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Building the Ultimate Internal Agency with 4 Key Roles

This week we discuss how to develop and manage an internal agency with 4 key design and innovation roles - from design research to low-code engineering and the processes and frameworks that drive great work


Building the Ultimate Internal Agency with 4 Key Roles

Welcome back to 40 front doors, our weekly digital marketing brand strategy and user experience podcast. This week, we're discussing how you can run a lean internal agency with only four key design and innovation roles. We'll talk about the specific roles, the frameworks and the processes you need in place in order to operate just like an agency. Before we get into the specific roles in the process and the frameworks that create a successful internal agency, let's spend a minute talking about why you would want to create an internal agency. Most businesses, whether they're small businesses, medium-sized or large scale enterprises are going to have to either work with an outside partner or create some kind of internal team.

And one of the things that I've seen over the years as an agency partner is that internal teams are rarely as efficient or well-structured as they could be. It's rarely a function of having access to talent or the right environment. And most of the time, it just comes from the fact that there's usually a lack of definition around the roles, a lack of frameworks in place and not having the right management in place. The good news is that all of those things are really easily addressable. So let's break it down. Let's, let's talk about the key roles and then we'll move into the key processes and the frameworks so that you can build a really successful internal agency.

So let's talk about the four key roles in order to build a really lean effective internal agency. You need design researchers, digital strategists, and content strategists. We're going to think of that as one role for now, UX and UI designers. We're also going to think of that as one role for now and low code engineers, the combined capabilities of those four individuals can deliver outsized results. When I say outsized results, I mean, basically that each of those people can emulate the output of three to five people. So if you have four roles that can emulate three to five people, you now have essentially a 12 to 20 person sized output team, and that is possible by how those folks work together.

And the frameworks that we're going to talk about that make that out-sized effort possible. Let's start with design research. These are individuals who know how to frame questions. They know how to reveal insights and remove bias, and they can identify opportunities for innovation, whether that's user or customer, patient innovation, or whether it's internal and employee experience innovation. We'll talk about their role on activities like the design, sprint and requirements gathering, and really validating the requirements that you're going to build into any program. But they are, they are one of the most important roles for getting the idea right next there's digital strategists and content strategists.

So we're thinking this as one role right now. Why? Because it's more cost-effective if you're running a large scale internal agency, of course you can break these apart, but there's enough crossover in skills here, especially in how we're going to suggest you use them, that this can be one role. These are individuals that can connect what users want and need to what you offer, whether that's experiential or marketing, whether that's a landing page or an app. They're the connective tissue between what the researchers are revealing in insights and ultimately what the audience is going to want. We're also going to talk about the role that they play in the process.

So when you should engage your digital strategy and content team is as important as having one next user experience and user interface. These are individuals who can translate high level direction coming from your digital and content strategist and your design researchers into tangible designs that are guided by common design patterns. These are the people that are your connection to the real world of materials and user expectations. You have to rely on your UX and UI team to really inform the business about what kind of design patterns are going to be the most successful and how those relate to your unique value proposition and your brand.

They're dealing with materials as common as bricks and mortar, except they're doing it in a digital capacity, rounding out your team or your low code engineers. Now, there are very few cases for having native code development roles. In-house unless you're a software driven product, unless software is your deliverable. Marketing teams and experience teams really will benefit from low code engineers who can rapidly deploy robust functional web experiences, test new products and prototype advanced products. The benefit of a low code engineer is that you have all of the functionality that you'll need all of the functionality that you're looking for through the combination of this individual's skills and the tools that they know how to use. If you go back a few years, prototyping tools and low code tools were relatively limited.

Now they are for the most part, indistinguishable from the largest content and commerce platforms. If anything, they offer more robust functionality and fewer people know about them. This is critically important for building a small team because your talent model has to be biased towards generalists that can produce outsized results. One person who can create the output of three to five people at a low code engineer is going to exemplify that within your team, having access to the tools and the capabilities there. And it's going to give you the ability to both simulate advanced functionality or just outright build that advanced functionality.

