How to communicate well with a digital agency

As a charity managing a digital agency, how can you get the most out of your projects? Andy Bell from SIDE Labs has some top tips to help you create magic together!

Digital design agency SIDE Labs recently ran a series of workshops for Tech for Good Build participants, exploring how charities can work most effectively with digital partners. In an exclusive blog, Co-Founder Andy Bell shares some top tips on how to communicate well with a digital agency.

You work at a charity. You are paying a digital agency. You might be thinking it is the agency's job to make the relationship go well? Well, yeah… but, a wise woman (my mum) once told me that marriage isn’t 50/50, it’s 100/100. A great relationship requires both sides to give one hundred percent. To maximise your returns, here’s some tips from the agency side. 

1. One person gives feedback

It’s inadvisable to allow multiple people to give feedback directly to the agency. Good clients ensure that all the feedback gets channelled through one person, the person with responsibility for the project. 

From the agency side, it is confusing to try to weigh the importance of different voices. Often the feedback pulls in subtly different directions. Sometimes it points to a broader lack of agreement between people on the client side. It is just so much clearer to get consolidated feedback from one person.

2. Chunk your feedback

As an agency, it's not ideal when clients give their feedback in dribs and drabs whenever it pops into their mind. Good clients give feedback in chunks (once a day, once a week, whatever, depending on the cadence of the project) and then make time to talk it through.

It is worth taking the time to chat through feedback, for a bunch of reasons: 

  • Your feedback can have non-obvious implications. Taking time to talk amendments through with your agency means you can make sure you are aware of and understand those implications. 
  • The feedback can point to a valid problem - but there may be multiple solutions. Take the time to step back and chat through the full picture.
  • It can be surprisingly hard to accurately describe the nature of the problem. A conversation ensures you agree on the problem before starting on a solution.

3. Really engage with wireframes, user stories and other mockups

When an agency sends a wireframe (or user story or other bit of design), it can be tempting to simply reply with a quick ‘great work’ or ‘👍’ or other platitude. 

In this scenario, the client is thinking: ‘Brilliant, progress is being made. Thanks for sending us the work on schedule.’

But the agency hears: ‘The charity understands all the details of the user behaviour described in this design and the trade-offs we’ve decided on. They’ve signed it off, so we can start building’. 

A month down the line, the agency has implemented the wireframe. The client has a shuddering realisation that it isn’t what they wanted. It is costly to realise at this point that you weren’t on the same page. 

It is hard to mentally engage with wireframes as they are rather abstract. But remember, it's like an architect sending you building plans. Sit down, discuss, make sure you fully understand before you give the OK.   

4. Trust your gut

If it smells, it might well be rubbish.

With all of the processes and technological jargon of digital, it is possible to get blinded by (cod-)science. Trust your gut. If you think the agency is on the wrong track, or not working hard enough: call them out. If it doesn’t feel right, voice your opinion. 

My general theory is that people in charity land are too nice and polite. Sometimes agencies need a rocket up their bottom. It’s not impolite to question your agency’s direction.

5. Don’t get bogged down in the superficial

A ridiculous amount of time gets wasted talking about the colour scheme or the finer points of the logo or similar. These things rarely matter. 

I recently discovered this is called Parkinson’s law of triviality, also known as ‘bikeshedding’. 

Bikeshedding refers to a scenario where a committee meets to discuss a £10 million nuclear plant and a £350 bike shed. The committee runs through the nuclear proposal in no time. It is too complex for anyone to dig into the details. The discussion becomes more animated when it moves to the bike shed. Everyone has an opinion on the best colour for the roof.

Now I’ve heard ‘bikeshedding’, I see it everywhere in digital projects. What’s the solution? Get the users involved.

Everyone pays lip service to user opinions, but they normally get lost in all the moving parts required to complete a project.

If you actually go out and get three users’ opinions*, you’ll bring a new voice to the discussion. You will have moved from saying ‘I think xyz needs to change’ to ‘3 out of 3 users didn’t understand that clicking on x leads to y’. This carries surprising weight in the discussion (as everyone suddenly remembers they should be thinking about the users) and is super valuable (as you have managed to get the users’ voice into the discussion). 


* Seriously, you only need a handful of users. What’s more, they don’t even need to be representative of your intended users. User feedback is so valuable, that it suffices to collect it from anyone with a pulse. Ask a co-worker eating a chickpea salad, a co-habitee cooking a dahl or a Co-op assistant scanning puy lentils. Anyone who’s coming to the project with a fresh eye - because most of your users will be using your project afresh.

6. Find a way to have fun

Some clients treat their agency like a glorified typing pool. Good clients treat their agency like a team of poets. 

Building digital products is a creative endeavour. Digital people think of themselves as artists who just happen to be working in an annoyingly keyboard-based medium.

Flatter their egos, treat them like creators and make time to have some fun. It gets the project off on the right note and encourages your agency to enjoy creating with you. (It doesn’t even have to be that much fun. Crazy golf will suffice.) 


Conclusion

At the end of most projects, we do a retrospective. Pretty much always, the number one conclusion is ‘we should have communicated more’. This is an infernal thing to conclude, as often it feels like we’ve done nothing but communicate: meetings, Slack, email, on repeat. 

I hope this article gives a few pointers on the sort of communication that an agency finds most useful. If it means that one retrospective, anywhere in the world, doesn’t conclude that the project needed more communication, it will have been worth its weight in lentils.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

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