The Digital Life Episode #118: Where to, UX Agencies?

Episode Summary
Today, the field of UX is evolving faster than ever before. There’s never been a greater need for digital design — from mobile to desktop to every device in between. Add to that the tremendous need for design for emerging technologies — including the Internet of Things, wearables, genomics, and robotics — and you have all the right factors that should point to an industry on the rise. However, at the same time, the UX industry is maturing: There’s a strong trend to bring work in house at tech companies of all shapes and sizes, which has made the design landscape, at least for independent consulting agencies, tentative at best. Since the sale of Adaptive Path to Capital One almost a year ago, we’ve heard the rumors of the demise of the design firm. For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to explore the current state of affairs and the necessary re-invention of the UX design agency.

Why Are Design Firms Stagnating?
The New Age of Innovation
Hey, UX Agencies: It’s Gonna Be Alright

Welcome to Episode 118 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hi Jon, what’s up?
So this week I thought we could revisit the topic of the UX Design Firm, The UX Agency, and its health in the marketplace, as independent agencies have been through the ringer I think this year. It started about almost a year ago now, when Adaptive Path got sold to Capital One, and since then there are a number of high profile design firms that either had to close offices, or shut down, or got purchased by larger more affluent companies.
There was a huge question as to whether independent design firms could really make a go of it anymore, or if the in-house UX and Design Department was the wave of the future.

Over the past year, there’s really been a lot of hand ringing and discussion. I think you did a blog post Dirk, the title of which I think was telling, “UX Agencies, Everything Is Going To Be Alright.” Which you did probably 6 or 7 months ago now.

I think we’ve seen a really interesting shift in the landscape of this UX Agency, independent agency territory and I wanted to dig into that a little bit today.

Sure, so what are you seeing?
I think there’s really never been a greater need for digital design. First the landscape, let’s take a look at that. Between just the amount of software that’s required to be designed from mobile software, to software for tablets, and any number of devices, still of course the laptops and PCs.
There’s really never been a greater need for digital design, and couple that with the growing need for design for software for the internet of things and wearable and up and coming emerging technologies like Genomics and Robotics. You really just have this environment where you would think that design would really be thriving and really in-demand.
I think the need for the work has never been greater, and the need for excellent designers has never been greater. I think some of the hand ringing or the tumult that we’ve seen over the past year, has been indicative not of design going away, but design and design agencies evolving into whatever the next phase is.

I can be a little bit more specific about that just based on some of my own experience in that, I’ve seen that design agencies, first off the ones that are covering certain types of industries, are really starting to hone in on those industries. If you’re particularity well suited for a type of design or innovation, for say the financial industry, maybe you’ll start focusing entirely on that industry.

I know we’ve done that, but I’m not aware of other UX firms doing that. Can you share some of those firms?
Sure, and some of this has been happening already. I know for instance, that locally there’s a number of design firms that are focused more and more on the healthcare vertical and as you pointed out we’re actually aware of those because we’re in that space as well. I can think Medullan is doing that, Macadamian is doing that, our friends at a number of other agencies are doing that and honing in on healthcare. On the financial side of things, I was mostly thinking of Adaptive Path moving into that sphere where they’re not just working with Capital One, they’ve sort of become Capital One. That’s a slightly different scenario there. I think in particular, if you see that specialty honing in on a area where you have the greatest strengths, I think that’s a sign of maturity and evolution in the industry.
I think it’s worth asking as part of this dissection of what’s happening in the design agency world, what is “User experience” anyway? How do we draw the lines around that industry? I must say that when the web was first starting, I never really considered the design of websites and eCommerce sites, the term “User experience” was never really part of that equation. It came to the fore over the decade, which was the 2000s and really took off. Now we have “User experience” in design with such a broad mandate that also includes communication design, and digital design of all stripes whether it’s eCommerce or the aforementioned marketing.

