From Heartache to Mastery: 5 Lessons for the UX Designer Seeking Agency Experience

Working for a digital agency presents unique challenges for the aspiring User Experience Designer. When asked to describe my own experience, I’ve often met my peers’ curiosity with a sigh and a headshake. In retrospect, my knowledge accelerated in dog years and I learned many of the soft-skills I needed to mature my craft.

How User Experience Designers deal with the challenges of agency life can make the difference between heartache and mastery. To that end, I’d like to share five lessons to make the most of your time at a digital agency.

Learn to lead, learn to learn

The responsibility of designing and delivering great experiences doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders; it’s everyone’s job. Sadly, agencies who are “transitioning towards digital” can treat User Experience as a step in the process, responsible by one department. This is a myth that creates unnecessary challenges.

Don’t try and do it all. Instead, lean on the talent around you and focus on building relationships. Gain trust. This puts you in a unique position and inspires a shared sense of ownership. When it comes to leading a team, remember to not underestimate the power of personality and being likable.

Don’t do all the teaching. Working on a diverse team allows you and your colleagues to embark on a journey of mutual discovery. Aim to work with people outside your domain and strive to understand their crafts. Collaboration and honest dialogue are fundamental to building a shared respect and vocabulary and doing so regularly will help you become a more effective communicator.

Be open to sharing your skills, knowledge and expertise. You’ll soon find that your circle of empathy will grow to include not only your clients and their users but your colleagues, too. Surround yourself with people who possess a variety of skills. This is key to learning new things and gaining a stronger appreciation for working with people, not against them. Over time, these feelings will be reciprocated.

Lose yourself in the work

Agency projects will land at your desk in all shapes and sizes. With it, you will gain experience working across a bunch of different verticals, with different company sizes and business models.

All projects have quirks, some of which may misalign with your preferences. This is a good thing. Opt to work on projects outside of your comfort zone to become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. (Don’t be afraid to) make mistakes.

Any uncertainty about which area you want to specialise in will quickly dispel itself as you discover your aptitudes, preferences and T‑shape. This will help you understand how you may best contribute to future projects and how well you complement your fellow UX Designers’ skills. Consider each project a stepping stone towards self‑awareness.

Seek chaos to find cadence

The omnipresent fast‑paced environment (and resource shortage) means you’ll occasionally find yourself juggling multiple projects at once. Expect long hours, high stress levels and loads of pressure. As your agency’s understanding of the your role matures, you’ll become more involved in project planning, facilitation and oversight. While these activities are completely necessary, they introduce additional strain on your bread and butter of workflows and wireframes. This means you may often leave your office feeling under‑accomplished.

At first, pulling all‑nighters might seem like the best way to get your work done and you may even be successful. Increased effort does not necessarily result in increased productivity and working this way won’t be sustainable. If you’re in the business of delivering great experiences, foregoing sleep is a bad idea. Don’t fall victim to workaholism. Instead, try different techniques to focus and get to know your triggers.

Experiment with new UX tools, methods and ways of working. The more projects you’re exposed to, the more your desired cadence will be revealed. You’ll quickly expand your UX arsenal and be able to adapt your process on‑the‑fly for future projects.

Working on parallel projects may not be the most productive method of working, but it’s often unavoidable. Consider each project you touch to be a bundle of distractions. Expect plenty of meetings, emails, conference calls and shoulder-tapping to kill your state of flow. Add to this the fact that projects often go awry and you’ll no doubt witness a past project making an unexpected guest appearance when it’s least convenient to you. View this challenge as an opportunity to learn how to be resourceful, pragmatic and a “momentary leader.”

Before too long, your daily musings about process will turn into a realisation that there is no perfect process. Instead, learn to compromise and react just as much as plan. Become adaptable.

Encourage critique for perspective

Agencies opting for a waterfall development methodology generally limit UX designers to one user research phase, design phase, and usability testing phase. This creates an unrealistic expectation that we need to get the experience “right” (read: perfect) on the first try. Interestingly, many designers are perfectionists by nature. Learning to let go is the difficult part.

If we want to deliver the best outcome for our users and clients we must embrace a lean mindset. Despite what software development methodology our agency chooses, working in a lean way allows you to emotionally distance yourself from your work and embrace critique early and often.

This mindset will come naturally to some. Others may find this much more difficult. Start by ditching your (private) sketchbook. Don’t hoard your ideas, use loose sheets of paper and whiteboards to share them with your team. Rather than chasing the perfect design solution, be excited to experiment and have your thinking shifted. Don’t be precious and be prepared to throw things away. Once you do, new doors will open and you will discover answers you would never have discovered otherwise.

Mistakes are a healthy part of great design, so don’t try and avoid finding them. Where possible, test your ideas; test your sketches; test your prototypes; test everything you’ve got to expose mistakes faster. Iterate. As soon as you accept that mistakes are inevitable, you will feel a huge sense of relief. You and your team will arrive at more robust solutions quicker and you will be well on your way to maturing as a designer.

Practice storytelling to win hearts

At some point in your agency experience, you’re required to sell. This may involve selling a big idea when pitching for new business; selling your design rationale when making recommendations; or even selling UX. The reality is, some people, somewhere along the way, will disagree with what you’re saying and you may experience feelings of unwanted, unwarranted criticism. To win the hearts (and minds) of your audience, there is no skill more powerful than being able to tell a good story.

Stories contextualise and facilitate understanding. Whether they’re told to communicate an idea, frame a design problem, or elicit an emotional response, storytelling is the most effective technique to help your audience understand “why?”

The agency environment provides many opportunities to perfect your storytelling craft. To make the most out of it, you’ll need to be resilient and try different techniques. Investigate which storytelling methods engage and persuade. Listen to your audience and ask for feedback. It’s easy to tell a story, but hard to tell one that’s memorable. In due time, your stories will inspire others and play a critical role in evangelising what is important to your agency, clients and users.

Now go get those skills!

Remember that this advice is informed by agency life – it doesn’t depend upon it. If you’re seeking the thrills and chaos offered by agency life, be sure to find the right one. Any agency will give you experience, how much you get out of it depends upon how you deal with the challenges. If you’re unsure about working in an agency, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of other work environments.

Agency or not, get out there and do great work. Don’t focus too much on giving the work environment a chance. Instead, focus on giving yourself a chance. If you love what you do, you’ll pave your own path to gain the skills you need to be great. The skills you gain are only as good as what you learn about yourself. Be hungry, be fearless.

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