Six Qualities to Look for When Hiring a Design & Innovation Agency

By Nicholette Daniel, Senior Project Manager

Selecting a design and innovation agency to help plan, create, and deliver your digital product is a big decision; and one that can be quite time consuming. While you may be tempted to make a quick decision, finding the right agency to partner with is a critical process, and well worth the investment of time until you identify your ideal strategic partner.

A compatible agency partnership can be a huge strategic and competitive advantage: Your team is the authority on the specifics of your business, but a relationship with experts in human behavior, value proposition ideation and implementation, and design and development, gives you a competitive advantage in bringing your digital product to market. You want to ensure ROI by building an engaging experience for your customers, and a well-established agency will provide both a fresh perspective and a breadth of needed experience.

We’ve identified six top qualities to look for when hiring a design and innovation agency:


1.    They have examples of tangible work they’ve brought to market

Here’s a secret: if you sit through a round of agency pitches, many of the presentations will be beautifully designed and FILLED with buzzwords and fluff that will tell you absolutely nothing about what they can actually do for you.

Look for an emphasis on idea generation and actual follow-through or proven concepts. Lack of demonstrable work in this area is a red flag. Make sure that the agency you choose isn’t only thinking big, but also delivering big on those wonderful ideas! Post-its, spec, or conceptual work by themselves, does not bring value to a business’s bottom line — look for completed, in-market projects.

Ask for examples of work they’ve brought to market, including case studies. Don’t worry too much if their book of work doesn’t include the exact thing you’re looking for, or if they haven’t worked in your industry before. The value the best agencies bring is knowledge of the design process, including user research and proven methods — and a team of people dedicated to making your ideas come to life using the appropriate technologies. Any work they share should reflect their process, even if it is redacted to protect client confidentiality. Also, ask about the experience of the people working there: have they been on both sides of the client/agency relationship? This small detail can make a big difference in understanding the needs of each team.


2. They ask questions

If your agency doesn’t fully understand your business’s current situation, where you want to go, and perhaps most importantly, who your users are and what they want and need, then how can they possibly help you create anything of value?

Look for signs that an agency is both interested in your business and helping you meet your goals. If there is a lot of ambiguity up front around what your product should accomplish or the problem(s) it should address, and an agency jumps right into “solutioning” before doing exploratory and/or generative research, that can spell trouble.

Ask for… actually, they should be asking you a lot of questions at this stage! An agency worth its salt will come prepared with their own knowledge and assumptions on your business and/or industry, and then ask you about your goals, success measures, and KPIs. If they’re not asking these questions, then your question should be, “Are you actually interested in my business?”


3. They want to know your customer

If we’re not all here for the end-user, then what are we doing anyway? Successful companies live and breathe user-centered design, and that should be clear from the start of your conversations with an agency.

Look for signs that an agency already understands your customer, or at the very least, has a desire to. If there is little-to-no mention of your customer or signs of user research throughout their process, steer clear!

Ask for anything that would indicate that they’ve done some initial research. What do they know about your target market or customer? How do they know this? What sort of research methods will they use to identify and know as much about your customer as possible should be a top priority for an agency looking to partner with you.


4. They have a flexible framework

There is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach to design and innovation, and a flexible framework is something that you should insist on.

Look for an agency that has proven experience with different approaches to design and development, and can flex when necessary. When the time comes to define a scope of work, make sure that you feel comfortable with the level of “wiggle room” given, in case you learn something along the way that causes a change of course.

Ask for examples of how they have adapted to different clients’ projects and working styles. What is their core methodology, and how flexible is it? Also, ask for details of any lessons learned on past projects; hopefully they have some examples which will prove that they are able to see and resolve problems and adapt from those experiences!


5. They are forward-thinking

Designing for right now is easy, but designing for tomorrow takes a real understanding of the technological landscape and dedication to staying ahead of the curve.

Look for cues from an agency that they are planning for the future of your product. The best agencies are forward-thinking, while keeping feasibility in mind along the way. All too often, the long-term considerations for supporting a product are overlooked at the beginning of an exciting new venture, so plan ahead to avoid this—nobody likes expensive, post-launch surprises!

Ask for examples of how they’ve created extensible, maintainable solutions for clients. If they don’t have multiple examples to share, they may be in a “build and release” mindset. This would be a good time to release them.


6. You like them

You’ve found an agency that meets all of the criteria above, but they seem like real jerks. Don’t do it! A good partnership just can’t thrive if you don’t enjoy the people you are working with. The quality of your product is extremely important, but so is the quality of your life, so don’t compromise on either!

Look for signs that you would enjoy being in a room with them all day, and that you wouldn’t dread calling them to discuss sensitive topics like budgets or schedules. Signs that your values and cultures are similar is also important, since you’ll be working very closely, and possibly even co-locating.

Ask for their core values, and reasons that people like working for and with them. Also ask for examples of how they’ve integrated with client teams in the past, and what has been the most successful.

One way to get a very good feel for an agency is to start with a small engagement, like a workshop. The benefit of doing this is that you can see how the agency works with your team and get the answers to most of the points mentioned above. Hopefully the outcome is valuable to your organization, but if you see early that they will not be a good fit, you can continue your search for the right agency without a costly, long-term commitment. The best case is that the experience is so great that you find your agency partner, and develop a long, fruitful partnership that actualizes your product and business goals!

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