Why I Went From In-House to Agency Product Design
Advice for in-house Product Designers interested in making the switch.
In the design world, you often hear that digital agencies are volatile, scary places — or at least these were the stories I was told. Coming from the world of industrial design to UX, I’d also heard that what you design will never get made, or be all for show, and that digital agencies only care that what you design looks “cool.” All these stories led me to reject the agency world and follow a path into what I considered solving “real problems” for “real people” with “real constraints” so I could have a “real impact.”
Cut to mid-2020: All of my design experience was on in-house teams in a company setting where I worked only on problems for one company and in one industry. We were at the height of a global pandemic, and I needed a new challenge that would help me figure out my future as a designer. So, I took a leap of faith, threw out what I thought I knew, and made the switch to an agency.
It took a lot of recalibration. I like framing it that way, because I wasn’t necessarily learning a completely new skill set, but applying the skill sets I had in a different way. Throughout my first year at Postlight, I’ve encountered a handful of experiences unique to working at an agency that I think are worth sharing in case you’re thinking about making the switch. And if you’re ready — we’re hiring!
#1: Diversity of problems to solve
One of my favorite things about designing at an agency is that you get exposure to different industries, types of users, types of products, business constraints, and problems to solve that will help you grow your overall design skills and knowledge by sheer, brute exposure alone. For example, you may work on a project like Mailchimp Developer, where the challenge is to speak to developers in their language and create an experience tailored to them. Or you could have the opportunity to make a real impact on people’s health working on Lyfebulb’s transplant community. The diversity of clients is ever-changing, exciting, and rewarding to work on.
#2: Balancing subject matter expertise
In an in-house position, it’s natural to become a subject matter expert (SME) in your domain, users, and product because you have one main focus. In an agency, it’s still vital that you become an SME in your client’s domain — but it’s also important to understand that you won’t know (and don’t need to know) everything in order to deliver a successful product. You learn to “put on your agency hat,” as one of my colleagues often says, to evaluate what is worth your time and energy based on your contract. Ultimately, this helps you practice being intentional about what you need to know and defining the scope of your work.
It’s also likely that if you don’t have SME on a problem or product, someone else in the company or on your design team does. For example, the design team created a repository of our combined industry experience so that anyone can easily see who to ask for help and support on a wide range of subjects.
#3: Intentional design ops
On an internal team at a large company, there might be teams of people dedicated to making sure design ops are running at top speed, and you may have been working with a pretty rigid, repeatable process.
At Postlight, it’s not about speed or repeatability trumping all else. It’s about being intentional with your process and adapting to a way of working that will be successful for the client. You learn to streamline your process to understand what are the most vital design activities given the scope of the project, the problem you’re trying to solve, and the timeline. Additionally, because large, in-house companies often need rigid rules in ways of working for consistency in the work, the shifting process of a smaller agency can be a great way to easily experiment, pivot, and try new methods faster.
#4: Strategy work
If you’re in-house, the leadership team has probably outlined their quarterly goals and objectives, and it’s up to your team to decide how to best deliver. This isn’t too different in the agency space in that we are often asked to execute on a client’s existing or proposed strategy and have to work within those constraints.
However, some clients come to us because they don’t have a strategy. When this is the case, the entire product team collaborates to create a strong, educated opinion (refer back to “SME”) and deliver a strictly scoped yet iterative and scalable project plan as well as a clearly illustrated product direction. Through competitive and market research, stakeholder interviews, customer and/or user interviews, design sprints, or whatever methodology you deem appropriate, you and your team define a product direction that will hold up after you’re no longer working with them and allow you as the designer to apply your user-minded skillset in a broader way focused on the client’s business goals.
#5: Honing your storytelling
Once you come up with the strategy, you have to communicate it effectively, otherwise, your hard work would be for nothing. Storytelling is a key part of any job and the most meaningful way to come to a common understanding or to educate others. It’s a completely different type of storytelling when you’ve just met your audience, you have a limited amount of time to talk to them, and they may not understand the tech lingo you would usually use to communicate with your peers. You have to get the client to understand this big thing you are being paid to make for them and get them to buy in. It forces you to get good at storytelling to a wide range of audiences, quickly.
#6: Working with boundaries
One reason I was interested in moving into an agency role in the first place was the hope that it would help me set better boundaries with my work. In an agency, the timelines are much more condensed because it’s based on what the client can pay for or tied to an important business deadline or milestone. The sequence of planned work can’t always be rolled over into the next quarter or deprioritized for the future, like some in-house roadmaps that have more flexibility. You also don’t have the luxury of trying out a solution with the hopes of iterating on it in a year because once the project ends, you won’t be around to fix it.
Because of this, you need to weigh the trade-offs and acknowledge the limitations of your possible solutions in your given timeline as well as have a clear understanding of the meaning, sequencing, and scope of your work. Ultimately, you just won’t be able to do it all, which will help you become a more decisive problem solver and will help you establish healthier boundaries with your work.
#7: Success metrics
In the agency world, it’s very likely that your contract will be up by the time success metrics come in for your design, but the most important metric of agency work is client happiness. The first time that clicked with me, I cringed a little, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include any analytics in your project plan. It just means you won’t be able to rely on them solely and you’ll have to learn the art of client happiness. If your client is happy enough, they may even sign up for a project extension or another project all together, giving you the opportunity to have a larger, long-term impact.
#8: Freedom to lead
At Postlight, designers are highly distributed into their own projects and don’t have the luxury to rely completely on established team processes and operations. You may need to take initiative in a new way, which can be extremely rewarding and perpetuate a growth mindset, not just for yourself but also for your teammates and company operations. If you think there is a way your project team or design team can work better, you can make it happen.
If you’re a designer looking to learn quickly, get wider industry exposure, get your hands dirty, or help shape a team and company, I’d recommend you try out an agency gig. At the very least, the experience will help shape who you are as a designer and give you insight into what you want out of your design career. At best, when you’re ready, you can move on to your next opportunity equipped and ready for pretty much anything a product design career can throw at you.
Grace Sunnell (she/her) is a Lead Product Designer at Postlight. Looking to bring your digital product to life? Get in touch.
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Story published on Oct 27, 2021.