Steve Nicolaou

Earlier this year, as a mate was applying for jobs, he asked for any tips I might have about working in a design consultancy. I’d had a few glasses of plonk (Berry Bros’ Good Ordinary Claret, if anyone is feeling generous…) and gave him a brain dump.

He suggested I share it a bit more widely, because he found it useful.* As I’m about to leave the world of consulting (going to an agency, so not exactly going far) I thought now is a good time to see how other people’s experiences might compare.

A little context

In September 2017 a fun n feisty little family called SPARCK took me in as a UX Design Consultant. Wholly owned by a much bigger tech consultancy, SPARCK is the gobby younger sibling of, doing design in fresh and interesting ways. There were less than 10 designers when I joined. There are nearly 50 now.

Exactly two years have passed and I’m now leaving/left the SPARCK family. Feels a little like I’m off to university — scary, sad, exciting! But here’s a few things I learned about digital design consulting along the way:

I make no apology for this pun
  1. Understand the stakeholders.

Find out who does what, meet everyone, understand what motivates them and how they are connected. Put together a stakeholder map so that you/the team can see the stakeholders. Plot the egos.

You’re going to be working with them daily, probably at their place most of the time. This helps navigate your way around, because you know where to go to get things done — whether it’s getting some post its, booking a room or leaning on the legal team.

2. Explain what design thinking/HCD/UX is. And what it isn’t.

Really important to do this. And probably before the project starts with the person who sold the project. And then with the client. You need to know what was sold so that you understand expectations. And then during project planning reiterate what you are there to do, and what you cannot do. And repeat this during the project, almost daily.

The more your client understands what you’re there to do, the more they can see the value of what you do, and appreciate all the extra bits you can do. It also helps that in doing this you’ll also be broadcasting to the rest of your project and the wider client business too.

A unicorn, yesterday

3. Have some boundaries.

Clients are paying top dollar for your time, so they will expect you to be a unicorn that shits lucky charms. You have to manage this, but do it in such a way that they don’t care you if you only shit Rice Krispies, but they still think you’re a unicorn.

You are expected to be omnipotent. But even a deity has some rules and boundaries, just don’t be a dick about them.

4. Add value.

For example, on my last project I made it clear I’m not a coder or graphic designer, I was there as a UXer. However I put together the project videos; I facilitated the marketing and comms; I coached everyone through the big presentations; I designed all the decks. So always look for where you can add a bit of value. If you can knock out a bit of code, then do it; if you love a spreadsheet, then get stuck into excel. Even if it’s simply attending dull meetings and writing them up, whatever it is, add value.

This is basically just good manners. You’ll also learn loads by getting involved in stuff. And because you’ve managed expectations, anything extra feels special.

5. Be the expert.

Or at least pretend to be until you get the chance to google it — know where to go to become the expert. This is quite important. The client is paying a lot for your time (see boundaries and unicorns). You don’t know everything but you do know lots about lots of stuff. And you learn quick. And this is what makes you good at what you do. For example, we decided that Axure was the right prototyping tool for a project. But I’d never used it before. So someone at work spent 30 mins showing me some basics, I read a bit of the getting started guide, I asked a few questions on Slack, I used google.

As far as the client was concerned I just ‘spent a couple of hours re-familiarising myself after recent updates’. They knew I wasn’t an expert, but were confident that I would quickly be more than good enough for what they needed.

Pointy hair

6. Keep your cool.

The client WILL be a dick. Repeatedly. Because they think they own you. And they do. So take it on the chin. Be thick skinned. Get used to saying things like — “yeah, interesting point, you might be right. We need to test these ideas with users and iterate on feedback”. Always point to the research that backs you up, or the best practice principles.

Don’t defend your ideas when they’re criticised rather than critiqued. And they will be. Avoid — “I did this quickly because we didn’t have much time” or — “yeah, but obviously we did it like that because you told us to”. It’s better to say “this is the first draft” or “let’s re-evaluate the brief”.

And remember, your client probably doesn’t mean to be a dick — they have pressures you don’t understand and will most likely be shielding you from all sorts of ridiculous. So don’t be so judgey wudgey. Buy them a coffee and cake.

7. You are in charge of design reviews and workshops. Literally, it’s what you’re being paid to do. So you’re in control when people walk in that room. You’re the expert, remember? Set the principles and boundaries for the session. Ban laptops if you have to. Write on a wall how feedback needs to be delivered. Call it out when someone says “I like blue, can the button be blue?”

One of the most powerful ways you can assert your value to a project is in a design session. It’s your domain. It’s where your understanding of client egos will come in; where you set the boundaries; where you prove you’re a unicorn; where you most need to keep your cool.

8. If you say you’re gonna do it, do it. Might sound patronising, but a client never makes a happy face if they don’t get what they expected. Never do this, unless there’s a bloody good reason. Under promise (a bit) and over deliver (a lot).

After a while, you can start to feel that you’re on a project of mixed skills and abilities, all pulling together as a tight knit team. And this is true. Until the client doesn’t get what they expected.

And that’s it folks. The sum total of my knowledge. Everything I’ve learned about design consultancy in two years.

Some might be helpful, some might not. Hopefully interesting at the very least.

ps. Powerpoint. Seemingly every client expects all your brilliance to be committed to powerpoint. Yes, it’s annoying. And no, of course it’s not the best way to communicate your revolutionary thinking.

* He didn’t get the job. Not my fault.