Setting up a UX department at an agency from scratch

17 Jun 2010 - 7:14am
6 years ago
8 replies
5097 reads

I've been given the chance to set up a UX department from scratch at an existing digital agency.

The agency has about 70 really good people (designers, coders, the works) many of whom are interested in UX design. And at the moment we do a bit of usability testing and the odd bit of research. But my mission is to really put the user at the center of everything we do.

Obviously I've got a lot of ideas for how I want to approach it, but basically I'm looking for advice from anyone who's done this before.

  1. If you've set up something similar, what do you wish you'd done from day 1?
  2. If you work in a UX team at an agency, what do you wish you could change or wish was done differently?
  3. What are some of the best ways to make people in the wider team aware of UX issues?
  4. What are the really important roles required? How should the team be structured?
  5. How should the day by day stuff run?
  6. What's the best way to document processes, tools etc?
  7. What's the best way to get the team behind a methodology?
  8. How do you mix designers with researchers?


And just generally any thoughts, tips, ideas, encouragement, advice would be awesome :)



17 Jun 2010 - 11:03am

In my opinion there are two jobs to do before anything else.

#1 Most importantly, get in front of the sales/account people and explain as accurately as possible what User Experience (UX) is, what the UX team will be capable of and what the team will NOT be capable of.  In my experience the account people are well versed in selling marketing, design and even technology but very few know to push UX as valuable to clients.  Get them on your side and bringing in UX work instead of bringing in other work with UX as an afterthought.

#2 Choose or create templates and stencils for Visio/Omnigraffle, establish a naming convention and file/folder structure for your projects. Make it simple for your new hires to create work that is easy to find and in a consistent style.


17 Jun 2010 - 11:25am

I agree with cnordling. I would also suggest holding some informal sessions with the existing staff to show them some of the techniques used in UX design. I think the more clear you are with the rest of the organization on what you do and how you do it, the better off the whole agency will be.


17 Jun 2010 - 11:26pm

I completely agree with cnordling and n41media.I would also add the following:

1. Role definition. Defining the roles of each member of the team is important especially in the case of the UX designer and visual designer, since they sometimes work in the same space.

2. Establish documentation and process. Depending on the process method your agency uses (agile/waterfall etc), its good to create a process with a formal document template. A typical user experience document will cover high-level flow diagrams, wireframes, and all the interaction details. Our company uses Adobe products, but most UX designers have their own methods and tools they prefer. We use indesign to create our specs, because Word kind of gets agitated when the spec is too big. If you do prototyping in your agency, the UX designer can deliver wireframes and flows for prototyping.

3. Really important roles. The team should have a UX designer, visual designer, content writer, and if doing research, a researcher. Researchers and designers work together all the time. A good UX designer will look to research to inform their design decisions, when possible. Additionally, the designer may ask the researcher for input for usability concerns, or work with the researcher to assist with usability testing. I've consulted with our user researchers on concepts and discussed at length what it is I wanted to test. They usually come up with the test plan on how to measure comprehension and so on.

4. UX designers as lead. Okay, so this may be a little controversial, but in my experience, UX designers as the lead work best. This means that UX is responsible for the entire experience. The UX designer should be overseeing the visual design to make sure it matches with the design vision, and reading and directing content to make sure its capturing the proper context of the design. That doesn't mean that this isn't a collaborative process, it is. But, it does mean that the UX designer is responsible for overseeing the entire user experience, while respecting the domains of content and visual.

If you want a strong UX team, it's important that you set organizational expectations that they are a vital role, and responsible for driving experience. Even UX-centered organizations don't always understand what UX does and how it's different from visual design. Expect to have an ongoing conversation on how UX is bringing value to your business. Be prepared with data, metrics, and conversion rates to show your execs and managers so they can see the bottomline impacts to the business once the designs have gone live.

Empower your UX designers to be visionaries and proponents for the user. And, back them up if they do stand up to the client and to the business if they are selling a good user experience. Otherwise, you are setting your designers up for failure. Since you are breaking new ground with this team, I recommend you hire someone who is very senior (10+ years) as they will have the chops to deal with and charm the opposition, and create new patterns and standards for UX.

Okay, I think that was my $0.05, this is a subject I'm passionate about.

Hope that helps,


22 Jun 2010 - 12:07am

Numbers correspond to yours: 1) First, get them on your side - they may view you as an intrusion into the work they have been doing before you came along.Do it carefully after watching who really controls and runs the show. 2) Don't skimp on the ways to collaborate. it may be weird for them to let go of control, but the payoff is phenomenal. Lose the waterfall. 3) Make them feel like their ideas are key to the success of your endeavor. 4) Let the current team tell you. They know how they work best. 5) Too much detail for now. you will find your way, as you see how #4 goes. 6) see #5 7) Let them tell you how they think it should work. Modify it as necessary and if you can let them think the ideas for modification were their ideas.
8) Make them feel like they are all one team, no us and them 9) this is mine. get rid of any whiners. if you can't get rid of them, let them as close to you as you can handle and trust (which should be little - whiners are the unraveling of any good team).

22 Jun 2010 - 2:15pm

Re: your question #4, I think an important role, though informal, is a senior management-level champion.  This person can help ensure you get a seat at the table for important meetings and decisions and generally make sure you're in the loop, which can be tough when starting something new.  I started a usability group on the client side, and found having that champion to be invaluable as far as my inclusion and, every so often, dropping the hammer if needed!  Good luck.

22 Jul 2010 - 2:42am

Is their any strategy document readily available with the help of which we can define the entire idea and present the ROI to the above cause.

Though the points are explained, but if can have a complete end to end packed document, it will be much better ....


22 Jul 2010 - 3:47pm

Two books that would be very helpful to your efforts:

Institutionalization of Usability (Schaffer)

Switch (Chip and Dan Heath)

23 Jul 2010 - 7:05am
Leandro Medeiros

Thank you cambeck.

2010/7/23 cambeck <>

Two books that would be very helpful to your efforts:

Institutionalization of Usability (Schaffer)

Switch (Chip and Dan Heath)

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