woman walking down the street on a device
PHOTO: Samuel Zeller

It’s easy for a company to declare they offer user experience (UX) services or perform UX tasks. But, with continued confusion and misunderstanding around UX, how can a client know when an agency is deeply talented in UX or only talking the talk?

Typically, when you ask a firm about its approach to UX, you hear answers like, “We make wireframes.” An answer lacking a description of the user-centered design process is often a red flag indicating that the agency doesn't really understand or do UX.

Some companies have become wise to the expected answer to this question and will declare they work with users, interview them, perform usability testing or involve customers in the process.

Horror Stories Are Surfacing

“We outsourced our development to a company who told us they do UX and work with users,” said a source requesting to remain anonymous. “They sat down with just one of our users, asked them questions, showed them what they’re working on, and got feedback. Then, they'd go and rebuild aspects of the system after speaking with that single person. After that, they chose another user and do the same process again, changing the product again after talking to that one person. Is this right? I’m starting to feel suspicious of it.”

No qualified UX expert would engage in such a process. Maybe this was a UX process learned after reading a few books or taking a bootcamp. Yes, you can test with one user at a time to get feedback, but that is only part of the process. You should be testing with at least five users minimum and synthesizing the data and results.

However, if this was not an unintended misunderstanding of how to conduct UX testing, and might have been something done by the development shop to turn billable hours for extra engineering cycles into an exponential figure. It probably also adds weeks if not months to projects, delaying customers from receiving the next version.

Either way, the client is being overcharged and watching their project delayed in the name of “UX,” which is likely to give them a bad impression of UX rather than a negative impression of an agency taking them for an expensive ride.

Related Article: Why User Experience Matters — For Customers and Employees

This Isn’t Fast Feedback and Iterations

Working with one customer and then having engineering rebuild the product is certainly not “fast feedback and iterations.” UX experts absolutely want fast feedback from user testing and they want to then turn the learnings into iterations on product design.

The difference is that UX iterations would involve changes to or the evolution of UX deliverables: wireframes and prototypes. Feedback on UX designs would not lead to iterations of built and tested code living on a staging or production server. UX practitioners don’t deliver the feature or product to engineering until the cyclical UX process is complete.

The Agency Might Not Have UX Experts on Staff

It’s common for an agency or development shop to have no real UX experts on staff. When you dig a little deeper, you often learn that the agency is using artists who can do UX, or engineers who are sure they are excellent at putting interfaces together.

However, just as there is no substitute for expertise and talent in coding, there is no substitute for UX expertise and talent. UX tasks are often skipped or done poorly by unqualified individuals, which is not acceptable. Agencies and shops are selling you the expertise of individuals combined into an expert team. You’re paying a premium for this and should be getting what you are paying for.

Related Article: User Experience Design Is a Specialty: Treat it as Such

Stick to the Magic Number

Nielsen Norman Group reminds us that five is typically the magic number, therefore, the rule of thumb for usability testing is to use a minimum of five participants. User testing should be done with 15 or more participants when you want to ensure all of your personas (target customer archetypes) have been represented. Seek feedback from each user group to be as thorough as possible.

Testing with only one user is a huge risk, as you are relying on the ideas, choices and behaviors of that one person. Testing with multiple users allows patterns to surface versus identifying what might have been a fluke for a single person. Designs and concepts can then receive iterations and evolution based on the aggregated experience of a small customer sampling.