Lessons Learned – Moving from Product to Agency

There are three significant things that happened last year:

Professionally, it didn’t really made sense to trade the luxury of a great paying product job, for the fast paced agency world. Especially since the only thing I’ve done up to then was product design.

I did however knew it was necessary for me and my fiancé to establish ourselves locally to have a solid support network around us for when we got married. So from a relational perspective, the move made a lot of sense.

Last week, it was a year since I made the plunge into the agency world. This coming week will also be my last week at Mabua before I embark on a new journey…

So before I head out into the wild again, I would like to end this chapter of my life with some reminiscing thoughts on this bewildering transition I made from product to agency

The agency world is fast
I’ve never had so little time to think about how to solve problems than the past year. I hated it but I learned to think faster and be content with solutions that were sub-standard. Besides, we’ll fix it in Phase 2… Right?

Phase 2
Phase 2 was indeed a myth. Or at least for 85% of the projects I worked on. There is nothing inherently wrong with Phase 2. We work in phases in the product world as well. We just call it the next iteration. However, there are two reasons why I think Phase 2 will remain a myth in the agency world:

In Mabua’s case, the first point was more of an issue than the second one. Mabua distinguish themselves from other agencies by not over-costing clients. So after the initial build, there would always be ample budget left for another iteration. But we rarely executed on it. Probably because we struggled to successfully educate the client about this process.

If agencies would charge less for the initial build and successfully educate the client on how another iteration could help with better customer feedback and end results, Phase 2 might get a more reputable name.

“Oatmeal” clients
Oatmeal clients, is the term we’ve come to use for clients who would try and design the website/campaign themselves because they thought they could do it better in Word (I kid you not. We had 2 clients who send us Word designs!)

Incidentally, they were also a good representation of the two types of clients that does this kind of thing:

Client 1: The client that tries to tell you something
This client has a problem but don’t know how to communicate it, so he does it with a tool he feels most comfortable with: Word. It’s not a slap in the face but an opportunity to listen.

Whenever this happens, I always ask, “What is the real problem here?”

This specific client wanted to put a solid color block behind a heading. Contextually it would’ve looked horrible, but because the client didn’t know better, it was his attempt to say, “Hey, isn’t there something wrong with this heading?” We made the copy bigger and the problem was solved.

Client 2: The client that needs to be fired
This client doesn’t really trust you and only hires you because he has to spend his budget each year otherwise it get’s cut the following year. There’s no easy way to say it, but irregardless of how much money this client brings you in, they need to be fired. They will drain the last energy out of your team and cost you more in maintenance when things go wrong…

I’ve experienced this first handedly!

Getting tired
Luckily we never used the Word designs, but it took a lot of fighting. Sometimes I not only had to fight the clients, but also some of my colleagues who were willing to use these designs.

UX Design Thing
Most clients & colleagues I worked with has heard of this UX thing but few knew what it stood for, let alone what it really meant. It was a nice term to slap onto something that was broken.

One of my biggest challenges at Mabua was to break the believe that UX means pretty pictures. It was difficult. Together with this, I was on a rocket mission to show the value and ROI of being user centered. This included doing proper client/user research and the necessary usability testing.

It was naive of me to think that a year would be enough to establish this concept into the culture of a company and client-base that was taught differently for decades.

It would be a miserable post if there weren’t some success. One of our biggest clients recently bought into a UCD approach to build their new website. This will not only help us build a better website that solves real user needs but also serve as gun powder when we present the solutions to a board that has been doing the same thing for the past 75 years!

The next chapter
Working in a digital agency was hard but it showed me how much I love people and how passionate I am about solving problems through product design.

The culture at Mabua is priceless! I have never experienced such a close, family orientated team such as at Mabua. Working with the team has been an unforgettable experience. Thanks Mabua!

But this is where a new chapter begins for me. I don’t know all the details yet, but like any good journey, the details unfold as you venture into it…