In reality, concepting, designing and developing a mobile or web application doesn’t align with most agencies’ skill sets. While virtually any agency can crank out a pretty WordPress site these days, some buyers can have a hard time separating this from more complex product design and development challenges, which require experience in business strategy, multi-year investment planning, dissecting large technical ecosystems, creating product roadmaps, designing modular design systems, standing up agile product teams, and handling complex enterprise systems integrations.
Understand the agency market
To find the right agency, you need to first understand the agency market. When evaluating agencies, look specifically for complex user journey and application examples in their portfolio. These are typically found with Digital Product Agencies, Digital Experience Agencies, and Digital Innovation Agencies. Avoid brand, marketing and PR agencies for building digital products and be very cautious when evaluating full-service digital agencies, as their specialty usually is focused on marketing and advertising, not on digital product development lifecycle.
Look for deep UX and UI expertise
There is a big range of skill sets in the agency world when in comes to designing and building digital platforms on the web or for mobile. The skills and knowledge base required to design a mobile application interface are very different than those for creating marketing materials or designing a CMS website.
In a recent example, a global creative agency had sold their CPG client an innovative mobile application concept. A partner was brought on for UX design and the development of the application, but the creative agency kept ownership of the visual design, which they staffed with brand designers that had limited or no user interface experience. Therefore they approached the application interface like a flashy campaign website, missing critical UX elements necessary to provide a user friendly--or sometimes usable--mobile application.
A mobile user interface needs to account for touch interactions as opposed to mouse and keyboard interactions, be scalable for a variety of screen resolutions, and provide clear visual queues that lead the user through the experience depending on their context. This level of knowledge comes from deep application specific UX and UI experience, so look for these specific examples in agencies’ portfolios.
Be aware of where the application development will take place
Some agencies will embrace the strategy and design portions of a project, but rely on other companies to actually build the application, perform quality assurance and handle DevOps tasks. This practice-segregated approach can lead to inferior product design decisions, dead-end features and a lower fidelity end-product.
In contrast, the ability to handle the entire project lifecycle under one roof requires a specialized team with strengths all the way from product strategy to launch and long-term continuous improvement. Having multiple disciplines under one roof means strategy, design and development teams can ideate and design solutions together. QA can be part of the design process and therefore create better acceptance criteria, and developers can review and provide feedback on feature decisions along the way. All this not only results in an overall better product, but also significantly reduces timeline and budget risks for you.
Find a partner, not a vendor
- With certain projects--for example, marketing campaigns or brochure websites--an approach of having a vendor build it, launch it, and leave it alone will work. But a modern digital product requires ongoing planning and critical tasks that benefit from a continuous partnership with your digital agency. Here are 4 reasons to look for a long-term partner:
- Roadmap planning: Just because you’ve made it to launch day doesn’t mean the work is over. Typically a backlog of features exist that needs to be evaluated, budgeted, and prioritized into a product roadmap for the next 18 - 24 months. This should happen at least quarterly as part of the ongoing product improvement process.
- Code ownership and support: Having the development team that built the product also maintain and improve it leads to cost and time savings. We typically set up application maintenance retainers that allow us to keep a team online that’s familiar with the product and can address issues or new features on an ongoing basis.
- Transition to internal teams over time: Clients sometimes hire us to design and build a product that they want to maintain themselves long-term. In those cases we facilitate training sessions for our clients’ teams and ensure that technical debt is minimized in the transition process.
- Be in love with the problem: It’s easy to fall in love with the solution, but it’s important to keep ensuring that the product being created solves the core issue that needs to be fixed for the product to create value. Even after an initial product is launched, a partner can help you dig past the surface and ensure that the ongoing product strategy continues to focus on solving the core business problem.
Be weary of fixed bid proposals for the entire project
It’s not unusual for someone to have a high-level vision for a product and a bulleted list of features with the expectation that their agency can provide a complete bid to design and develop that application. Given the lack of detail about the actual product requirements, it would be irresponsible to set an unrealistic budget expectation and providing an estimate would most likely be inaccurate. This onset miscalculation could set the project up for failure, since the budget will most certainly need to be revised as more requirements are unearthed. This leads to a breakdown in trust and unforeseen consequences as increased funds are needed to build the product and simply might not be available.
Keeping these warnings in mind, it is recommended to take one of two approaches:
- Bid out three phases individually: Have the agency start with the Planning and Insights phase, in which they identify the product’s feature landscape and build alignment across the product team and client stakeholders. Once that phase is completed everyone knows the level of effort required for the Experience Design phase and that phase can be budgeted, after which the team moves on to the Implementation phase.
- Provide a complete project bid, but not tied to a fixed scope: If for budget planning purposes a specific dollar amount needs to be adhered to then we recommend moving forward with a fixed budget but with an open scope. With this approach the team follows the project process until product design begins. At that point the product roadmap is determined, which includes a prioritized list of features. For the initial version of the product as many features can be included as the available budget allows. This approach requires more flexibility, but is closer to an agile project approach.
Hopefully this provides you with some insight into how to best select a Digital Agency for your project. If you have any further thoughts, feel free to leave a comment, or reach out to us if you need help with your product!