Best practices to effectively optimise the success of your next UX client engagement

Embedding Within an Organisation

The embedding of a UX practitioner or team into a client site references the physical presence of working at a customer location along side their internal employees on a daily or highly regular basis. This carries the distinct advantage of being submerged into a customer’s culture, operations, and internal day-to-day happenings. This breaks through the otherwise unfulfilling view an outsider must typically contend with, piecing together a picture of a client through unenlightening email threads, instant messages and infrequent in-person meetings. It is the nuances of corridor conversations and impromptu department meeting invites that can reveal greater insights of a customer that would otherwise never have been exposed, translating into a much richer understanding of their business, its aspirations, motivations and concerns for their end products. It’s amazing how much happens by the water cooler that can help shape and guide UX process, that you’d otherwise miss.

By working side-by-side, your exposure builds subject matter experience in their business, facilitates easier sharing of ideas and concepts, allows for more rapid iterations and in general fosters a stronger personal level relationship. Digital back-and-forth from afar simply cannot replace physically being with the client in the same room, point at things on computer screens, sketching ideas on whiteboards, looking through documents side by side, etc.

Educating the Client

While there may be head nodding and agreement around the table during initial UX meetings with a client and its stakeholders, this may not necessarily indicate their complete or even partial knowledge of UX terminology, processes, deliverables or role separation of duties (for example, what exactly a UX Designer, Information Architect or Content Strategist does). It can often be human nature to conceal a lack of understanding rather than seeking clarification, so as to not look incompetent or not in control. This is particularly applicable while the UX field itself matures and evolves – if it isn’t uncommon for junior and even the occasional mid-weight UX practitioner to not fully be across what they are speaking of, it is fair to assume clients would most certainly benefit from UX education.

By spending the time to educate them, walking them through the process, covering the terminology, talking about what is being done, why and ultimately what the end value is to the business – is critically important. The value of UX can for some be difficult to quantify, particularly in a monetary sense, but by empowering them with deeper understanding of your craft, the value is less questionable. This will then bridge them to when UX clearly starts to shine in its value as a work flow, in its data driven decision making powers and ultimately an excellent end product that generates agreeable revenues.

By producing simple learning materials that give a brief overview of UX essentials (think cheat sheets), so that even the most time starved of executives and stakeholders can absorb the basics, you’ve handed clients the capability to make better decisions and more clearly recognise and understand the value of UX. Then by using the typical interaction points of a project as opportunities to educate and inform, rather than assume, you’re satisfying not only being a doer of UX, but also one whom imparts knowledge of their craft, which is of great value in establishing longevity in client relationships.

Part of the role of a UX practitioner is to help raise the standard of client knowledge and acceptance of UX, not to lock them into an ecosystem of dependency on your services. Client knowledge translates into greater buy-in through clearer foresight into the value and benefit of the outcomes UX produces.

Awareness of Process

Just as it’s challenging for the late comer to a movie theater to get a sense of the plot and where they are positioned within the greater story line; customers of UX services often need guidance as to where they currently sit within the scope of their UX timeline. Furthermore, understanding how inputs from previous steps have impact on subsequent steps is invaluable in shaping their appreciation for what has been done and what needs to be done to fuel progress through the process. It should not be assumed that all participants from a customer have awareness or understanding of how the full UX process works or how the various steps interact and influence each other. It is this and other educating opportunities that help to build a trusted partner or ‘advisor’ type customer relationship, beyond just being merely a ‘service provider’ or ‘vendor’.

Evaluation of Customer Environment

When entering into a new customer environment, UX practitioners often discover a variety of process, work practice or other customer eccentricities that aren’t conducive to optimal UX process. However, there is typically a reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ early into such engagements, and instead attempt to conform and adapt to such environments.

Succumbing to such deficient environments overlooks an ideal opportunity early on in the project to evaluate, recommend and implement environmental betterment initiatives, so that moving forward a more effective ecosystem can exist for the specific requirements of UX and also for the long-term benefit of the client. This isn’t to advocate waltzing into a client site and overhauling their processes and ways of doing things. It must be done with sensibility and selectively where the most value can be yielded and with the least disruption. Some examples of this include clear definition around communications and approval channels; structure around meeting times, attendees and objectives; rigidity around feedback and iteration cycles; and so forth.

Rather than attempt to harmonize with problematic customer attributes, feel empowered to question and provide recommendations along with actionable items that will foster UX productivity and likely their own productivity. This honesty will often be met by acknowledgement of their shortcomings and in some cases embraced, as waiting for inside forces to invoke change is usually long overdue. In situations of resistance, customer benefits such as project efficiency, quality of deliverables and positive cost implications should be emphasized.

Maintaining Control

Without wanting to sound like a control freak, the success of a UX engagement is very much influenced by the level of control, process and structure that’s placed around key aspects of a typical project. A client’s own poor process adherence and communications practices can easily seep into a UX project creating a toxic environment that breeds mutual resentment as spiralling expectations become unmet, lack of respect and appreciation for end product, scope creep and an overall dampening of project efficiency and effectiveness.

