Sorry, but I hope you are prepared for a venting session….. Let me start with a bold claim, to which I hope you take no offense:
Prospective clients have no idea how to judge the quality of a digital agency's prior work product.
There, I've said it!
I guess I'm jaded to an extent because I've been on the losing side of this issue in the past. But in all seriousness, it happens all too often that good agencies get denied an opportunity to innovate because prospective clients judge past work based on all the wrong reasons.
I could show you the ugliest, most hideous looking website that converts at close to 60%. And, I can show you the prettiest, most edgy and trendy website that has a 90% bounce rate.
Which would work better for you?
The fact is, design is not just about being pretty, or trendy, using lovely font faces and tons of pastel colors. Design is a visual representation of content, aimed at “nudging” the user in a particular direction. From a digital perspective, design is a persuasive medium. It isn’t solely meant to be pretty. Sure, you need a design that instills confidence and credibility to your company. But, moreover, you need it to accomplish some sort of goal.
One of the first steps any client takes in agency procurement is verification of work product. This is an essential step to hiring an agency – can they actually do what they say they can do? And, for the most part, this happens these days by either a quick review of a portfolio on a website or a quick glance at perhaps some provided URLs for web designs or other assets publicly available. I’m not saying this is a totally flawed process, but, it is flawed in the sense that design without context is open to all sorts of misinterpretation.
How did we get this way?
Well, the history of the web design industry kind of led us to this point. Very few voices in the community other than the most engaged and leading agencies were pushing results-based design. The majority of agencies and designers for a long time had a mindset of being as trendy and fashionable as possible. Add to that the growing business of self-service web design companies such as Wix, SquareSpace, web.com and the industry around reusable themes – none of these solutions focus on the results, they just speak to the ease of deploying “pretty” websites. As a result, so many clients are conditioned design-first and not focused on the fact that success is a careful balance.
Take as an example my story of the CMO who wanted a design for free based on nothing other than being pretty. But, I digress.
So what can you do to properly understand an agency’s capabilities when it comes to design? I have a few tips to ensure a balanced review, which is what you deserve when you are about to risk time and serious money on a project.
First, What Can You Judge at First Glance?
Even if you follow all the steps I explain below, inevitably you’ll still be taking a first glance at a portfolio or some other list of example work to do a preliminary vetting of an agency. That’s fine – and we all expect it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t build portfolios at all! But what should you look for?
Well, the first thing you should look for is simple digital credibility and competency. Is the agency clearly qualified to do this type of work? Have they done similar work for similar scaled clients? These are essential qualifying factors.
When you review individual portfolio pieces, try to take some of your focus away from the actual design – colors, typeface, etc. and focus more on the function. How does the site actually work? Is it loading well, error-free and with minimal delays or obvious rendering issues? Is navigation effective and clear? Are there ample calls to action, conversion opportunities, or ease of buying a product? At this stage, you really don’t know enough to judge design capabilities, but you can judge work quality. In vetting an agency, look for a level of competency while making your list of qualified potential candidates.
Don’t Be a Passive Viewer: Get a Presentation
Looking at a portfolio is only sufficient to a certain extent. Sure, you can get a quick sense of design or work quality from a portfolio. You can also see the scale of previous projects. Good portfolios may even give you some before and after renditions and possibly touch upon some metrics of success. However, nothing would beat an actual walkthrough from the designer that did the work. This is an overlooked step – most clients just take the word of salespeople or the principal. However, an astute buyer will know to ask the design team questions about their work. What excited them about a project? What were the challenges? What were the different possible approaches and why did they choose this one? Think of this also as building a personal relationship with the designer who could ultimately work on your project - design is subjective and often designers will pick up on non-verbal cues to understand your preferences better. That isn't possible if they aren't communicating with you from day one.
Understand the Context
Every project is different from the perspective of goals and objectives. As I said earlier, I can show you the ugliest landing pages and websites which convert at rates that would make your head spin. And I can show you projects where clients spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on complex, innovative designs that either confused or distracted visitors. “Success” in terms of digital projects varies, and because of that, judging a web portfolio is difficult.
I’ve had clients who ask us to demonstrate our best performing landing pages and are shocked when they see that they are simple, design-light, and overall not necessarily attractive. If I had sent those designs to a prospective client without context, they’d laugh us out of the room. But, despite the look, from a lead generation perspective – they convert!
All too often, a client glances a portfolio and sees things through the eyes of their own biases, preferences, or experiences. But rarely do they compare what they see against two essential factors: the requirements of the client served and the end result. Let me be blunt: if an agency sends you portfolio work, and they have been in business for an extended period – then their designs are working for their customers. It’s pretty much that simple. Your job is to determine how well those designs align with the context in which they were built, and how the process to get there can help your company.
Design preference is subjective, and so are you.
I sent out a portfolio once, and the prospective client was a bit critical about the design work. My response was cheeky but effective... The first company in the portfolio was acquired for 9 figures, the second just raised another round of funding and the last saw an increase in conversions by 2x.
But what does that matter, the guy just didn’t like what he saw.
Remember – your design preferences are subjective. But your bottom line isn’t. Design, to reiterate, is a blending of aesthetics with strategic and effective nudging. That nudging creates results. If I had to make a recommendation about how you should judge a web design, something that takes into account your preferences but also allows for consideration of actual results, it would look something like this:
• Effectiveness in relation to stated goals and objectives, and achievement of the same: 50%
• Design team’s ability to translate client requests and desires into graphical and functional deliverables: 25%
• Overall Design Aesthetic: 15%
• Functional implementation: 10%
That’s right. What most people are using as a determining factor is in fact just a small part of where you should focus your time.
Remember: A Successful Project Pays for Itself
I’ve been harping on this point lately, and it’s probably worthy of its own post. One of the questions I’ve added to our needs assessment asks “what would have to happen for this project to pay for itself”. Rarely has the answer been design focused. My art director will kill me for saying this, but the answers are always focused on end results and the achievement of goals and objectives. Design can’t pay for a project unless it succeeds with nudging users in the right direction.
So I ask you, as a parting thought, as you plan your next project… What needs to happen for your project to pay for itself? Quality answers would look like this:
• An increase in sitewide conversion rates from 1% to 3%.
• An increase in sales-qualified leads by 200%.
• A lowering of our bounce rate and increase in pages spent per visit.
• Lowering our load time from X to Y.
And so on…
Take that goal, and then talk to designers or agencies about how they would achieve it. How they have done similar in the past, and how they would use their skills in design and implementation to create the nudges necessary to make your project a success. This is the way to judge a digital agency portfolio because as we all know, design just isn't enough anymore