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Extending the line: How UX made friends and influenced advertising

by Ernez Dhondy

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Advertising and user experience design make for strange bedfellows. A modern pairing of skill sets that seems at philosophical odds with one another.

UX design (or just design as I prefer to refer to it) moves at a slow, methodical pace which is largely reliant on failure and iteration to learn and ultimately deliver results. While advertising is perceived as brazen and chaotic in its approach and ruthless in its desire to get to the best solution in the shortest amount of time possible.

So the question exists: how can two industries that appear to be at philosophical odds with one another co-exist, co-create and ultimately influence one another?

The agency landscape in Australia and abroad is littered with countless examples of agencies that have successfully adopted and utilised a design (design thinking or human centered) approach to produce amazing results. The likes of RG/A, Fjord and Isobar didn’t get to where they are because they relied on the traditional agency framework to deliver results. They improvised.

So why are people so suspicious of the union?

I’ve been a user experience designer almost as long as I’ve been in advertising and I’ve never once perceived the union to be anything less than ideal. That said, I have had enough conversations with other designers in advertising to empathise with the reasoning that they “have been burnt in the past”.

Let’s look at it from a process perspective. The traditional agency framework doesn’t really accommodate for the type of designer that wants to problem solve as much as they want to create. In an agency a planning team produces the brief, a creative team comes up with an idea and the designers are expected to bring it to life (or sometimes to rescue the idea itself). The perception of being an executer as opposed to a creator often leaves many agency-affiliated designers feeling underappreciated.

Fighting the good fight

The problem here isn’t one of perception. Instead I believe it’s one of process and influence. And if there were only two pillars the UX community could hang its hat on, it would be our incessant need for process and ability to influence.

So to those designers out there working in the world of advertising with feelings of neglect or underappreciation I ask, are you fighting the good fight?

Are you attempting to challenge the norm?

Do you advocate on your behalf till you’re blue in the face?

Do you continuously educate in order to change opinion?

We are currently in the midst of the golden age of design. But that doesn’t mean we get to be entitled. We must continuously do our bit to shift perception of what design is and the function it plays within any organisation.

Within the agency framework we must work hard to help others understand that design has moved away from art and aesthetics and instead is a driving force when it comes to complex problem solving. We must work even harder to change perceptions so that people no longer see us as pixel pushers, and instead understand (not laugh at) us when we call ourselves designs researchers, strategists and anthropologists.

My personal belief is that design is capable of doing to the corporate structure what punk music did to disco laden music scene of the late 70s: we are challenging and redefining in order to reach previously unimaginable outcomes.

Don’t do design for agencies, design the way the agencies work

With the right structure, the right team and the right reputation in, UX can have a massive impact on the way any agency works. After all, advertising has always been an industry that adapts and develops new skills to deal with the ever changing landscape and the ever evolving consumer.

It’s not the job of designers to execute (or even rescue) the brief. Design needs to play a pivotal role at every stage of the product or services development. Design must work collaboratively with planners to help identify the brief and with creative teams to help craft the solution.

Of course achieving this level of influence in an agency is not easy, so I thought I would share a few of the things I’ve learnt along the way:

  • Don’t build your offering from the bottom up. Establishing any new offering takes leadership. If it’s going to be your first hire, make sure they’re a gun.
  • Be an advocate. Make sure people know and understand what your brand of UX is. Take the opportunity to talk about what you do by running lunch-and-learns, write articles and taking the time to walk people through your proposed process.
  • Don’t confuse collaboration with territory grabbing. The role of UX is to bring people together, not convince everyone you can do their job better than them. Respect the established order and work hard augment it, don’t try to replace it.
  • Your opportunity for iteration will come if you plan for it. Don’t produce work without having a robust metric and reporting framework to go with it. This will be your best chance at being iterative in your design approach.
  • Make the right friends. Sure you want to work with everyone, but understand where you can provide the most immediate value. Get some runs on the board and start growing your offering from there.
  • Establish a team that can offer end-to-end solutions, and create a delineation between their various roles. My current team consist of two distinct roles: service designers, whose job is to help identify and shape the brief based on the organisations and its customer’s requirements. And interaction designers, who take the briefs and develop them into bespoke, useful and usable experiences. And one day soon we will be a team so deeply embedded into our client’s ecosystem that we will be helping them design their own process, teams and workflows.

This might sound like I am suggesting you adapt your offering, but nothing could be further from the truth. My suggestion is that you ask (politely of course) that the agency adapt to you instead.

The role of design within an organisation is not just to produce results, but to challenge the way that organisation works. Provide them with new tools and systems they can use to problem solve and unite around the most important component of their business: their customers.

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