User experience has been in the spotlight for a few years now, with many companies employing full-time UX designers or working with UI/UX design agencies. In 2020, an intuitive user interface (UI) is a must for any digital product such as a mobile app, website, SaaS, and even B2B and enterprise software.
When the success of your product hinges on having great user experience and UI design, and you can’t immediately build your product team, the only option is working with an agency or find a consultant offering UX design services.
On the other hand, many top UX agencies who do excellent work fly under the radar and get new projects only through word of mouth. Knowing that finding the right company can be a huge pain, I made a list of the leading experience design firms from major tech hubs in the United States (SF, NYC, LA, etc.) and Europe that specialize in digital products and have worked with early-stage startups as well as Fortune 100 enterprises.
Top UI/UX Design Agencies
UI/UX Design Agency in San Francisco — clay.global
Clay is a full-service UI/UX design, branding, and development agency in San Francisco. Most of their engagements are confidential. They mainly work with Silicon Valley unicorns and Fortune 100 enterprises. As a full-service digital design firm, they do everything from UI/UX for mobile apps and brand identities to marketing websites and enterprise software.
They also partner up with hand-picked Bay Area and global startups to work closely with their founders on bringing their vision to life. Clay is one of the few UX design agencies who can take a project from an initial idea to a finished product and beyond.
A full-service UX design agency — instrument.com
Instrument is a top UX and digital agency headquartered in Portland. The firm designs and builds digital products from mobile apps to websites and communications for the world’s most ambitious brands.
In 2019, they expanded to the East Coast with the acquisition of a Brooklyn-based digital design studio ThisAlso who exclusively focused on product design, UX, and UI.
They are famous for distinctly modern and interactive marketing websites thanks to their ad agency roots and UX UI design upbringing. As a multi-faceted design firm, Instrument combines the best parts from a business consultancy, creative agency, and engineering firm to deliver stellar work.
Global experience design and UX agency — ideo.com
IDEO is a global design consultancy with offices in the US, Europe, and Asia, that specializes in digital products, services, and UX design. Formed in 1991, they’re one of the most influential product and user experience design firms in the industry.
They are the company that invented the design thinking approach, which they have been practicing for decades building websites, mobile apps, enterprise software, and multiplatform digital experiences with the user in mind. This human-centered UX design methodology made them world-famous in the design world and helped expand their offering to organization design and management consulting.
4. Red Antler
A User Experience Design and Digital Agency — redantler.com
Red Antler is one of the best UX design and branding companies for startups and new ventures headquartered in Brooklyn, NY.
Red Antler decided to work exclusively with startups to drive growth and scale through the power of branding and digital strategy. They’re the UX UI design agency behind some of the most successful direct-to-consumer startups such as Casper and Allbirds.
5. Bakken & Bæck
A UI/UX design and development agency — bakkenbaeck.com
Bakken & Baeck is a digital strategy and UI design studio founded in 2011 with offices in Oslo, Bonn, and Amsterdam. By forming close relationships with their clients, they build mobile apps and websites from the ground up and at full speed. In addition to digital product design and development, they’re experts in web design, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
Aside from client projects, they host a one-day design conference An Interesting Day and a hackathon called Stupid Hackathon. They’ve launched their own products such as the Daylight app and a design collaboration tool Wake, which was recently acquired by Vision.
The Ultimate Guide to UX Design and UI/UX Design Agencies
A comprehensive step-by-step guide about key principles of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design and how to hire the right UI/UX design firm for your digital product.
What is a UI/UX (User Experience) design agency?
A UX agency is a design consultancy that specializes in user experience. Those companies can design and build a mobile app UI, website, and even B2B software. There are many subtypes of user experience design companies depending on what their core focus is:
- UX research agencies. These firms mainly provide services like user research, competitor evaluation, customer insights, workshops, personas, and a high-level UX strategy.
