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Agencies and user experience

November 21, 2010


Peter Meholz of Adaptive Path wrote a blog post a couple of days back which slammed agencies for operating a business devoid of user understanding. It contained so many quotable gems that it was impossible to ignore and and of course, generated a flurry of coverage on blogs and Twitter.

The gems included:

“When criticizing ad agencies, you have to begin at the core —
advertising, as it is widely practiced, is an inherently unethical and,
frankly, poisonous endeavor that sees people as sheep to be manipulated,
that vaunts style over substance, and deems success to be winning

“Such poor treatment of staff is a big part of the reason that ad
agencies end up dissatisfying their clients. Clients are sold a shiny
flashy bill of goods by slick senior folks who are then never to be seen
again. In their place are squads of junior and mid-level designers,
working across multiple projects, with little chance to reflect and
improve their skills.”

“One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice
where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and
the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine
in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king,
this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often
the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have
little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user
experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come
from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”

I found Peter’s comments a little strong and somewhat wide of the mark especially in our case, we’ve had frequent conversations with Adaptive Path about working together and ended up doing a considerable amount of work on user understanding with one of the founders of the company.

Anyway, here’s was the response I wrote as a comment on Peter’s blog.

These are confusing times.

It’s harder than ever to define terms like, “user”, “consumer”, “creative” and “agency”.

In the chaos of this confusion, it’s very easy to be convinced that the world is bi-polar with the user advocates and deep experience creators at one end and the traditional “Mad Av” ad creative teams at the other..

This polarized world is fast becoming a dated concept, the smartest agencies get that this isn’t a zero sum game with one winner, but instead the goal is often for a hybrid “best in breed” approach.

User understanding is vital and important, but it’s just the start of a conversation on top of which creative flair has to be added. The marriage of deep user understanding with leading edge creative talent is for now and the future, but the switch isn’t going to flip over just like that.

There will be a gradual shift- television and television advertising
hasn’t and isn’t going away- in-fact- various research studies confirm
that both TV viewing (on all formats) and appreciation of television
advertising are on the increase.

Without advertising- who is going to discover the great user experiences? As any app developer will tell you, it’s hard to get discovered, even if you have a great experience.

Advertising in some form will be required to capture people’s imaginations and attention. What form it takes will change, but the audio-visual message has tremendous power- despite the digital revolution- no communication format in the digital world has ever come close and clients know it.

Ad agencies as the pure entities you’ve defined- might die out, but
this is unlikely as their skills will still be required, but perhaps to a
lesser degree than we see today.

However, you have to consider giant agency holding companies are
already firmly playing in the digital experience field. At the top, they
are smart enough to know where the world is heading and they are
covering their bases. Quite simply, they have enough people who “get

In summary, the best ad agencies out there embrace or will soon
embrace the “hybrid” model where multiple skill sets create a multitude
of different, but relevant experiences for users- some of these will
feel like advertising and others more like deep user experiences.

Great user communication and connection is now and will be all doing about both, not substituting one for the other.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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