So you’re ready to build the next big iOS app—but how can you make it stand out among the million others that are already out there in the Apple Store? In today’s saturated market, a great app idea alone is rarely enough. What sets a truly successful app apart from its competition is compelling design and efficient usability.
Good UI and UX is especially important when it comes to mobile apps. Mobile users work on a small screen, tend to use apps for short amounts of time, and generally have little patience for unusable apps. User-centric design therefore needs to be a top priority. By crafting nuanced interactions that deliver an intuitive and tailored user experience, businesses can help to ensure the success of their mobile product.
So how do you go about tackling the design components of your mobile app? If you’re a start-up, agencies can be a great solution. Hiring a full-time designer is expensive—not to mention the fact that talented and experienced designers are hard to find—and outsourcing the work to freelancers can make it hard to ensure consistency. But when you hire a design agency, you solve both problems of expense and quality: you avoid committing to an annual salary and benefits for a full-time employee, while benefiting from the collective talents and experiences of a full team of people.
Now, let’s say you’ve decided to hire a design agency for your iPhone app. How do you choose the best possible agency that understands your business objectives and has the right expertise to design your app? Here are 12 questions to ask when shortlisting the most relevant design agencies.
1. How has it worked out for previous clients?
Look for agencies that will readily introduce you to past clients so that you can get real feedback on their past work. Ask these clients about their experience working with the agency: how was the app’s overall user experience, how frequent and helpful was the communication, and what problems were faced during the design process? And try looking online for any reviews or press coverage of the company. Checking references and testimonials thoroughly will help you make a more informed decision.
2. Do you like the aesthetic and usability of their past work samples?
Browse the agency’s portfolio to test and evaluate the apps that they’ve designed in the past. Are their user interfaces beautiful and intuitive? Is their aesthetic in line with your vision for your product? Does the usability meet your expectations? Focus not only on the quality of their visual design, but also their attention to detail, structure, and ability to transform user needs into interface elements. A stunning portfolio that delivers on all these fronts is strong evidence of the agency’s excellence.
3. Are they transparent with you on their process?
Choose an agency that is transparent about the systems and tools that they use to manage their projects. Ask them how they organize their work: do they use project management tools like Asana and Basecamp? How do they conduct the process of information architecture planning and interaction design? How will they document the process? An agency with a clearly defined and thoughtful work process is more likely to produce work punctually, with the level of quality that you’re expecting.
4. Are they people that you can build a relationship with?
The personalities of the team matter a great deal: you want to work with people you feel comfortable communicating with and solving problems alongside. Mobile app design is not a one-time activity, but an iterative process that is based on constant user feedback. As a result, it’s important to find a team that you can build a relationship with, and that will stick with you through the various cycles of the design process. Another reason why you should evaluate the personalities of the team is due to the role that empathy plays in UX design. Having the ability to understand the driving emotions behind user’s decisions is crucial in designing better products for them—so your designers need to possess a certain level of social skills and empathy.
5. How long has the agency been around?
A long and established track record reflects well on an agency for two key reasons. First, it suggests that they have accumulated the expertise and operational efficiency that only years of experience can bring. Having worked on many other products in the past, the agency has had numerous opportunities to improve and streamline its design process, perfecting the practices that allow them to achieve great work for their clients while knowing how to adapt to different processes. Second, a company’s ability to survive in a competitive industry for several years is a good sign of the value that they have delivered to their clients.
6. Have they worked on similar projects?
See if the agency has done work in the field you’re trying to enter, or if any of the team members have had prior experience working for other companies in the industry. Specific industry knowledge can be a huge advantage, as the agency would be better equipped to understand your needs and translate them into effective, user-centered design. Additionally, they can advise you on the general app usage trends of your industry. More broadly, go for agencies that have done conceptually similar projects: B2B apps differ from B2C apps in many ways, and you want to work with an agency that understands the unique characteristics of the type of app that you’re making.
7. Do they do both design and development, or just specialize in design?
Few agencies specialize—and excel—in both design and development, so it may be hard to find a one-stop shop that will build your mobile app from start to end. Agencies that offer many different services—such as web development, mobile development, and design—may not be able to deliver the same high quality on all fronts. If the design of your app is critical to the success of your business, it’s worth looking at agencies that specialize exclusively in UI/UX design. By leaving the coding to others, they are better able to focus on delivering beautiful, user-centric interfaces for their clients. With that said, it is also important to choose an agency that has a strong technical understanding of development, so that they can design with execution in mind.
8. Do they seem excited about the project?
Make sure you choose an agency that is as excited about, and invested in the project as you are. Agencies that are clearly passionate about what they do deliver demonstrably better results. When the team is genuinely interested in your business, they will take the time to understand it and pitch ideas that can vastly improve your product.
9. Do they have the bandwidth to take the project on right now?
Agencies tend to work on more than one project at once, so you want to make sure that they will be able to afford your app the time and attention that it deserves. Both sides should have a common understanding of the scope of the app so that an accurate timeframe can be derived.
10. Do they communicate well with you?
As with any good relationship, communication is key. Between your business and the agency, determine if there is a preference for communication via phone, Skype, instant message or email, and consider establishing a schedule for regular status updates. Find out who your contact point from the agency will be: you want to communicate with someone who has both the understanding of UI/UX and the skills to explain things from the business perspective. Finally, ask the agency how thoroughly they will document the project. Proper project documentation—in the form of wireframes, user flows, information architecture, and mockups—is a sign of professionalism and one of the best ways to avoid any misunderstandings.
11. Do they add value to your idea?
Ask what value the agency can add to your existing product vision. An outstanding design agency will be proactive in suggesting different ways for you to improve your app. When you talk with them, focus on the following things: are they offering helpful suggestions that are relevant to my app? Do they ask questions to get a clear picture of what needs to be built? Do they talk about how your ideas could be translated into an overall end user experience? The best design agencies are the ones that take a leading role in the partnership and have strong insights on product strategy and industry knowledge. If the agency is content with taking dictation from you without proactively suggesting ways to improve the user experience, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.
12. Is the price reasonable?
Do not select a design partner based simply on a price quote: the most important thing is to make sure that they are the right fit for you; that they understand your needs and have the expertise to meet them. The cheapest option can turn out to be more costly in the long run, as inexperienced agencies or freelancers may produce unrefined designs that take extra time to redo. Once you’re convinced of the agency’s fit for your business, then ask about pricing. Different agencies charge differently: some charge a flat fee based on the project, others are priced on an hourly basis. Whichever model you end up choosing, make sure that it is documented and signed by both parties. Also, clarify the payment terms: most agencies ask for half the fee upfront and the remainder upon delivery of the design.
By asking these 12 questions, you will be able to clarify how deeply an agency understands your business needs, as well as how well it will be able to fulfill them. Ultimately, the goal is to choose a partner that can add value to the usability aspect of your app, and deliver the compelling user experience that will allow your business to gain traction and achieve its user acquisition goals.
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