- UX design consultancies. Most of these firms position themselves as CX (customer experience) experts researching and executing user experiences across all touchpoints. An excellent choice if you want to understand a holistic journey of your users.
- UI/UX design agencies. These folks are generalists who work in an agile process and focus on the user interface first and foremost. They usually do just the right amount of research. And then proceed with an iterative process nailing down the user experience and UI design, while testing it with the users and stakeholders. You can find many of these firms in San Francisco or New York.
- Full-service design firms. Usually, it’s a bigger agency scenario. You’ll have a dedicated account manager and interact with different teams depending on where you are: researchers, strategists, UX and UI designers, web design experts, developers, and analysts. Some agencies will assemble a cross-disciplinary team that will be engaged throughout the project operating like a startup.
If you’re looking to build a digital product from scratch and just have some basic requirements, we recommend hiring a UI/UX design agency that can do everything at a moderate cost. Or, if the money and timeline are out of the question, go with an established full-service design firm.
UX vs UI: What’s the Difference between UI design and UX design?
Let’s clarify something right off the bat. In the lexicon of design, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) are not the same things. It has become something of a trend to use the terms interchangeably these days. But this is understandable — there is quite a bit of overlap between UX and UI. But erasing what distinguishes them is not just a small oversight — it is an error that can cost time and money. Worse, not differentiating between UX and UI can interrupt the smooth flow of the design process and create problems in the hiring process for UX design firms. If potential employees can’t define their talents on a resume, and web design companies can’t properly identify what they’re looking for, mutually beneficial employment arrangements are quickly lost. You don’t want a lower quality design team because of the wrong definition!
While plenty of great UX/UI design agencies clarify this difference, we’ve decided to help with a little explanation below.
What is User Experience (UX) — More Than Just Visual
The key to understanding user experience (UX) lies in the word experience. UX encompasses the entire experience an end-user has from the moment they land on a site or open an application to the moment they leave. Sounds simple enough. But unlike other elements of digital design that focus on the creative yet technical mechanics of visual representation or back end programming, UX is about incorporating the perspective of the user and the subtleties of brand communication into the overall web design. It is the information architecture that systematizes visual content within the framework of a larger strategy. UX designers are the ones responsible for overseeing this dimension of the design process. Further, they are responsible for effectively incorporating the psychology and perspective of users. This crucial piece of UX design relies on UX research.
Typically, a UX designer does research (or this task is given to a UX researcher) to understand the audience the website is targeting, the psychology of these potential users, and how the dynamics of the user’s interaction with the interface in question affect their overall experience. The UX designer is then responsible for synthesizing this data with the broader brand vision or intention to help imagine a type of usability that is dynamic and user-informed.
What is User Interface (UI) — Visual and Technical
Simply speaking, user interface (UI) is what you directly interact with on an app or website. It is the sum total of the technical, visual dimensions of the web design. This includes images, texts, links, color schemes, and even buttons. Whenever a user has a micro-interaction, like scrolling on a page or clicking on something, they rely on these technical-visual components. While UX is concerned with the broader experience the user is having, UI is the structure of the minutiae of the technical aspects within that experience. Quality UI requires both technical know-how and artistic creativity.
A UI designer embodies the true essence of digital product design. They are responsible for not only stitching together technical components to enhance the overall functionality and usability, but the many creative decisions they make are like pieces of a larger puzzle that unifies the broader vision of the design. This most common type of UI that is dependent on the graphic representation of commands in design is called the graphical user interface. Voice-based interfaces are also becoming more common. This type of UI, most popularly known through Amazon’s Alexa, is when voice commands replace screens, graphics, and touchpoints.
UI and UX: Different, But Connected
UI and UX are entirely interdependent despite their major differences. In any good digital product design firm, UI and UX teams are in constant communication and interaction. UI is essentially the process of piecing together the working technical parts of a broader UX strategy. But UX is also inclusive of the design and functional elements that form the foundation of UI. Therefore, it’s wholly understandable how the terms UX and UI have gotten confused. But from now, despite what UX and UI share, you’ll never mix them up again!
