4 must haves when hiring an app designer or agency

I can’t lie; I am extremely biased. I own Tapity, an app design and marketing studio. However, as we were going through the process of designing Tapity Studio, our new packaged design service, we have been realizing just how ridiculously difficult it is for startups and businesses to find and vet app designers and agencies like ours.

Tapity Studio was designed to make this process easier, but we aren’t the right fit for everyone. Navigating the frustratingly subjective world of app design services can be tedious and tricky; I hope this article can provide a good starting point for any non-designers who may be intimidated by the process.

Here are four critical things to look for when hiring an app designer, and the questions you can ask to tease them out. Some of these questions can be answered from a firm’s website but others will require a conversation.

Don’t miss the special tool at the end. It will help you systematically evaluate app designers based on the following criteria.

Quality

Hours, a time tracking app we designed (recently acquired)

It used to be that you could stand out with good design and sometimes get away with poor design. However, times have changed and most apps people use every day are at least well designed. To stand out, you need not only good design, you need great design. I’m not just talking about pretty pixels but everything from meeting real users needs, to being easy to use, to subtly delighting the user at every turn. How do you evaluate the quality of an app designer?

Have they designed successful apps? Research them to find if they have numbers or metrics to demonstrate traction for their apps. Have their apps been featured on the App Store or critically acclaimed in the press? Success and publicity isn’t always an indicator of great design but they often go together.

Are their apps focused or scattered? Sometimes bloated apps are not the designers fault, but a designer should do their best to get their client to focus on doing one or two things well instead of taking the kitchen sink approach.

Are their apps straightforward? When you look at a screenshot of one of their apps, is it easy to understand the value?

Are their apps easy to use? Download a few of their apps. Did they do a good job at making it easy to dive into the action? Did they anticipate the questions users were going to have? Were the instructions annoying and out of context, or helpful? Did you ever get stuck or confused?

Do they innovate? Do their apps use cookie cutter UI or do they come up with creative solutions to problems? Are their custom solutions superfluous or genuinely better than the stock way of doing things?

Are their apps delightful to use (not just usable)? Find out if they go the extra mile to add special details that give an app personality — visual beauty, witty copy, engaging blank states, pleasant animations or transitions, and maybe even subtle auditory cues.

Are their clients happy? You could ask them for references and ask their former clients what the experience was like. If an agency doesn’t have any happy clients to have you talk to, there’s a problem.

One caveat. Some clients prevent designers from doing their best work. Overbearing personalities, bad requirements, inadequate implementations, and many other factors can result in a good designer doing work they are not ultimately proud of. Dealing with all these external factors is definitely a skill that you should look for in a design studio. However, if you want to see a designer’s very best work, you sometimes will need to look for the apps or side projects where those external factors are minimized.

Price

Ah, the all important question. Unfortunately, it is also the question that is the most difficult to get (or give) a straight answer to. We are trying something new with Tapity Studio where we package certain services with definite price tags. There are a lot of very legitimate reasons for a studio not to do this so we may be the only ones experimenting with it right now.

Extracting even a “ball park” for a project early in the process can be like pulling teeth because there are truly a lot of factors that go into pricing a project and studios want to be careful about setting the right expectations. So yes, getting an idea of price can often be quite a process in itself.

I have a budget in mind. Are they even within my range? Almost every agency will have some minimum dollar amount they are willing to work with. For some freelancers, that minimum may be $5,000. For larger agencies, it may be $100,000. Make sure to find out as soon as possible if your project is above the threshold, otherwise you are wasting your time (and theirs).

Is the quality worth the cost — what is the value? Design is not the place to skimp on cost. You might be able to find a graphic designer to spec out some screens for cheap, but I can almost guarantee that won’t end well. Why? Because true design is essential to success and it is so much more than that — great designers will sharpen the very definition of your product by focusing on meeting real user needs and will relentlessly explore ideas and challenge assumptions to find the best way to solve problems for users in an intuitive and delightful way.

While designers may not write the code, they make sure the code is worth being written in the first place. But if you are paying big bucks, make sure you are getting that kind of designer and not just a pixel pusher who says they do “UX” because it looks good on their resume.

Would I need to raise more money to hire them? Of course you would hope the answer is no but sometimes it costs more than you have in the bank to get the great design your app deserves. We sometimes recommend to start with a smaller scope to design a narrow prototype that you can present to investors and raise what you need to complete the full design and development.

Will they partner with me? The short answer is, probably not. If they wanted to take a risk on a venture, most agencies will tend to work on their own ideas, not yours. However, there are always exceptions. This deserves its own article, but I’ll briefly mention some things that will increase your chances of getting a partnership:

  • Of course the idea has to be intriguing (this alone will not convince anyone, but it is nonetheless important).
  • There has to be huge upside potential (or, in some cases, benefit to society at large). No one wants to risk tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of time on a project that ultimately only has the potential to make a maximum of a million dollars if everything goes well.
  • You bring some competitive advantage that the agency doesn’t possess — connections, industry expertise, an innovative patented invention, a following, a track record of success, etc.
  • You have money to invest or have a proven track record of raising money for the project. Perhaps you can guarantee that there will be a shorter-term payoff once a prototype is built, and you can use that prototype to raise money.
  • You have skin in the game. Honestly, if you aren’t willing to put all you have into this — sell your nice car and get a used one, put a lot of your own hard-earned money into the project, or somehow show that you are deeply invested, please don’t ask someone else to risk anything on it. How do I know that after I invest my time and money into your project, you won’t flake out or get bored of the project after six months? This has happened to me multiple times, by the way.

