a few details and fixed some typos.)

    18 points
    • matt michelsonmatt michelson, 4 years ago

      This is an extremely thorough and thoughtful response! Thank you for sharing your experience.

      1 point
  • Christina FowlerChristina Fowler, 4 years ago

    I've been in the situation, I just picked my moments to introduce UX wherever I could. I would use an opportunity to produce a prototype, and then when that gained a positive result the next time I was given more time. So I started to introduce user flows.

    Wireframes were historically done by the project managers but we were able to show that giving it to the designer got a better result and more client confidence.

    Finally, within a year we were doing full ux processes and selling it as a service too.

    Chip, chip, chip away.

    6 points
  • Vlad Khomutov, 4 years ago

    Ad agencies

    Ad agencies charge massive amounts of money to their clients by promising them sales and revenue that your work helps produce. People who approve pitches on client side often have no idea about consumer psychology that designers exploit (how we combine words and images to create emotional states that influence people to buy stuff), but as you well know, each one of them is an expert when it comes to design.

    Your agency gets hired to do the job, because the client doesn't have staff good enough to do it.

    Once you start looking at your role at an ad agency from that perspective, you will recognize that most of your work will be seen once - a promo website, a landing page for a campaign, a Facebook ad that serves one purpose - get user's email address so they can push some offers.

    Your attention to detail and good UX is a cherry on the pie, not the pie. Make peace with this and use your time at an ad agency doing the totally unrelated to UX, but incredibly valuable in long-term activity: network. Your senior designer colleague will change 5 agencies in 7 years and will become a VP of client experience at some big company, so if you're drinking beers with him, he'll remember your name and get you that Head of UX role so you can implement all of these best practices, because now you call the shots.

    Product agencies

    If you want to do user research, wireframes, usability studies, design language concepts, and other product work, join a dev shop that builds apps (native or web).

    About me

    I speak from experience - in the last 17 years, I founded 8 tech companies, 2 consulting agencies, helped more than 20 startups go to market, and designed products for some of the world's biggest companies like Visa, BMW, Ford, Manulife, FedEx and many others.

    4 points