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Shaun Illingworth

Shaun Illingworth

Akendi Alumnus

Beware of UX Shingles

Being a “UX consultant” is a big deal these days. More and more, companies are (finally, sigh!) looking to improve their customer experience in hope of gaining or retaining customers.  For many this means redesigning their website or application.  Having never invested in a customer/user experience program inside the organization, many companies are looking outside for help and guidance.

Almost as bad as the other shingles, there are increasing numbers of companies hanging the “UX shingle” to ride the wave!

As often happens, when there is market demand for a service, there soon comes a stream of suppliers looking to capitalize on the gold rush.  Unfortunately, like the “Rolex” I got a great deal on in NYC, not all is as it seems.

But how do you know a good UX consultant from a bad one?  It can be really tough to tell from the websites alone.  With only a bit of time, ingenuity and searching, you can find all the buzzwords, diagrams and artwork to present a trendy front window.

Check the Backgrounds

Look for both academic and professional experience.  Academically there are tons of schools with strong UX programs in Canada.  Academic training does matter – it provides foundational knowledge of the approaches and alternatives.  If you’ve spent years in university pursuing advanced degrees in a UX discipline, you are very unlikely to be an opportunist!  But beware, almost every school uses a different name for their program!  Some use HCI or Human Factors, some System Engineering, some Interactive System Design – good luck!

On the professional side, have they worked on projects of similar size and scope?  If you’re looking for a responsive redesign, have they done it before?  Is your project their biggest or too small to matter?  Do they have a team or researchers and designers?  Are they full time staff or a network of freelancers?  If the latter, I strongly encourage you to meet the team before signing anything.

A Balanced Approach

An exceptional user experience is a balancing act where design is informed by a deep understanding of the user – this means strong research skills matched with equally strong design talent.

Screenshots can be immediately pleasing to the eye, but push further in your conversation with the potential supplier.  Ask to walk through a task flow.  See how someone uses the application to get their job done.  Is it still elegant and easy?  Why did they choose one interaction style versus another?  How did they make the decisions?

Ask about the research that supported the design.  What type of research was done, who did it?  Was the researcher and the designer the same person? (if so, ouch!)  When did they do the research and how did they do it?

Understanding the user goes much further than just simply thinking about them as you design.  Testing your design on a colleague after it has been built is not research.  We’ve heard these comments and more – your product deserves better!

A Process Makes Perfect

As hinted at above, good design doesn’t come from inspiration alone – or at least not often enough to be reliable to support multiple businesses.  Good design is best achieved when there is a process to direct the research and design efforts.  At Akendi, we have our Experience Thinking Process, and there are indeed others.


If they have a process, is it flexible?  A UX process is not THE solution, but it is a good sign of organizational maturity.  To have a process suggests someone has spent considerable time thinking about how UX weaves into the overall product design process.  Can they talk about how the process fits within your development environment?  You need deliverables that are actionable – not artefacts that sit in a library.

Be Wary of Fantastic Deals

Like my NYC watch, there are also plenty of UX deals out there…  Unfortunately also like my watch, they are never as good as they appear.  Make sure to ask specifically who will be working on your project and ask for their resume.  Ideally, ask to meet with them.  Fear the “bait and switch.”

The pricing of most UX work fall back on traditional consulting day rate per diems.  So if the deal sounds fantastic for such a talented senior person, its likely he/she isn’t doing your work.  You have to bite the bullet here, good designers earn good wages.

In the end, the customer or user experience you are creating is the most influential aspect of your business.  Here you will sink or swim, based on the ability of your UX consultant to work with you to create an effective, efficient and satisfying solution.  Look for a partner you can trust to carry this important load and deliver the goods.  A consultant who does not query, challenge, propose, or even dispute decisions is likely adding cost but not value.

An investment in UX can be among the most beneficial decisions an organization can make, but it does come at with costs and risks. You need to invest the time to go beyond the RFP and meet, listen, interview and discuss.  A good UX team imbeds itself into your product team and contributes to the group effort – in many ways just like a new hire!  You wouldn’t hire from the resume alone, so don’t contract from the resume (AKA proposal)!


Shaun Illingworth

Shaun Illingworth

Akendi Alumnus


So very true. Particularly about the portfolio. It is interesting in UX, the immediate reaction to a portfolio without need of a background into the design process. In Industrial Design, the most interesting part of your portfolio are the sketches. Seeing how you moved from the problem at hand to multiple solutions. In UX, I can’t help but take the same stance that I want to see your sketches. It gives me insight into your creativity and problem solving skills, and really your passion. It should be more about the process, discovery, challenges, and insights rather than simply a beautifully rendered product.

“Was the researcher and the designer the same person? (if so, ouch!)”

Why ‘ouch!’? So long as the research is well-conducted, having the designer directly conduct the research can stop many lost in translation issues and build real empathy for the user and the problem. I’d actually argue that it’s inferior to split the two functions if you can avoid it. Better yet, a research team made up of a designer, developer and some kind of business stakeholder (eg product manager) builds consensus and can probe different aspects of the problem you’re investigating.

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About Akendi

Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.