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Style + Substance: Using Research to Back up Your Design

Agency teams are not only accountable for making beautiful designs that satisfy the client’s laundry list of requirements, but they’re also on the hook for making sure those designs will perform well with their future customers and users.

We are often brought into engagements with new agencies where some design work has been done but the project has gotten held up when a stakeholder asked what real people (not designers or clients) thought about the designs. The questions often sound something like: “What works better for users?”; “Is this really intuitive?”; or, “Is it better than our competitor’s version?”

This type of gut-checking, de-risking, and, frankly, common-sense approach to design is something we hear all the time. Design success isn’t just achieved when your client approves your mockup, but when your team has the confidence and data to tell the client it works and why.

The proof is in the people

User research is the way you’ll get the evidence and insights you need to know how well the design performs and all the reasons why. It’s not just a report card telling you what you did right and wrong. When properly done, research is a conversation that reveals insights–those creative sparks the team can run with and around which it can design ideas nobody else thought of. Research also brings a rigor to the design conversation that tends to gravitate toward the strongest opinions–which may or may not be based on facts. Research turns that swirling of opinions into a place to learn and guide your clients to the design decisions that will stick.

Design that works

Crafting a good experience isn’t just about usability or getting users from point A to point B. Though ease of use and intuitiveness are hallmarks of good UX design, we’re also after capturing a person’s imagination, evoking emotions, and creating moments people want to talk about. Peter Morville illustrates this in his “UX Honeycomb” diagram which divides the user experience into seven categories. They should sound familiar because half of them relate to the practical aspects of design and half are about the emotional. At the center is “value”–the core of what agencies, creatives, clients, and entire production teams are ultimately striving for: creating value for brands and customers.

Every design challenge is unique and requires a different recipe. The measures of success could be quick “time on task” and high success rates. Or they might be eliciting an, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” when a user is pleasantly surprised. Whatever the definition of success for the project, the UX design can be targeted to meet those needs. This should be enhancing big strategic and creative ideas, not watering them down.

Best practices get outdated

So what worked last year may not necessarily be as effective this year. And just because a client’s competitors have adopted a popular design pattern, it doesn’t mean people actually like it. Often, we’re asked to design using “best practices”–which is usually a good idea when we need to move quickly. But you really need to be constantly validating your idea of what “good design” means, and the only way to do that is by constantly talking to people and gauging how different groups react to designs in different contexts so you can look deeper than the trends and styles non-designers sometimes latch onto. So the next time you ask your designers to look at what the competitors are doing and imitate that, remind yourself it’s not a sure thing your design will be any better for adopting it.

There’s no substitute for research

Even with AI design tools on the rise, they’ll only ever be able to design something as good as the data they are trained on. There will always be a gap between even the smartest design templates and the people they are meant to serve. People are constantly evolving, and if you want your designs to stand out from the crowd (in a good way), you’ve got to make sure they work for the crowd.


Reframing Research: Inspire Creativity and Clients

Research can get a bad rap — it’s where great ideas go to die. But that needn’t be the case. On the contrary, we think research — maybe slightly reimagined for fast-paced agency production teams — can cement the case for great ideas with even the most risk-averse clients.

You know the type: the client who, after sending you a brief that inspired you and really got your juices flowing, pulled back once things started getting real. While appreciating the fresh, out-of-the-box thinking, the client wasn’t quite ready to let go of what was familiar. In such circumstances, it can feel like you’re serving two clients: the adventurous client who aspires to do great things and swing for the fences, and the conservative client who just wants a fresh coat of paint on last year’s work that doesn’t risk a thing.

This duality exists in all clients to varying degrees, but it’s not their fault — pursuing creative, status quo-challenging ideas takes courage. But chances are the client’s company doesn’t measure results in courage — it measures them in sales, sign-ups, and other metrics that point toward customer behaviors. The status quo has all the data it needs to prove old designs (even mediocre ones) get some customers to act. And what do new designs have? Until they’re tested, they have hope, promises, and aspirational stories that might move us emotionally but frighten clients when it comes to gambling their reputations.