I feel like that part of communication design is also competing for talent, is also competing for clients, so that when you’re talking about UX and design agencies there’s maybe this increased competition and then maybe some initial lack of differentiation from what communication firms can do. Some of that overlap, I think is creating some additional tension when it comes to UX design firms.

The last thing that I think is really worth talking about a little bit farther, is this move in-house from outside design firms. If you were IBM a year and a half ago, you weren’t really embarking yet on this design initiative that they’ve now started a new design center, they’re hiring 1,000 UX people to come in and enhance all of their enterprise software and it’s really creating an additional draw on industry talent.

Over the past year, I’ve seen endless recruiting adds on LinkedIn, precisely for those kinds of jobs and it really makes you realize that Enterprise UX, which maybe wasn’t quite as dominant of force in previous years, has now started to become something that people are really paying attention to.

On the show we’ve had a couple of different episodes where we’ve discussed the “Bring Your Own Device” movement and Enterprise UX in general. Fundamentally the shift that is happening in Enterprise software, is also causing some pull on the independent UX Agency.

If you look at all those trends together, I think you can see that the need for change, for independent agencies, and the need really for specialization has never been greater. I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, or I would like to believe that. There’s this sense that we’re still waiting and seeing for what’s going to happen next.

Dirk, what’s your impression of all of that?

Yeah, just another market cycle. Go back 50 years, go back to the time of “Mad Men” and the agency business waxes and wanes in different ways and the thing that’s most noticeable about it, is that while agencies work, outside services work continues to be required and there continue to be a lot of firms, they are changing over time. What services they’re offering, how they position themselves. Certainly agencies that are staying in place and not changing, adapting to the market and the needs of customers, they might be in trouble.
For a large segment of us who are intelligently and appropriately adjusting with the times, and with where things are headed, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be all right. Sometimes these adaptation periods are hot, sometimes they’re not necessary. Sometimes the consolidation is hot, and other times it really isn’t, and we just happen to be in a moment where the consolidation, the in-housing of services, the attempt to pivot away from as much reliance on outside providers, is really at a high point.

It’s during a period of real innovation and change in technology, and in culture, so that is going to really force us as service providers, to be highly adaptive and potentially have a very different market strategy and positioning that we did even just a few years ago.

That’s healthy. That’s the good part of free markets that work. Those who don’t adapt, are going to be left behind. Even some who do adapt will be left behind but in the long now, a decode from now, there’ll be approximately the same amount of outside providers as there are now, as there are always. It’s just a moment.

In the U.S. we look at things so short term. Financials are always quarterly. Other cultures primarily, and particularly eastern cultures, have a much longer time horizon. It’s much healthier, it’s much more correct and as usual we’re just panicking here as relates to short term stuff.

In the long now, things from the stand point of outside, service providers being an augmentation to businesses and corporations, we’re going to be here. External creatives doing our thing as well as ever, just in different ways perhaps.

Yeah, that’s a really healthy outlook Dirk. I think you in your blog post a few months ago, you had a similar kind of view. From my stand point, I definitely get drawn into the idea that the problems that we’re encountering as an industry are unique or special because they’re also coupled to all this technological change, which seems at times to be very unique and special as well.
It is worth remembering that longer term view, especially when it come to dealing with the kinds of alterations that we need to make in order to survive. As you pointed out, the emerging tech industries of the 50′s and 60′s, were all around television and advertising and “Mad Men.” I’m sure that the guys who were writing the radio adds, felt the same way I do now, which is that everything’s changing. The market cycle analysis I think is a pretty good one, and one that I’ll try to keep in mind day to day.

Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to, that’s just one L in the Digital Life, and go to the page for this Episode.

We’ve include links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow us on Twitter. I’m @jonfollett, J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of coarse the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at, that’s Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me at
That’s it for Episode 118 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

The Digital Life Episode #117: Alphabet

by Dirk on August 20, 2015 · 0 comments

The Digital Life Episode #117: Alphabet

Episode Summary
In this episode of The Digital Life, we explore Google’s corporate transformation to holding company Alphabet, what that means for unleashing innovation in the company, and how that effects the firm’s chief technology rivals, Amazon and Apple. So far, Wall Street has loved the move and the company has increased its worth by $20B.