So with those four key roles ranging from your design researcher to your strategist, to your UX UI designer and your low code engineer, you now have everything in place you need for running a lean internally can see next is process.

So, as I had mentioned before, the reason that most internal agencies don't succeed is really process process and the ability to manage the outputs effectively. And there's a silver lining to that. That is a very addressable issue. Process is something that you can design and the ability to manage how those roles work together within that process is something that sounds a lot more difficult than it really is. So for today's conversation, we're going to keep it pretty simple, and we're going to keep it focused on producing digital artifacts. These processes can be used for anything from brand concepts, internal business innovation strategy, concepts to marketing materials.

But as we go through the examples for today, think about it in the context of classic digital marketing activities, new webpages, landing pages, mobile applications, and digital experiences. Most internal projects don't succeed because they don't have a clear purpose. They don't have a clear scope and they lack the right type of framework to help the teams and to help your people be successful. So today we're really going to talk about what those frameworks are, how to manage scope and how to manage both external expectations for other business stakeholders and internal expectations for your newly-minted internal design agency.

The most effective step for starting a project on the right foot is a design sprint. If you've ever participated in one, this is a great refresher. If you haven't, it's an introduction to a five-step process. That's driven by really your entire internal agency, your researcher, your strategists, your UX designers, and your low code engineers. The five steps are, are really straightforward. They can happen within a day. They can happen across five days. The scope of the design sprint generally matches the scale of the challenge. And your role is to establish the core challenge statement you're trying to address your team is really there to help you one map out the problem and pick an important area to focus on specific to that challenge. Then you'll put solutions on paper, you'll prioritize and you'll vote and choose which concepts can be calm, a testable hypothesis, or a just simply a testable concept.

This aspect of the design sprint is probably the most important. When we think about how most ideas move forward, they're usually championed by the most charismatic or senior voices. The design sprint really turns that on its head and looks for the most charismatic or validated idea. And it does that democratic, so that prioritization and that voting ensures that all of the right ideas float to the surface and that supporting ideas are either aggregated or cast away. Then that gives you the opportunity to put together a prototype that's validated from day one. Now it's validated by you and your internal teams.

So the next and most important step of the design sprint is to test, to get feedback from real people. Once you've completed those five steps, you're really going to want to take inventory and engage your digital strategy and content team. I can't stress enough. The fact that the upfront content strategy and digital strategy is the single biggest guarantor of success. When we look at what things really facilitate great projects and what leads two failures, or a lot of scope creep, it's the fact that the order of the activities we're talking about right now are generally mixed up. People tend to think that, you know, design comes first and then once we've got the user experience in place, we fill the boxes with words, and then we fill the boxes with color.

And then we develop those. And that is, that's a recipe for disaster moving content strategy up to the first tangible creative activity will fundamentally change the way that you think about creative process. And it will improve the outputs that your team can create because without content, your user experience and your user interface, designers are going to struggle to understand what they are designing around you. Can't simply design flows and funnels and experiences and calls to action and interactivity based on a loose idea of what you're trying to accomplish. You have to design it based on true content.

So the first creative output has to be driven by strategic content. Everything serves the content internal agencies and external agencies get hung up on building empty houses and UX that just isn't driven by content. So this is going to help you avoid that. They're also going to help you determine and research your audience. You have to determine who your audience is just because you have a concept in hand doesn't necessarily mean that that concept has been shaped for your audience. So your content strategist and your digital strategist are going to be able to take those initial sprint concepts and transform them into that connective tissue back to the audience needs.

Now we move into content creation. Once we have a good understanding of what the audience is looking for, whether that's how we connect our value proposition to the opportunity in the market, or whether that's just understanding the market opportunity and the competitive landscape as to where your business can fill a niche. So we'll start creating content, whether it's experiential or brand awareness or marketing content, doesn't matter for today's conversation. It could be for a behavior tracking application and healthcare shopping application or your lead generation platform. All of this must be driven by content.