This is where research can ride to the rescue, putting design ideas (new and old) on equal footing so clients feel comfortable making the bold choices they want.

Making Research Work for You

Historically, research has been something most of us have worked around — waiting for studies to be set up, run, for results to be gathered, etc. — but we think the trend toward rapid research is underappreciated. Research should serve the way we work instead, not hold up design progress. Here’s how we think great research should look:

  • It positions itself as the team’s missing dance partner, telling us what works for people and why. The team puts those insights into action, confident each step is going to land.
  • It puts creatives and idea makers in the driver’s seat, helping them determine what design questions we need to answer and what options are worth exploring.
  • It synchronizes with design, moving at the right pace, following the right process; design and research should never hold each other back.


Everything should flow. Just as designs can iterate quickly over hours and days, research should match the pace and frequency of design so every design decision — even internal ones — will hold up with clients.

Making Research Work for Clients

But effective research doesn’t just serve agencies — it ultimately is about serving clients, who want to make smart decisions but can’t do that alone. It’s your job to prepare them to make decisions on design direction. So when you present designs, discuss the pros and cons, the emotion and the logic, what you know, and the options to learn more. Research is the best way to learn about design before anything is built.

Given both sides of each story, clients are better equipped to make sound decisions and stick with them. And if there are any nagging questions, clients know you have the tools to find answers so they feel confident they’re making the right choice.

The RITE Stuff

Rapid research is a great resource for agency teams and clients alike. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than seeing great design ideas validated in a test is seeing mediocre ideas become brilliant with just a few design tweaks.

Fortunately, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to deploy rapid research on your team: In the UX world, the RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation) method nicely fits the needs of fast-paced and experiment-driven agency designers. The beauty of this method of usability testing is as soon as you get a clear signal an improvement should be made, you step in mid-study and change the design. No wasting time and effort reconfirming what everybody knows is a problem. You keep design evolving, even when you’re learning. Said simply, you save time and money.

But the downside to the RITE method is it requires a dedicated in-house researcher who can sit with designers and talk through how to make adjustments on the fly while preserving the study’s integrity and results. Fortunately, as with many services, user research (even the RITE method variety) can be outsourced to capable partners (ahem), which can allow you to spin up quickly (as little as a couple of days) and turn the capability on and off as needed. This makes research an on demand resource teams and creatives can lean on to help clients build faith and confidence in how the big, creative ideas stack up against the small ones.

RITE Method:


Making Process Work for You (and Your Client)

Process: The secret sauce which prospects can (explicitly or implicitly) expect you to bring to the table when discussing a project. Or maybe the client has a process—“We use agile,” or “We use waterfall” followed by, “Can you work with that?” Naturally, you nod along because you want the business, as you should. But once the project is running, something inevitably falls short—the process doesn’t quite jibe with the project, the culture, the business context, or some aspect of all three. Maybe approvals are taking longer than expected without explanation. Or the client’s attitude shifts and they suddenly seem curious about things a few steps down the line. Or maybe they precipitously want to wrap things up.

So how do you take an organized, process-oriented approach while still producing great creative work? Do you stick to the plan and power through, regardless of whether it’s working or not? Do you abandon process altogether and let the creatives run the show until they run out of time? As with so many things in life (work and play, chips and vegetables, exercise and Netflix binging), the key is balance. Which you can identify by, first, assessing the wants and needs of both your client and design team; second, being flexible with process but inflexible with your principles; and third, having a process toolkit, which allows you to improvise when a process isn’t working.

“Sure, Let’s Go With That–We’ll Just Change It All Later”

Processes aren’t successful because they’re particularly fast or slow, because they iterate or sprint—any process can fail the team or feel like it’s making it a struggle to get through the next review, whether a tech-inspired design sprint or a more traditional creative process. Then, too, winging it can be just as much a recipe for disaster.

