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Written By:
Ceara Crawshaw
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The agency model for design, may or may not be ‘broken’, but I can safely say I’m not sold on it. 

In the book ‘Built to Sell’ they chronicle the story of a frazzled agency owner, who goes through a miraculous and deliberate departure from (what I call) Agency Madness to a smooth functioning business. By the end of the story, the owner changes the business from a generalist marketing business with horrible cash flow and mediocre work to a well-oiled logo shop that produces a specific repeatable product that brings in cash regularly. 

Oh, and by the way, the company got acquired for like $5M.

The plight of the owner is a familiar one to anyone who has freelanced before. He says yes to doing work which is beneficial in that it sells hours, but doesn’t create a viable, repeatable business. The message that you can’t just kinda ‘do stuff’, you are creating a business where you can understand the process, inputs and outputs. You know, that fundamental business stuff.

How does user experience scale?

So naturally, the next question was: Ok, so how does user experience scale? How could you create a company that doesn’t need the founders for everything, and that gives us the ability to scale? The agency model depends on getting more projects, selling more hours for only one client to benefit. Does it have to be like that?

I’ve personally undertaken user experience research projects that I found felt quite familiar to previous work I’ve done. Déja vu research, where, I’m not allowed to connect the dots to a client (because of confidentiality with the previous client you learned the thing from). This to me seems like a waste and repeating the same work for multiple clients, when maybe, if we owned that information, we could treat it a little differently.

It’s quite weird to me how little data we use in our businesses to make strategic decisions. I can’t tell you how many design projects I’ve come into where defining success has been an insurmountable task. It’s like pulling teeth…out of a wild animal who isn’t sedated and flails around a lot. Businesses need real, relatable information about the human beings they exist to serve. 

So, why not scale these user insights that we find? If we can build up a deep knowledge base about a certain subset of users and their motivators, behaviors, tendencies and priorities, and could distribute that to a much wider audience. Clients could get a head start on research and insights and pay a lower price. 

But where could we focus? What area of the weird and wonderful world would be worth focusing on? What would be a punch of value? On top of that: what would be novel, interesting and groundbreaking long term?

With the breakneck speed we’ve been travelling (technology-wise) at over the last 20 (slash 200) years, we sure could use some more evidence around novel technologies and behaviours… Not to mention a desperately needed human-centred focus for emerging technologies going forward. 

Deploying user research insights

Speaking of broken systems and ways of doing things. Deploying information about user-centred research is something that we gloss over in our field –  and it’s a huge waste. User experience researchers spend hours on interviews, combing through them, analyzing everything that was said, unsaid and done…It seems like we squander that investment by showing just a few people on the client team a powerpoint for an hour.

Missing the opportunity to meaningfully deploy this information to an organization isn’t good enough and doesn’t reflect the value of this work.

User experience research yields unanticipated value every time I’ve done it. You can find out that the core assumption of what your building doesn’t work. You can save months of misplaced investment. You can find out that there’s a huge underserved market to launch a business around. You can see how your users actually behave (like sneaky little monkeys most of the time).

So we’ve got a data-shortage about actual people AND where we have fewer shortages we have that key information pooling in just a couple of brains. If we’re building organizations where we can use the collective knowledge and brain power to fuel innovation, why don’t we try harder to make sure that everyone has a common understanding of the users…? As a baseline from which to start.

Creating a ux agency & subscription based research business

We’re exploring a hybrid business model, where we create and deploy user insights in the fields surrounding novel behaviours and technologies, while keeping sustained connection to clients and the issues they face in their businesses. It’s interesting how when you solely focus on either just your ‘own’ work or client work often makes you less good at design – we want to balance these things. 

Image of floating papers and pie charts

The culture impact of building our own IP

We can create a situation where we can be in a position to give a lot to our clients, and not scrimp or rush because we’re too consumed with winning more projects. We want to balance a consistent revenue flow with a more meaningful in-depth UX work.

This predictable cash flow will help our culture by:

  • Creating more stability for our employees (creating an abundance mindset)
  • Focusing on novel technology will make the best designers want to be on our team 
  • Actively nurturing innovation internally will help us help our clients nurture their own innovation and manage their risks and opportunities
  • Our creativity is set up for success by creating time and space for innovation

Where are we starting 

Initially we’ll start with specific verticals that are a little close to our hearts, once we’ve validated our process, delivery method and market opportunity, we’ll go vertical by vertical, deploying separate instances of our service. We’re doing this the old fashioned way, avoiding investment from outside entities and bootstrapping this side of our business. 

Hopeful conclusion 

Our hybrid business model between consulting for clients and scaling research is an exciting one that is motivating. Through this work we’ll create meaningful insights, gaining deep knowledge of users with the ability to disseminate this information to many more people than we normally would. This will hopefully give us the means to steer the technology ship in a human centred direction. 

Why can't Pencil & Paper disrupt the typical agency business model?

Ceara CrawshawFounder of Pencil & Paper