Choosing a Strategy + Design Partner

By: Mark Kaplan
Mad Men Barbie Dolls

Image Credit: AMC

You’re interviewing candidates for an opening on your team. You’re torn between two finalists. Each has deep skills and experience, comes with solid references, and would increase diversity. In both a subjective or objective evaluation, they’d be equal.

How can you make such an important decision, without resorting to a coin flip?

Choosing a partner for strategy and design of web applications is a lot like hiring that new team member. Every agency you’ll meet will tell you about their services and “The Process.” They’ll share a cloud of client logos and case studies with slick creative and impressive results. Their offices will be way more hip than yours. You’ll be shown a photo of a designer pointing to a wall of design artifacts.

With every agency pitching what can feel like the same experience and capabilities, how do you choose?

The Client Should Always Come First

“A gossip talks about other people. A bore talks about himself. A brilliant conversationalist talks to you about yourself.”

Unknown

In a similar vein, an agency that understands the importance of objectives in design will move quickly from talking about their reputation, to a deeper conversation about you and your business goals. They’ll get excited about what could be accomplished together.

Do the memebers of the team seem interested in listening to you, and learning from you? Are they focused on trult understanding the problems, rather than jumping to their favored solutions?

Are they asking deep questions about your goals? Your past successes and failures? Your personal situation? They should regard their job as not only to deliver what you want and need but also to make you look good.

Become Comfortable by Being Uncomfortable

“If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.”

Seth Godin

As you answer the agency’s questions, also pay attention to the kinds of questions they ask. Are they making you uncomfortable with some of those questions? That’s OK.

Sometimes the most important questions are uncomfortable because they challenge some sacred-cow assumptions. They may force you to reconsider things that really need fixing. Being hopeful that stuff will work out is the opposite of strategy. It’s always better to know — or at least to be less uncertain.

Strategic designers routinely chart a course through uncertain seas. They should be comfortable being uncomfortable and they should help you feel the same way. Rather than being taken aback, take a shot at answering those questions.

Direct vs. Indirect Experience

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

Oscar Wilde

A claim of “experience” is no guarantee of a favorable outcome. Experience is a set of responses to particular business problems (not yours), in particular contexts (not yours, either). That’s why duplicating a successful company’s business model or solution rarely works out. Despite what best-selling business books seem to suggest, there’s no single recipe for success. Every challenge is fresh, and every solution begins with a blank page.

If an agency claims direct experience in your industry, ask to also see examples of how they solved problems like yours for clients in other industries. Have they worked through problems of similar scale or complexity?

There are scenarios where specialized experience does matter. This is particularly true in industries that are highly-regulated or highly-competitive. If having specific domain knowledge on your project is important, discuss that. For example, if you’re a pharma brand with a “black box warning” on your product, you’d ask about their understanding of the specific FDA rules.

In some cases, an agency’s lack of direct experience can be an asset rather than a liability. Sometimes distance makes things clearer. This is especially true for an industry or company that tends to be a technology laggard. Expect to hear pushback on phrases like, “We’ve always done it that way” or “That would never work here.” It’s likely they’ve met similar resistance elsewhere — and overcome it.

Experts Are Made, Not Born

“An expert is someone who tells you why you can’t do something.”

Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Morris Mini (predecessor to the Mini Cooper)

An agency should be able to show how fast they can learn your business. Even in the earliest meetings, they should bring insights and a pain hypothesis. They’re outsiders to your private domain, so the attempt means more than getting the details right.

Look for evidence for how an agency leverages “abductive reasoning,” which is the seemingly magical ability to synthesize what they’ve learned into actionable insights and design ideas. They should tap both personal and institutional knowledge and apply it to new learnings about your circumstances.

A rich set of design-thinking tools and methods will enable the agency to wrap their heads around the unfamiliar. Ask them not just which problems they’ve solved but also how they learn and share knowledge.

It’s Decision Time

“Trust yourself, you know more than you think you think you do.”

Dr. Benjamin Spock

Like hiring the right team member, finding the right agency partner is as much about who they are as what they know. To ensure a good fit, the agency should care as much about figuring out if you’re a good client for them, as you do figuring out if they’re a good agency for you.

Don’t look for an agency who claims they can solve all your problems. Look for one who will face them with you.