Whether processes succeed or fail hinges on the level of client and agency team connection between the Gantt chart lines —that is, the degree to which client and agency team are on the same wavelength, not only in terms of goals, but the values underpinning them. These are often embedded within the process, between the deadlines.

Conservative clients, for example, want a steady, sure process so they don’t misstep. They may be less concerned about precisely hitting deadlines, preferring instead to avoid having to tell the higher-ups they made a mistake or have to ask for more budget. In contrast, growth-oriented clients chasing an innovative idea may mind less if they need to pivot during the project—provided they know there’s a better design option on the table.

When Clients Become Their Own Worst Enemies

John W. Bergman famously said, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” Every team, whether on the agency or client side, can inadvertently self-sabotage. Maybe the teams aren’t internally aligned—maybe power dynamics or other contextual considerations are playing an unspoken role. We’ve all had the clients who withhold information (intentionally or not), can’t commit to a design direction, and give vague feedback–which can derail the project. Or the clients who let their power dynamics sabotage the project by initially easily approving designs–only to reverse course weeks later and ask for variations.

A good process can certainly help avoid some of these self-sabotaging tendencies—but only if they sufficiently account for the cultural context and values under which the team is operating. No matter your process approach, respecting the constraints within which teams operate is key to successfully seeing a project through–not just with fewer gray hairs, but with a joint sense of success and an inclination to work together in the future.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth”

Hence why assessing the client’s and the creative team’s wants and needs is the first step to navigating process within the real world—that is, within the context in which you’ll all be operating together. Agency teams and clients need to align; communicate in an unbiased, transparent, and honest fashion; and make decisions that not only make sense in the moment but that will hold up as the project inevitably takes on a life of its own. The challenge is that while practically all clients will say they want to be agile, transparent, openly communicative, etc., not all can truly handle that approach.

Agency teams must identify what they really want and need—which will require deep, active listening and checking your own biases at the door. Not everyone thinks the way you and your agency team do. Not everyone may be speaking up on the client side because of power dynamics. At the risk of getting too squishy here, you may have to put your therapist hat on for a while and really decipher what’s happening on the client side to set yourself and your team up for real success.

What does that look like in the real world? Consider: Has your team done this type of project before? How did it go? If this is new to the client, they will need more communication, more hand holding, and more time. How will this project impact you, your team, and your company? If their world is going to be different after this launches, change management is something you should consider. Give them the tools they need to socialize the work and scripts to present it when you aren’t in the room.


Next, you should strive for a flexible approach to process, but an inflexible approach to your values. The most effective agency teams have principles they value and find ways to weave through all of their work and client interactions. This is what makes them feel consistent and reliable to clients. But at the same time, they don’t have a rigid process diagram—and even those that do rarely follow them exactly. And with good reason: Plans have to change when you find out the client wants to launch a month sooner. You may need to reassess your process approach if it’s creating friction with your client. Which means putting the end goal and the people involved in the project above the process. But if all you know is double diamond–or agile or waterfall–you may not know how to accomplish this pivot.

Outcomes > Process

A better approach, then, is having working principles : values you take with you to every engagement that allow you to synch with your clients in ways that make them comfortable but subtly push them in ways that can work for you—and can ultimately protect the work, ensuring you’re giving space and importance to creating designs. This will likely require some give and take—trade-offs between what the client is familiar and comfortable with but that also get you what you need to deliver a successful outcome.

At each step, focus on outcomes—don’t blindly follow process. Maybe the stated deliverable is a sitemap—but maybe what’s really needed is collective alignment on a vision and direction for the website (which could manifest itself as a sitemap, a journey map, or a design strategy). If you understand the key is really the collective alignment, you’re likelier to guide your client to the right expression of the website design that resonates with them and answers their questions best than if you’re rigidly aiming for a hard deliverable (a sitemap) by a hard deadline.

