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Agencies & UX: 0/0, still… | nina eleanor alter
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In thoughts

By ninavizz

Agencies & UX: 0/0, still…

On 12, May 2012 | No Comments | In thoughts | By ninavizz

An ad agency I did a contract with a few months ago had the sign pictured below, on a war-room wall. It made me smile. It perfectly symbolized an industry-wide problem. Simply, abrasively, and completely authentic in its purpose to simply offer clarity. A problem that sadly, has existed for far too long and I’d love to see find resolve sooner, rather than later.

The office was a formerly independent “Digital Agency” that has since been eaten-up by a mega-media conglomerate. 3 offices nationwide, but that’s kind of irrelevant- as even the small boutique agencies operate the same way.

This past week I saw a listing on Twitter that Goodby had posted, seeking an “Associate UX Designer” (which they’ve since changed to Associate UX Architect). In productlandia, the hierarchical designation of “Associate” doesn’t exist. In Publishing and Advertising? Sure, it’s existed since before Don Draper’s era. Will you find it in any startup, established, or in-between tech company? Nope. Physical product company? Nope. And then, there’s the schizzodesignatia between “architect” and “designer” which sadly extends beyond just Ad agencies, and to all orgs.

Don Draper is a womanizing moron in a show praised for it’s gorgeous historical reenactment of social & business traditions we celebrate as dead. The sad thing however, is the fact that the business model of Ad Agencies in 2012 hasn’t changed one bit—despite the fact that in the past 20 years, the way media exists and is digested by humans on a daily basis, has—and, radically. Who misses out the most unfortunately, are the end consumers of media. Kind of the clients, too- but carrying the altruistic I <3 My Users flag (and refuse to hook-and-bait them as presumed-dummies), I prioritize users above the cheap jerks (who, ok, have at times kept a roof over my head). Not the business itself or business needs, but Cheap Jerk Clients who are ok engaging their customers as lowest-common-denominator metric-mekatronic dingalings.

“Digital Ad Agencies” began popping-up during the first boom, and they mostly specialized in doing whatever pixely whiz-bang major brands were willing to pay them to do—outside the traditional media of print and broadcast. Somehow out the gate, the notion that interactive is inherently a reciprocity-based relationship with media (versus a soundoff/listen-up broadcast-akin relationship), was wholly grokked, explored and embraced (it’s since seemingly been forgotten- tho more on that, later). Lots of creative opportunity mostly vested in Flash stuff- but the entire industry around digital-anythings was also trying to find itself, so—whatever—no big deal, the 90% output of dumb banner ads and spinny Flash intros are forgiven because at least the intent to find itself as an industry, was there (and those were the cool kid touchpoints companies wanted their brands slathered in, anyway).

Most of the nifty trailblazers—Razorfish, Organic, Avenue-A, SFI, MarchFirst, SKS, etc.—were bought & absorbed by one another, and all either eventually died or were absorbed by existing agency empires. Towards the end, User Experience evolved from HCI in the product sphere, web applications began to replace static content sites or their shallower micro-site counterparts as choice destinations for folks on the internet, and most recently the laptop/desktop experience merged into a secondary category, downsized in prominence by the multi-device cornucopia of mobile. Oh- and, games #crickets.

I don’t know what happened. I don’t. I do know however, that media consumption has boldly shifted to a more product-centric model, and away from the butt-before-teevee or breakfast-aside-magazine model. Ad Agencies have noticed, and have been increasingly asked by clients to develop more truly interactive, multimedia, buzzphrase-y-licious touchpoints (barf, hate that word). I’m assooooming that somewhere, UX folks were just kind of swept into the fold with developers. UX didn’t exist in the pirate days of interactivity, it was just everyone flying by the seat of their creativepants, with HCI folks stuck in pocket-protector land. Somewhere we got shoehorned as those “technical” people.

Who do the UX folks play with: the technical kids, or the creative kids? Are they even maybe an offshoot of one or the other but nobody’s noticed or quite figured that one out? No—Creative (Art Directors, Creative Directors, Copywriters, Production Designers)—has existed since the dawn of Advertising, and is holy. Technical are just the “execute it into something tangible” code-ish/programmy folks akin to printing presses or film directors & editors.