Fit

You need a designer that is a good fit for your project.

Have they done apps in my domain before? Good designers learn quickly about a problem space but it always helps to have prior experience in that space.

Do they have experience with my target platforms? Most designers will have experience designing for iPhone and Android phones but if you are building for other platforms like the Apple Watch, tablets, or even the web, check to see what their experience is with those platforms.

Do I like their design style? If you ask two of the best designers in the world to design the same thing, they will most likely produce vastly different results based on aesthetic preferences, culture, usability intuitions, life experience, and many other factors. Good designers are versatile in their styles but there will often be commonalities that you will notice if you look at the body of their work.

Are they local? Design is a very collaborative process. It is often very beneficial for the stakeholders to be able to participate in the process face-to-face. Being local or close makes that a lot easier.

Are they small or large? Large companies generally have more collective experience and more diverse resources to draw from. Small companies will tend to be less expensive and possibly have more individual experience. For example, in a small company you are more likely to work with the founder or lead designer of the company instead of a lower-level designer. These, of course, are generalizations, and I am biased as the owner of a seven-person outfit.

Is their culture and personality compatible with ours? Try to meet the people who will actually be working on your project. Do you like them? Do you think you will work well together? Are they order takers or do they challenge you? Are they too formal or informal for your taste? Are they too rigid in their approach or not structured enough? Are they condescendingly confident or not confident enough in their own expertise? A jerk can do amazing work. In a world where collaboration is so critical to success, make sure you are comfortable with the personalities you will be working with.

Short term or long term? Some shops are geared more toward shorter one-time engagements and some prefer to cultivate long term relationships. A lot of this will depend on if you plan on transitioning to your own internal team versus continuing to use an outside vendor.

Can they accomodate my schedule? You might find a great agency but they are booked solid for the next couple months. Others may be able to start soon but are spread so thin that the work will drag on for months. Make sure to ask when you can start and how long it might take.

Is design a big or small part of what they do? Some full service agencies will pay lip service to design, but it isn’t a core part of their business. They don’t give it the attention it deserves and, worse, often don’t understand what design really is. This certainly isn’t always the case, but use the questions in the “quality” section to help determine if a generalist agency has the design chops required for your project.

Are they a pure agency, or do they also do their own apps? Pure agencies may have their client process down to a science, whereas companies who also do their own apps will generally have a more holistic view of the app process since they are going through the same struggles as you are. I am biased, of course, since I strongly believe Tapity’s experience building our own apps gives us a unique perspective when designing client apps. That said, because we spend a lot of time on our own apps, we don’t have as large a portfolio of client apps as some agencies do and that may be important to you.

Process

A diagram we sometimes use to visualize our process at Tapity

Transparent or opaque? Will I see daily progress and will there be a tight feedback loop, or will they go off for a few weeks, give me their version of a final result, and be done with me? I am sorry to say that I have heard some horror stories of people spending a lot of money, only to get an unsatisfactory result due to an opaque process.

Heavy or light? There is a basic philisophical question on how much you depend on up-front research, user interviews, and other expensive but informative (if done right) processes versus building a prototype quickly and iterating based on actual user responses. On one extreme you can spend a really crazy amount of time and money before you have even started designing the actual product. On the other, you might spend a significant amount of time designing the wrong thing because you didn’t do enough up-front research and analysis, forcing you to make a major pivot down the road.

I tend to prefer something in between. Spend days or up to a couple weeks on up-front user research and user experience analysis but quickly start getting to a prototype that can be tested and iterated upon.

How much will users be integrated into the process? Good designers will have ideas on where and how much to involve users in the design process. They will also know the right questions to ask and how to ask them in a way that elicits genuine feedback instead of just what you are hoping to hear.

Ideally, you would involve users at every major stage —validating the idea, testing the usability, and getting visceral reactions to the product as it gets closer and closer to a beta that can then be used by hundreds or thousands of users for more quantitative feedback.

Will I be dealing with the actual designers or a go-between business person? Some bigger agencies will shield their actual workers from the client. This can be nice for employees of the agency, but it can greatly reduce the sense that the designers are on your team and collaborating with you to make something great together.

What tools will they use to collaborate with me? Will I get quick access to the team through a chat app like Slack? Will they make designs available to me in real time with a design presentation tool like InVision?


If I didn’t own my own app design firm, these are the factors I would consider when evaluating app design services. I’m sure there are many other great questions, so please respond with yours. Finding and vetting design services is not easy but design can make or break a product, so it pays to do your homework.

With that in mind, I have created an Excel worksheet with all of these questions that you can use to systematically evaluate the app design service providers you are talking to.

To get this worksheet and more articles like this, sign up to the Tapity newsletter. (You knew this was coming, right?)

If you are in the market for design services, check out Tapity Studio. We are an Apple Award winning design and marketing studio with apps that consistently hit the top charts. To make it easier to see if we are a fit for you, our prices and process are laid bare on our website below:

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