Prime areas in need of control and structure are:

  • Designating key points of contact for both parties to funnel communications, rather than a variety of fragmented conversations.
  • Formalizing and limiting communication channels, for example requiring wireframe feedback through a purpose-built review and feedback system, rather than allowing multichannel inputs from email, phone calls and so forth that invite an open-ended “one more thing” mentality. Collaborative review systems allow for each round of feedback to be more tightly controlled and each feedback item becomes an actionable and trackable task, rather than collections of emails and in-person discussions that carry heavy overheads in their management.
  • Ensure there’s an approval processes, milestones and the appointment of a single client-side owner that’s responsible for acceptance and sign-off of deliverables has been established. Otherwise completion can end up being based on a moving target at the whim of multiple parties claiming authority to approve.
  • Strict feedback timelines and permitted numbers of cycles keep customers focused; if there is a seemingly endless number of iterations or time allowance for feedback (or that such parameters are easily bended), it will devalue each round of feedback, each deadline and each set of changes, creating complacency and the ugly infinite feedback loop.
  • Granularity and the specifics of feedback permitted should be clearly defined up front. For example if wireframes are to be evaluated on object placement and navigational structures, indicate that feedback on other factors such as text content and colors will not be accepted. Use mechanisms in wireframes to keep the client focused and avoid distractions such as converting text to Lorem Ipsum and using grey scale color palettes except where functionally necessary.

This all requires such controls to be clearly documented, circulated, agreed to and adherence reviewed. Deviation from the controls require correction and impacts of the behavior brought to the customer’s attention, such as the risk of project timeline slippage and so forth. While this possibly sounds overbearing, it’s ultimately for the good of all parties concerned and often when positive outcomes are observed, clients begin to embrace the structured approach versus the disorganized ways of the past.

Dedicated Space

Creativity is very much influenced by one’s surroundings, to have a UX team dispersed throughout an office huddling in their individual cubicles on differing floors, and having to meet occasionally in make-shift spaces or drab meeting rooms will never fully harness their combined creative capabilities.

Where possible, create a space that fosters creative thinking, encourages collaboration, and is a purpose-built area where UX is lived and breathed. Often called a “UX design studio”, the space can be portioned off from a larger space, or be a closed space in and of itself, and is furnished with basic amenities to aid the creative process. This includes but not limited to white boards, swaths of wall space for plastering a myriad of print outs, sketches, designs, post-it notes and project delivery docs, workbench space, chairs and seating areas. The space doesn’t have to be elaborate nor large, but ideally should allow for creative collaboration, expression and contemplation; and be inviting for casual entry by passer-bys and stakeholders alike to explore and have high visibility to UX works in progress. The UX team will then use the space as a highly regular meeting point to work through UX process in a sanctuary for ideas and creativity.

The difference in collaboration using a design studio is stunning, and infinitely more conducive than traditional desk arrangements. With a relatively low cost of build-out, and vastly superior output, UX team performance and happiness, it is worth the investment.

By getting the UX design studio concept right, it can often become the physical ‘hub’ of decision making, it becomes the gathering point for those involved in projects, alike to how people naturally congregate in the kitchen of homes during social events. A place where clients can touch, feel and see tangible progress in the design of their product, rather than it being a mystery. A gallery detailing where the UX team has been, where it’s at and where it’s going. Ultimately an open door policy in a UX design studio conquers the initial perceptions some may have of UX professionals being over priced lab coat wearers with a lot of jargon, it immediately demonstrates on many dimensions how the UX team is busy making crafting their product.

Measurement

If you’re coming into a situation where you’re providing UX services to help lift up a struggling product, benchmark it first. As mentioned before, sometimes UX can be difficult to determine ROI. What a tremendous opportunity to show value, by being able to provide concrete statistics on where they were at when dissatisfied enough with their product’s performance they called you – and what it turned into as a result of UX. Benchmark the product’s key performance indicators at commencement, at project’s end prior to launch, then at appropriate intervals. Page views, clicks, time on page, revenues, pages per session, leads generated, bounce rates, whatever it is, there’s plenty to measure specific to what’s being improved with UX.

Conscious of ROI

It’s great to show reams of UX process artifacts showing the effortless and delightful experience you’ve crafted for the end user, but does it demonstrate how the client’s money will be converted to increases in key performance indicators? Don’t only talk about the end user, but also how the business benefits from UX design decisions each step of the way. At the end of the day, your customer is your client, not the client’s users. This may sound counter to UX’s mantra of everything being user first, but actually it’s the client whose paying the bills and needs to justify your costs and involvement in the project. It’s very easy to get wound up in the user-centered details of a product’s layouts, interactions, behaviors and so forth, but there must also be a balancing of how it converts, promotes and generally fulfills its business objectives.