The dynamic between a traditional design agency (i.e. one that has “fantastic” designers that win design awards, but have no clue about UCD) and a UX agency or consultant can be a tense one. It can reach boiling point when you throw a client into the mix.
Over the years I’ve been in a number of complex situations where my diplomacy and UCD ethics have been tested to the full.
Consider this scenario, you are running a debrief workshop off the back of some usability testing. The usability testing clearly showed that the product had significant issues in a number of areas to do with the interface design. The design agency who called you in to the project, and who only did so because their client insisted on it, is giving you daggers as with each new issue you challenge the quality of their design work. Meanwhile their client is smiling at you and giving them daggers wondering why they produced such rubbish.
It can become a stand-off of almost Pulp Fiction like proportions.
Who blinks first?
What do you remain loyal to “the truth” (i.e. what you observed during the research) or the business dynamic (i.e. I get paid by “them” so I have to make sure they don’t look stupid)?
When presented with these options I’ll always go with the truth and suffer the financial repercussions. But here are some other things you can consider.
1. Do unto others as you want to be done to
Remember what it felt like before you discovered UCD, or worked in an enlightened company. Would you really want someone rubbing your nose it in? They are likely to become defensive, which isn’t a good, collaborative dynamic from which to design from.
Choose your words carefully. Expressing the problem and recognising the fact that without user insight it was an understandable solution to come to, will go a long way towards getting everyone thinking in the right way.
2. Craft your message
Tell them how enlightened they are to have embraced usability testing and user-centred design (even if it wasn’t actually their idea, but their clients). Tell them that by recognising that they needed to get user involvement, they will quickly get to a much better solution.
3. Focus forward
Surely it would be worse to be oblivious about these things than to know about them now and do something about it. Set the emphasis on moving forward and refining the designs based upon what we’ve learnt.
4. Acknowledge the constraints
If things are still uncomfortable in the room, a brief discussion about the timescales, business requirements and technical constraints can often help deflect attention from the poor designer who is either shrinking in his chair, or become red-faced in defence of his work.
“It wasn’t Hank’s fault we asked him to pull a rabbit out of a hat while sky-diving to earth on a ironing board.”
Alternate approach – avoid the discussion
An alternate approach is to avoid the three way dynamic entirely. Instead arrange two separate one-on-one meetings. This enables you to give the message as honestly as you need to without fearing the sensibilities of others.
In reality this means your work can be pushed under the carpet by the design firm – “the research didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know”.
The purest in me strongly recommends against this approach. The uncomfortable tension that comes from getting “the truth” out in the open often leads to a successful working dynamic. The freshness after the storm. If you avoid it, as this alternate approach suggests, you run the very real risk that history will simply repeat itself.