Consultant Thursdays: Four Things To Ask For When Hiring A User Experience Firm Or Consultant

I live in Los Angeles, and we have a very vibrant and active User Experience community. The meetup group numbers over 800, and professionals of all levels show up to events.

Just like any profession that’s out there where the people that are being sold to don’t know exactly what they are buying (other than their website or web application is screwed up and they don’t why), there are always rouges selling snake oil, talking about mental models, dancing about personas who know nothing about them, or wouldn’t know how to do one to save their life.

Sometimes it’s hard distinguishing someone who know what an annotation is, and one who knows how to do it right. Rebranding yourself as a User Experience professional after three meetup meetings and an project management talk is a dangerous thing, and I’m sure we all think we are better at what we do than we actually are.

What’s a client to do when vetting firms and consultants?

Since there is no certification process, it just all depends.

Remember this: Selling User Experience is not the same as doing User Experience, and as the field matures, the pretenders will be sorted out.

Ask for the process

If they don’t have example deliverables or some kind of document that shows all the elements they could use in the User Experience process during working with their clients. Remember that not all processes are created equal, but there should be some similarity to the processes of other companies. If there’s no research portion, worry out loud.

If they can’t come back with some kind of list or adequately explain it, especially if you ask some questions like, “So what is the benefit of personas?” or “Should we do wireframes or prototypes?” Either or should provoke some kind of answer that shows they stand for something. If they waffle or give an answer that doesn’t make sense, if might be time to check out.

Ask for case studies

In the end, most User Experience projects should lend themselves well to some kind of case study where the consultant or the agency can show definate results of a product, and how their skills improved the User Experience, either stastically or from better customer satisfaction.

The case studies don’t have to be overly formal, but there should be some kind of walkthrough of cause and effect i.e. agency or consultant did this, and the results increased X percent. Most User Experience firms have several of these with clients, large and small.

Ask for reference clients

Any good User Experience consultant should be a few reference projects that they can show off as something they are very proud of. The pitfalls of software development means that a lof of projects they may have done aren’t as polished, professional or complete was they were set out to be, because either there are development issues, or the client makes a bunch of changes because other business needs, or the site has changed eight times since the User Experience consultant or agency has worked on it.

There should be at least one or two projects that they can point and say, “this is really, really close to what we did, and the client played along,” and that their involvement is more than just selecting a certain color. A lot of consulting firms I know of list all kinds of clients they did work, even if they did work in a completely different field than User Experience. They should be able to list URLs of projects that included significant effort.

Ask for results

The only deliverable that counts is the final product, in most cases or personals are great, but you can’t use them on a website. In the very end there should be some kind of guarantee that what they are going to deliver is going to be a high quality product, but that means giving over a fair amount of control over to them. But remember that they should be paid for their time and services, because there’s a value to their skills.

Seriously, though, that’s what you are hiring them for, right, to use their skills? Specify exactly what you’re going to get as a final deliverable, and what the results should be. That firm should be able to stand behind it. Period.