Alphabet is well-positioned to be the dominant emerging tech company of the 21st century, with fingers in the IoT, wearables, self-driving cars, robotics, and genomics. But what does that dominance mean for our data, when innovation is reliant on advertising revenue for financial fuel?

G is for Google
Google confirms Life Sciences as the first new company under the umbrella of Alphabet

Welcome to episode 117 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures on the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and Co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Jon, what’s up this week?
I thought we could spend a little time this week chatting about some of the biggest tech news to come along in a while. Of course I’m referring to Google’s transformation into Alphabet, which may sound like a little something from what our kids watch on television everyday. Really and truly they’re going to become multiple companies under a holding company umbrella called Alphabet. It’s the dawn of a new day, perhaps, for Google. I know that as tech watchers we’ve had lots of things to say about Google, and Apple, and Microsoft, and Amazon over the past couple years on the show. This is something we’ve been watching very closely. I know you have some thoughts on that. I thought we would start with what your thoughts were on the implications of this transformation.
I think it’s a big deal, more from an optical perspective than anything else. We’ve been talking on the show about how Apple is mired in the morass of slow, non-innovative thinking. Is one of a few companies that are, or really have been for some time, whipping out ahead, looking at many different manifestations of technology across a broad base, far outside the narrow band of computer software and hardware. Taking innovation and taking their charter for what they’re trying to do in the world to the next level.
What Alphabet does, from an optical perspective, is it really shows that to the world. Its no longer, there’s just all of these things happen behind the scenes inside of this search company and it doesn’t make sense. Now it’s really putting it out there and saying, here is the structure, here are all of these different things functioning in various ways, independently within it. It’s a broad mandate.

We’ve talked on the show before about self driving cars and other interesting technology. Now people are being made aware of Google’s investments, for example, in technologies to increase the duration of life. They’re really going into emerging technologies, the things that we work on at Invo and we talk a lot about on this show. From AI, to robotics, to synthetic biology, Google’s all in. They are refashioning their leadership focus at the top, and re-prioritizing the structure of their entities to really try and make the most of these things. I think it’s pretty cool, because it’s really making manifest what’s been happening in more seemingly ad hoc ways in a much more formal and understandable structure.

Yeah, I think as you were articulating that it’s dawning on me that Google really is the mainline innovation in emerging technology company. Maybe in a way that the GE of old was just dominating in some emerging technology spaces. If you recall just a couple years ago, they scooped up — meaning Google scooped up — a number of Boston-area cutting edge robotics companies. There were all sorts of videos online of these robots that resembled animals, that resembled people. Google was placing this best on the future of robotics.
As you pointed out, there wasn’t a real connection, or one that we could see, to their core business of advertising. Now they have all of these wonderful, innovative, individual companies, plus their Google ventures and other financial instruments, ways of funding these. You can begin to see just how they have their fingers in so many of these pies that are going to be important for the future. Nest, obviously another Google company. You mentioned the self driving cars, another Google investment. I know that they’re investing in synthetic biology and talking with George Church, for instance, about having genetically altered mosquitoes that may one day be able to help fight dengue fever in remote parts of the world. It’s hard to grasp all of the elements that are going into this Alphabet company. I guess, from my perspective, having such a love of emerging technologies, it really seems like it would be a wonderful place to work. Although I doubt that any one, aside from the company founders, would really get to touch on everything.

