Lessons Learned Scaling An Agency

Three Design Observations To Improve Client Communication

June 26, 2019

Code & Design

This upcoming July marks my sixth anniversary since setting out to attempt the Silicon Valley dream. Beginning the journey as half of a two-man team, the responsibility of product design fell straight into my lap; a then-business student in grad school, I had embarrassingly minimal exposure to anything in the creative world — principles, tools, practices, etc. In fact, I remember the exact date (13th) that I googled for the first time: “Photoshop Website Tutorial.”

That query marked my first of now-endless forays into the world of UI, UX, & product design. The first two years of the journey revolved around a single product: beloved set-streaming app, Setmine. A great product & a god-awful business, we intermittently turned to consulting in order to stay solvent. Soon, the temporary undertaking morphed into a permanent purpose. For the last four years of my career, post-Setmine, I’ve started & scaled a software engineering agency in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With a tiny team, we’ve each had to wear multiple hats. On my end, I took charge of strategy, sales, & design.

Starting as a one-man team, I’ve had the privilege of accelerating through the many possible design roles within an agency: from UX research, to UI mockups, to branding, & finally product managing. What follows are five imperative lessons I’ve learned throughout this six-year journey with the goal of improving client communication. Some lessons may resonate more quickly than others based on your current position, but, in general, I’ve tried to present these epithets as applicable to any designer within an organization:

  • Use Greyscales For Focused Feedback
  • Align Expectations Early On
  • Create & Update Master Vaults
  • Centralize All Process Deliverables
  • Never Leave Lorem Ipsum Copy

These lessons are useless unless they’re actionable; so, as you read through, I’ll try to deliver both a solid reasoning & a clear example of the lessons above.

Use Greyscales For Focused Feedback

When in a role that requires client communication, either as a product manager or design lead, it’s critical to immediately confront the innately skewed signal-to-noise ratio. Early on in a design phase, the goal is to identify & isolate the critical needs of different users, which are then translated to basic screens & views (UX). This means minimal attention should be paid to UI & polish details such as colors, shadows, borders, etc… Instead of combating with these distractions, simply adhere to the following:

Deliver Greyscale Mockups Before Presenting Anything With Colors

By constraining mockups to grey-scale first, you’re setting the stage for a successful, focused, client feedback session. By removing polish & quickly-changeable UI elements from the equation, you & the client can zone-in on fine-tuning the core UX functionality: never present a first draft of mockups with a finished color palette. I understand the appeal to go the extra mile, but, after many, many designed products, I’ve discovered that colors, shadows, & polish in general are very distracting, particularly to non-designers.

Align Expectations Early On

In addition to distracted & ineffective feedback sessions, another common point of failure in client communication stems from misaligned expectations. This issue rears it’s head in the form of the following dialogue:

  • “What happened to screen x, y, z?”
  • “I thought we decided on solution a, b, c?”

Consistently communicating early-on in the design process is not enough. Client participation is supremely more useful, & trumps unidirectional feedback every time. Why? Because by participating, they now have skin in the game & are not as likely to “misremember” decisions later on. Notice the title of this lesson is not “set expectations early on;” I’m carefully using “align” here because it needs to feel like a collaboration to the client. A sense of collaboration grows a sense of ownership, this sense of ownership translates to aligned expectations which drastically reduces the possibility of a “I thought we agreed on x, y, z” conversation.

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Whether you make a literal master checklist or you present UX wireframes (examples above), you’ve now curtailed the possibility of a serious derailment in further development of the design. This mode of operating keeps perfect transparency from the designer & communicates reasonable expectations for the client.

Create Vaults As Early As Possible

This might surprise a novice, but when it comes to UX layouts, ask any veteran product designer & they’ll confirm: you rarely run into a client-need that is optimally-solved by designing a completely foreign view. Except for these ground-breaking designs, 80% of your time will be spent designing a solution within a common category such as list views, maps, search, item views, logins, & setting.

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Many Thanks To The Sketchapp Sources Community

Assuming you’re facing the prospect of a long design career, one of the most time-saving lessons I’ve learned is to create & maintain “vault” files. The standardization of this lesson straight-forward:

Anytime You Download A Template Or Complete An Original Design, Add The Artboard To The Correct Vault File

Pick a fixed screen size for each OS you’ll be designing for (Android, iOS, or Web), & anytime you either download a template or create an original artboard, duplicate it over to a master “vault” file. Over the course of multiple projects, before you know it, these files will transform into monumentally-helpful master files. Of course you never want to turn in a completely duplicated template or previous work to a client, however, starting from scratch is simply just not how the professionals do it. The Pareto Principle exists in the product design, especially if you stay within a certain OS (Android, iOS or Web) — hack this to your advantage by creating actionable master vault files.

In Closing

Scaling from a single designer, taking on a single project, to a team of designers, collaborating on multiple projects requires a drastic shift in process & priorities. Assuming you’re taking on a growing list of clients, both the overall process & it’s individual components must decrease in their time requirements. By applying the three lessons described above, you’re now on the path to improving client communication in a major way. But don’t just read these tips! Go ahead & try them out on your next engagement — feel free to circle back & let me know the results.


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