Once we have a clear understanding of the audience and the content in hand, we can start to take the sprint outputs and the content strategy to create user stories and requirements. So this step allows us to break down those concepts, those sprint concepts informed by our digital strategists, our researchers, and our content team, and really start. And when we say concepts, that these would be the UX concepts, simple landing pages or marketing materials into requirements. Now this is critically important for managing scope. And this is one of those key steps that we're going to use to ensure that both the scope of the program in terms of complexity and the focus of the program in terms of the goals that we are trying to accomplish are managed effectively.

This gives us the ability to validate those requirements with other business stakeholders. So we don't arrive at a, at a new platform or a new prototype that feels like it's a surprise to other stakeholders in your organization. And this gives us the ability to also estimate effort based on requirements, not just a loose idea of what we're trying to accomplish, but specific requirements and work towards those. That's how you control scope and cost.

Now that we have scope managed with a clear purpose for the program, the design team can engage. This is where things get really interesting because we are going to redefine digital and content strategists as designers. So your digital strategist is going to take the lead design role for the flow of information. These are funnels and journeys. This traditionally falls on user experience, but digital strategists are actually better suited for the task. Remember their, their responsibility is to connect what users need to, what you offer, whether that's an application or whether that's a lead generation funnel.

They have more information in hand than the user experience designer will at this point. But with that said, they need the support and the collaboration of their UX counterparts, not just for the visualization of journey maps and service blueprints and creating the documentation and the visualizations, but also for best practices. When we begin to think about the opportunity at hand, things get really exciting. We're designing the flow of information in a way that leads to specific and measurable outcomes. Whether that's filling out a form, whether that's taking an OnPage action or whether that's simply creating a breadcrumb of information that leads the user to a specific point that they consider goal completion or a satisfying user experience, the combination of your strategist and your user experience designer is going to accomplish that. But the digital strategist should have the lead role, those funnels, and those journeys can give way to wire frames.

But before we move on to that, I just want to talk about funnels and journeys. The funnel is an incredibly important and often misunderstood or just poorly defined term. We look at that as the flow of information. Now that's, that's part of a journey map, but it's also part of the wireframe. It's part of the user experience. It's the specific actions that designers can take to move their user throughout the page level journey to encourage or influence certain actions. Those can then provide specific direction that the UX designer can work with. They have content in hand, they have a journey in hand, and now they have a funnel in hand.

This is the recipe for creating really effective wire frames, visual design, and UI concepts. The important takeaway is that the content drives the strategy. The strategy drives the UX and the UI supports the unique needs of the user from brand awareness goals, to accessibility goals, with requirements, research, design, and strategy complete. We can now tie all of the pieces together through low code engineering platforms like web flow are providing enormous benefit, especially for internal agencies. They provide robust and scalable deployable functionality through a more accessible and larger talent pool of low code engineers and prototypers.

This is critically important if you're building a small team or an internal agency, because talent must be biased towards generalists that can produce those outsized results that we've been talking about. Lastly, we want to bring the strategist back to the table to ensure that the funnels are influencing user behavior on page leveraging content and functionality in order to achieve both the business requirement and the users on page goal. It's, it's really part of QA, but it's an experiential QA that validates that the design decisions that we've made and the functionality that we've created can truly influence user behavior. We can now conduct a functional QA, a content QA, a visual QA, and prepare the new application for deployment.

Looking back, we started with a design sprint, that five step process to help us identify the problem. The challenge, the solutions create a prioritization of which ideas had the most merit and begin scoping. The project really begin scoping the project from day one. We then engaged our digital strategy and our content team to connect those concepts to realistic audience needs. We broke those needs down, both in terms of user requirements as, and business requirements into user stories, helping us further validate those requirements with other business stakeholders and estimate the effort. Then we went into funnel design information, design journey maps, and user experience design. And lastly, low code engineering.

These steps with these roles will help you build an effective and streamlined internal agency that produces outsized results. Consistently. I've spent the past 20 years building design teams and digital agencies on the exact principles and roles that I've shared with you today. And as always, I want to hear from you. I want to understand what, what challenges you're facing. So send your questions my way. Don't forget to subscribe and have a great week.