Yeah, I think that’s a part of the point. Google has a long history of dabbling in ways that are largely unsuccessful. If we go back to the early days when they were just a search company and then started to roll out other different types of products, they notoriously failed at social networking again and again and again. Trying different types of messaging, platforms, project management things, among many, many others; it’s been very hit or miss. The company has come from a hacker engineer culture, and has taken that same tool and applied to to all of these different contexts, while trying to run a search business that paid the bills to a varying array of successes and failures, primarily failures.
Now Google is taking these things that are much bigger than just, Oh we do search software now we’re going to do social networking software going into totally different industries, very different aspects of technology – although all coming back to software in ways tiny and large — and trying to run those as companies, and their own things. As opposed to hobbies or just the mash up, lets see what we can do here, deal. I’m really excited to see what they’re able to do, or not, with it all. I’m very bullish on their ability. Again, treating these as separate companies, things that are being run by strong leaders, and properly invested, properly focused in each of their own, I’m pretty optimistic. I don’t see any other company on the horizon who’s in order of magnitude of what Google is trying to do across this very broad base of emerging, cutting edge things. At some level, it’s scary.

Totally scary.
The flip side of the coin is, Google right now is the only corporation I can see that is on a track to potentially be the distopia overlord of the future. I don’t suspect that that would happen, but it’s within the realm of possibility given the breadth of the play that they’re making and how it’s getting into life extension in particular, it’s getting into literally the holy grail of technology in the world. Interesting, exciting, and really fulfilling on a promise of innovation that they’ve been showing and making. It’s fun to see it emerge in this calcified way.
Yeah, I think if we take a quick look at some of Google’s chief technology rivals, we can think about Amazon and Apple being rivals to Google in that sense. When you look at what Amazon’s doing ,there is some overlap there with internet of things offerings. For instance, Amazon is moving in a couple different directions with their internet of things offerings, one being the voice activated echo, which they’ve been market testing. Certainly no where near moon shot the way you would think of robotics or some of the synthetic biology projects that Google’s venturing into. Amazon, a much more … I don’t know if down to earth is the right way to contrast with a moonshot company.
Amazon certainly seems all encompassing when it comes in the retail side. Generally speaking, seems a lot more pragmatic, maybe boots on the ground, and less looking towards the future and visionary the way I see Google. At the same time, I use most of Amazons services; I use their streaming service, I order all sots of things online from them. They are collecting money from me anyway. Maybe it’s just that Google has the visionary leaders that make it possible for them to do what they’re doing. The question then I think worth raising, why not Apple, why Apple’s sitting on this pile of cash. They certainly have the money to do it, but they don’t seem to be venturing as far a field from the consumer electronics world that they’ve dominated for so long they’re don’t seem as visionary, and maybe that as leadership thing. What do you think, Dirk?

Totally think it’s a leadership thing. Wozniak has been retired for what, 30 years? Job’s has been dead for four or five. I’m sure Tim Cook is a very competent, professional CEO, but he sure as heck isn’t a visionary, he sure as heck isn’t a leader. As much as the design community like to froth about the partnership between Steve Jobs and Jony Ive. Wait, Jony Ive’s not doing much interesting since then. The stuff that Apple is doing that he’s attached to and yammering about in positive ways, those aren’t exciting products, those aren’t interesting and groundbreaking things, they’re really mundane.
I think it’s a lack of vision, a lack of leadership. Companies are like people, they get old, they peak. Apple’s had a couple of really nice runs in it’s history. It remains, I think, the biggest company on earth. It’s usually Apple and Xeon are up there towards the top. Certainly from a capital perceptive, a big corporate perspective there’s a lot of success there. However, the vision isn’t there. If you take where Apple is today and go out 20 years and compare it to the arch that we’re seeing from Google in more straightforward, and perhaps less inspiring ways like Amazon, I think you’ll be hard pressed to make the case that Apple is the one in 20 years that’s going to be the really premiere company. They’ve already, from my perspective, lost the shine from an innovation perspective. I think it will just take time for them to lose it from a market cap perspective.