Why is UI/UX design good for business?
Customers are spoiled with great web design and user experiences provided by the industry leaders, and they expect the same from any mobile app or website they interact with.
People don’t notice great UX UI design, but they will complain even if their experience is anything but awesome. User experience is a strategic business tool, and if you know how to use it, you’ll see a lot of positive changes such as:
- Increase in sales due to simplified navigation and purchase flow.
- More engaged customers translate to repeat purchases and more interactions with your content.
- Improved brand loyalty, credibility, and recognition as people are more likely to come back if their first experience was stellar.
- Reduced training and customer service costs because great UX is intuitive and needs no excessive documentation.
- Build better products by understanding what your customers need, design for their needs, test, and improve with user involvement.
Still not convinced if you need to invest in UX? Let the numbers speak:
- A one-second delay in page load yields a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction.
- UX design unification resulted in 100% productivity gain in development teams and helped save General Electric an estimated $30 million.
- Virgin America saw a 14% increase in conversion rate and 20% fewer support calls after the significant website and UI/UX redesign in 2014.
- The top 20% of CX leaders outperformed the S&P 500, says a study by Forrester.
- Every dollar invested in UX can generate a 100 dollars return
User experience design is an intricate combination of tools and processes to manipulate your customers by giving them a delightful and user-friendly product they can’t stop using. As with any specialty field, you need to be a professional to do it right or you can hire one.
You can enlist an in-house designer and build your product team later on or work with a UX agency that has design teams readily available.
How does UX align with the strategic goals of a company?
When stakeholders in companies or entrepreneurs first learn of the concept of user experience (UX) they almost always want to know — how does that actually relate to our bottom line? Our success? Our growth as a company? But the answer is quite simple — good UX is a critical tool in any business reaching their goals in this day and age.
Whether a business is selling a product or creating an application or providing a service, the overwhelming importance of the internet cannot be expressed enough. The internet is — in the case of a business selling a product, the main way the public is introduced to the said product — and in the case of an application the medium through which your application will be interacted with. Either way, both websites, and applications are experienced by those who interact with them. The goal of UX design is to ensure that this experience is one that sits fondly in the hearts and minds of the visitors. The better, more effective, and professional the UX design is the more likely visitors will turn into recurring visitors or even customers. This means that UX design when done well by a professional UX design agency, can help your business expand and grow. This is crucial for helping companies reach their bottom line — creating a profitable and popular product, service, or application.
Another way that UX relates to the strategic goal of a company is that UX design is about understanding the needs and wants of your target audience and incorporating that into the initial interactions that same audience will have with your company. Because UX design and branding are often intimately interlinked, the UX design process will actually help flesh out the brand with the understanding of your target audience in mind. This means that your brand’s goal of finding a place within the consciousness and imagination of your target audience will go through a practical refining process during the UX design process itself. The importance of digital platforms in all businesses these days means that the UX design should actually be understood as a component of a larger, holistic, and thorough process of branding.
At the end of the day, the question should not be “how does UX align with the strategic goals of a company” but instead how can you have a company without UX? These days you can’t — so finding the right UX design agency to work with and making the investment is not only a good idea, it’s necessary for ensuring your business’s longevity and success in our highly internet-dependent and digitized world.
What’s the difference between UX designers and product designers?
Within the world of UX design, there is a misconception that whole UX design teams are made up of designers with the exact same skill sets. This is false. One of the more crucial divisions of labor within the UX design process is that between UX designers and product designers. They are related to each other, and interdependent in the UX design process, however, each has a unique and specific role to play.