At the first agency I ever worked with (2009) the brick wall between Creative and UX was palpable. I was chatted-up by my boss on the first day, about how ding-a-ling-y all of the Creative folks were, and to just play along without assuming the entire agency was inept. I actually really liked the Creative folks- and after figuring out I wasn’t there to belittle them and rather wanted to play along, they warmed-up and asked me what exactly UX was- how to all play together nicely and how to best compliment each other’s skills. 2009. It wasn’t even an absence of workflow or process, rather an oddly defensive positioning of roles within the agency to out-prove the others as still relevant and not obsolete. I was home in Detroit again, and it was 1983 all over- the UAW workforce versus assembly-line robots.

The notion of “editorial” versus “functional” written or visual language was entirely foreign, or received as an attempt at a superiority wedge. All language can either be subjective or objective, and cognitive triggers tend to mostly be objective- with many emotional triggers, also objective. Reason didn’t really matter with the account’s lead copywriter though, as there was a holy order present that was not to be messed with (and she was married to a VP in the agency, rarely letting anyone forget that). Collaboration was not necessary, as the overlap just didn’t exist. Creative Waterfall: and for copywriting—even button text—I had the pleasure of being an overpaid production artist, translating red pen to wireframes for client approvals, after initially contributing my $.02. All efforts to collaborate, persuade to collaborate, or to last-resort bribe with homemade cookies, rebuffed. UX makes their contribs, and the remainder of iteration continued among the holy Creative.

The idea of any kind of a roadshow among departments or offices, or of a top-down re-evaluation of process with these new human needs entering media consumption—roles & responsibilities re-sorted to more clearly take advantage of what everyone best brought to the table—why fix what may be squeaky, but not outright broken? From a mountaintop: no, it is broken! Would you let your daughter marry Don Draper?

My next agency experience was building a gnarly, totally new home health (and damn awesome, imho) webapp- really, almost a consumer-facing SAAS, with some human service providers behind the scenes. It was a very exciting project, but it was led with agency-vet Project & Engagement managers. The goal of each client meeting: make the client happy, check things off a list, make the client happy, get a signoff (or a few). In our case, the “client” was a whip-smart, down to Earth, open-minded and very new to the digital game, health industry veteran. Truly the best individual that for the situation that any agency could have been tasked to work with, on behalf of her company.

The agency’s in-house culture was very much that which was common during the first bubble: work hard, play hard, and intermix the two constantly. That’s always been ad agency culture, though. Coming  from a product development background (where most UX’ers hone our chops), it felt undisciplined and weird. My prior gig had been with a Pivotal disciplined team, so after the first week I dropped $200 on fancy headphones to get through the several-hours long cheering tyrades from the game-room behind my desk.

Despite really, truly digging the product challenge at hand, it became increasingly difficult to come together as a team on a project, more than as individuals within an agency. We all played for Team X-Agency  more than we played one sport or another. Cycles came in bursts that played-out “Come early, stay late, produce lots of beautiful comps, play a lot in between, make the client very happy at the meeting- then all go out and drink!” The PMs were expected to meticulously plan-out the entire project from start to finish, with no technology insights or product scope understood- and when that was questioned, the person asking the questions was just looked at as if from Mars. Even senior management found the questioning of how we managed the client’s expectations to be preposterous, because as an award-winning digital agency we were “experts,” despite admitting minutes before that we were way in over our heads and had no idea who to even call for external consults about how to solve for some specific technology and legal issues. Sidenote: one of my UX colleagues did actually know who to call, but kept quiet because he was embarrassed by the arrogance of the agency.

Most endemic to the full industry I realized though, was the absence of any kind of a UX led Discovery phase. Personas had been done before I’d been brought on, but beyond the warm/fuzzy obvious customer experience lay a ton of implied functionality: where was that to get detailed out? Our client would have a random epiphany? Client meetings were to make the clients happy, not to ask them questions, nor to make them feel out of their element or somehow inept for not having answers (which is what asking them questions in effect, does- right?).

It took weeks (and eventually acting behind senior management’s back) for a very ballsy UX colleague to find just the right moment on a call- and to perfectly initiate that “let’s step back” moment. The senior PM and EM on the project both looked like they were about to plotz when Nicole blurted-forth the idea of scheduling fact-finding “workshops” instead of “we make you happy!” meetings… and thank goodness, the client being who she was, found the idea to be both refreshing and wonderful.