This isn’t to say you should have no process—you can and should still plan for big chunks of activity and create a process everyone can look to that gets them to the finish line—and you should be well-versed in multiple approaches to process. But whatever path you choose should allow for the real (maybe unstated) goal of each step, not just provision of a deliverable. Focus on outcomes. Focus on what decisions you expect to make and the information you’ll need to gather to support those decisions.

Whether you use a double diamond approach, Google sprint, lean, agile, waterfall, or the next new thing, it’s important to know what each approach accomplishes for you. Think of these approaches—any new process, for that matter—as a new tool you can dissect and use as it fits your situation.

So rather than narrowly focusing on following a process and insistently hitting deadlines—while ignoring what may be going on in the background or between the lines—articulate your values, express your ability to work with a variety of process approaches, and then allow the conversations with your client and agency team to guide how you all work together, employing process ideas as they fit the particular need and goal. In our experience, this approach results in happier clients, happier agency teams, and elevated creative work—which should be everyone’s goal.

Are you thinking big enough about design thinking?

For a lot of traditional creatives (those typical pairings of art director and copywriter), design thinking translates into thinking about design–i.e., being smart about what they do.

For a lot of new creatives–and, increasingly, for clients who have been at all involved in the digital space–design thinking means a lot more. It’s a philosophy, process, and way of putting users at the center of design–in other words, it’s a much bigger idea than you may think, and mistaking it for a small idea could set you (not to mention your clients) up for disappointment.

While purely thinking about design may coincidentally land you in a similar place (though that’s doubtful), approaching your project with true design thinking at its heart lands you side-by-side with your client versus at opposite ends of the table. You end up partners jointly solving a problem, instead of (as is more typical) opponents facing off, with you needing to win their approval.

When you’ve got a savvy client who values design thinking, but you rely on the tried and true creative method instead:

  • You only rely on what the client or strategy team told you and realize you should have been learning about what designs users find valuable and delightful.
  • Your client puts the designs to the test and they underperform, eroding faith in the team’s ability to design things that work in the real world.
  • Your client asks about design strategy and decision-making, and the creatives respond with their personal preferences.


So here’s how you can explain design thinking to your traditional creative team (without alienating them before you’ve even gotten started):

  • Clients know part of the problem; users know the other part. We need to understand both parts to know how to create solutions.
  • Our solutions will be judged not just in a single client review, but in the market–so the designs need to perform well with actual people, whose input we need along the way.
  • The client will sign off on solutions that either are proven to work or tell a grounded story of why and how they work better than what exists today. They explain the experiential, tangible, and measurable benefits of good design.


With your team thinking along the right lines, the next step is implementing design thinking in your process. Keep in mind:

  • It’s a cross-functional sport. Expand your team and include specialists in research, design, and creative. Good collaborators bring necessary perspectives about users and experience design that make the most traditionally minded teammates capable of solving more complex design challenges.
  • It’s iterative. Plan short sprints of creating, learning, and sharing results with your clients. Getting them in the habit of seeing the work and insights evolve on a regular cadence reassures them progress is being made.
  • It’s collaborative. Design reviews are more like design workshops where clients buy into the process, understand the thinking behind decisions, and are more apt to follow creative directions since they’ve seen the evolution.


Once you’ve got your team rowing together toward this new future, you should reap some big benefits:

  • Clients will feel and experience a partnership with your team–which, over time and ideally, should lead to repeat work.
  • Your creatives won’t be shooting in the dark–rather, they should have lots of insights to spark and grow ideas.
  • The process will be transparent. You’ll see how things are tracking, and you’ll have a footing so you can realign the work should it wander or get off-track.


Over my years in this business, I’ve seen clients become increasingly savvy as their goals shift from winning design awards to earning design results. So much of their business rides on creative teams that intuitively get design thinking. I’ve seen creative teams try to do things the old-fashioned way and wind up punished by clients who demand they take a different approach. Nobody enjoys the difficult realization the team doesn’t have what it takes, so do yourself a favor by updating how you’re thinking about design thinking. Give it the space it needs to make your team shine and do bigger and better things.