UX designers are focused on user experience. This means that their focus is on the development of the user’s experience of the product or application or website from the moment that they first visit the interface until they leave. A UX designer might also function as a UX researcher — diving headfirst into the wants and needs of the target audience and the market at large then taking that information and developing the architecture of the website that creates a particular experience the client is hoping to create. A UX designer is like a curator — their job is to curate a particular experience for every user so they are more likely to revisit the site, continue using the application, or purchase a product. When you think about a UX designer you can imagine them as an expert in understanding the wants and needs of the target audience and translating this understanding into impeccable, effective design.
A product designer has a slightly different relationship to the UX design process. They are deeply involved in UX design and often have a UX design background and skill set. But their main focus is on ensuring that the company/client’s needs are reflected in the design process. They are involved in incorporating the company’s vision within the product design from start to finish and make sure that the user experience and user interface aspects of the design process are complimenting what the client wants to see. This means they are in tune with the business and marketing side of things. This does not mean that the product designer is not concerned with the needs of the target audience and eventual user or consumer. It’s more that they consider the company’s business and marketing objectives within the design process and figure out how to synthesize those objectives with the UX designer’s understanding of the target audience.
On any UX design project, both the UX designers and product designers are integral pieces for ensuring a successful outcome. Their differences are always complimentary and linked and help bring a company’s UX vision to life in an effective way.
What are the typical services of a UX/UI design agency?
All UX/UI design agencies are unique in both the services they offer and how they offer them. For example, a huge difference exists between small scale boutique UX/UI design firms and larger corporate agencies. However, there are some basic services that most firms, big and small offer.
Full user experience design from start to finish is a service that all UX/UI design agencies offer — or they wouldn’t be a UX/UI design agency in the first place! This service is not something short and simple, but rather a long multi-step process. UX design usually begins with UX research. UX research is the process of studying the target audience and market in which the application or business will exist. UX/UI design agencies will after doing the research produce a report in order to continue forward. From there UX/UI design agencies will begin the actual design process until the user experience design is complete.
UI design is another related and nearly universal service these agencies offer. User interface design is the visual and technical component of the design. This service is what shapes the text, the colors, and the actual usability of the site or application.
Beyond these two basic services, UX/UI agencies can offer a number of different services to choose from. For example, almost any full-service UX design firm offers the following services:
- Business discovery & user research
- Product & marketing UX strategy
- User interface & visual design
- Front-end engineering & platform integration
- Usability testing & analytics
- Experience innovation consulting
- Design sprints & prototyping
- Customer journey mapping
- Service blueprints
- UX workshops & training
These services all relate to UX/UI design but notice they are more specific to particular elements of the overall branding process. In this case, the firm also offers steps within the larger UX design process as individual services. This is because some companies that need UX services do not always need the entire design process but rather need usability testing or consultation on UX strategy. Also, because user experience is so intimately tied to branding, many UX firms offer services related to branding, marketing, and strategy.
Some firms also specialize in particular services that are relatively unique. For example, Clay offers and specializes in enterprise and B2B UX and UI design — a service that not all design firms or agencies offer.
So at this point, it should be clear — while most firms offer basically similar UX/UI design services — more specialized and concrete services may differ between agencies. In this case, it’s always good to know what exactly the design firm in question is offering.
How to hire the right UX design agency
Researching and shortlisting agencies is just the first step. Once you’ve narrowed down your selections, the real work begins. You’ll be reaching out to agencies, having calls and meetings, writing RFPs, evaluating proposals, making a decision, and, finally, signing all legal paperwork to start your project. It could easily take weeks if not months to get to the finish line.
And you need to have a solid plan to find a best-fit UI/UX design agency in the shortest amount of time.
Here are just a few questions you might ask yourself:
- Should I go with a local agency or find a remote design firm?
- Is it better to hire a large agency or try a boutique UX company?
- How much my UX design project would cost?
- What capabilities should an agency have to provide the best results?
- What do I need to prepare to get proposals from agencies?
To make the agency selection process as seamless and smooth as possible, I’ve put together the FAQ below.