· · ·

So: a few years and a couple more ad agency contracts later, where’s the compelling argument that traditional Advertising should care about UX—or, at least care about integrating UX into its broader processes and systems of generating stuff? Clearly I have some snarky and bold opinions, but so what- who doesn’t (at least with a few drinks in them- and hey, this is just me sober)?

Opportunity. So much opportunity is lost, with only half the team (cough, brain) presenting itself at the table each time… and that’s not a self-importance trip as a UX practitioner and advocate, it’s simply a fact. If a discipline contributes to any narrative customers experience in the end media piece(s), it needs to be holistically understood & folded-in a storytelling process. As TV and radio advertising should be—tho frequently isn’t.

Each time I’ve been brought into a project at an odd “well, we really didn’t know when to engage UX” phase, multiple opportunities to plant seeds or to avoid task-redundancy by the wrong discipline, have already been overlooked. When projects or accounts are pitched, I’ve also rarely seen interactive media fully utilized for what opportunities of true delight and engagement are possible. More often than not I’ve also cringed at the same dog-and-pony-tricks of “30 seconds, move on!” thrown in as “interactive” or “social media” elements. CDs, Copywriters and Advertising Strategists really don’t “get” why folks use interactive media- and you know what, it’s not their job to. It’s a moving target.

TV and Radio still exist in the hyperreal sphere of “territory-before-map” that Advertising has nurtured, so there is less of a conflict when those disciplines are overlooked in the pitch-phase. On that point though, broadcast is just that: a medium that shouts out to a captive listener. With interactive media—and particularly with usage trending more towards apps and games than microsites or banner ads—it’s a participatory schtick, not a captive shout/listen dynamic, as is present with broadcast media. Ding ding ding ding, problem! Rockstar Advertising gurus don’t know what to make of that, and have bought-out and shut-up the few who tried asking (in earnest and without the assumption that consumers are stupid) that question several years ago.

At its core, the practice of Advertising has been built on manipulation and seduction of consumers, through media. Gimmicky tomfoolery, aesthetic sex appeal. Resonance beyond 30-second or multi-spread impressions, is a totally new concept. For a TV ad or a magazine campaign, there’s really not much a brand can do to sell itself, other than score the best gimmick. Product Development? Products depend on repeat/return use, and an authentic pleasure—or, meaning—emerging from the experience. Use, not “impression” or “viewing.” Experience, not observation. Products are to advertising, what sex is to porn.

The most obvious solution to all of this, is strong UX leadership and evangelism being brought to the head-table, by Advertising Executives. UX leadership that appropriately positions UX as a discipline around creation, and not around production or technical finishing. Drop the Don Draper act, eat a giant piece of humble pie, and welcome this new discipline to the table with an open mind—asap, and aggressively. Oddly, the most print-design centric agency of them all, Pentagram, is the one that stands out the most to me with their appointment of Lisa Strausfeld as a managing partner, as the most progressive to date in doing this. The rest—including each and every one that calls itself a digital agency—nope. Crickets.

I’ve worked with a lot of individual contributor creatives and strategists in Advertising agencies, and I have yet to work with one that hasn’t embraced the opportunity—with an open and eager mind—to learn about why humans engage with interactive media and to milk the “early and often!” mantra of engaging UX contributors. It’s not all about them, and what they bring to the table. Ideation and creation are a game of interdisciplinary table-tennis, and most independent contributor creatives totally get and thrive on that. As a UX person, I of course love that because I have way more fun playing with folks from other disciplines, to collaboratively make a broader amazing whole than any of us could have individually crafted. More relevantly however, it results in stronger work and interactive touchpoints (I really do hate that word) that perhaps the clients themselves may not be more excited about, but their customers will sure eat-up and respond to with more longstanding vigor than they would otherwise.

It’s the Career Advertising Guy folks that need their backs whacked to cough-up the egos an entire industry is choking on. The ones who are typically lauded as Advertising Visionaries, Mavericks, or othersuch highfalutin eyerolley titles. Yes, many of them have done amazing stuff—but to celebrate the whole show as the Them show, is just littering the media landscape with more shit, and holding an entire industry back. Nope: I rarely hold back when I have an opinion.

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