Looking at the post Jobs era for Apple, I can only sum it up as seeing lots of line extensions on their current brands, and absolutely zero innovation. Everything I feel from the Jobs era got maybe more profitable, slight tweaks here and there, whether it’s the consumer electronics, or service that back them, or the software within them. It’s incremental change and not really anything that in the long term is going to have the same splash as the first iPod or the first iPhone or the iPad did.
In fact, I was just looking at an article today,at Khoi Vinh’s site, suggesting that the iPad needs an innovation around or some rekindling because it’s getting to be a tired category as the standard bearer for tablet computing. There’s just not as much, if any, innovation in the space since tablet computing started with the debut of the iPad. It’s, I think, maybe a little disappointing for people, like myself, who have been fans — wouldn’t say a fan boy — of Apple products for so long, just took for granted that they would lead the charge on the innovation and design side. For some reason, capturing money, not imagination, seems to be their modus operandi currently. Maybe a little disappointed in Apple, at least here.

Yeah. Look at the history of corporations, they all die, they all go away. None of them make it. If you look at the biggest companies, like an Andrew Carnegie, they don’t exist anymore. They die, despite being, at certain points, the biggest and most successful companies in the world. That’s because they’re born of a certain time and place, with a certain vision, carving out a certain space in the world. As time passes, the impact of that space, the degree to which people desire that space waxes and wanes. The more time that passes, the more it’s on the wane side.
Apple is a company that I don’t remember their initial mission statement, but it boiled down to putting computers in everyones living room. Taking these giant machines for processing and make them a personal and part of peoples everyday lives, that’s a mission that’s been addressed a long time ago. Whereas Google, their mission of organizing the worlds information … information applies to DNA, information applies to all kinds of different things. Even though Google’s first manifestation was in the context of a search engine, from the very beginning their vision for what they were trying to achieve in the world was much bigger.

I think there are still exciting things for Apple to do. It would be great if Apple could solve the personal computing ecosystem. Going back to Khoi’s comment, there’s a gap right now where we’ve got the watch, we’ve got the iPhone, we’ve got the iPad, we’ve got the laptop or desktop computer, we’ve got the devices in our cars and in other places, wearables that are all part of this. It’s really clumsy. There’s too many devices, they don’t work that well together. There’s still a lot to be done in that space, and I do think Apple’s the right company to do it. The question is, do they have the leadership vision present to do that? I think the Jony Ive fan boys would say yes. I’m not so sure though. I’d like to see them do it because I own Apple devices, I’ve invested a lot of money in the iTunes store. I’d like this ecosystem to continue. There’s a big opportunity for it to really up level. I hope Apple does it.

I increasingly think it’s more likely that it’s going to be some kind of disruptor. I don’t necessarily think Google’s the one to do it, because Google’s excellence is not in design ecosystems, Google’s excellence is in engineering. On the design side, more simple, straightforward, not from a design perspective, but from a overall business model prospective, in ways that are more open but don’t necessarily result in a great user experience. It may be another company entirely. Going back to Amazon, it might be Amazon, although I don’t think it will be them either. I don’t know who it will be. There’s a big opportunity here, and it is one Apple can take advantage of. The question is will they? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m holding out that Apple might be able to do some of that too. Like yourself, I’m not sure that they’re really prepared to do that in light of the way they’ve been going.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to, that’s just one “L” in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, or email me
That’s it for episode 117 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll see you next time.

The Digital Life Episode #116: Future Crime

by Dirk August 13, 2015

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Elena 5.6 & Soren 3.35

by Dirk August 8, 2015

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The Digital Life Episode #115: The Future of Food

by Dirk August 6, 2015

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The Game Design Round Table Episode #130: Catching up and Some Listener Mail

by Dirk August 5, 2015

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The Digital Life Episode #114: Hacking Cars

by Dirk July 30, 2015

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The Digital Life Episode #112: Automating America

by Dirk July 16, 2015

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The Game Design Round Table Episode: #129: Daniel Solis

by Dirk July 14, 2015

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The Digital Life Episode #111: We all scream for the video stream

by Dirk July 8, 2015

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