ARTICLE: Brian Keenan

faUX v realUX: What EdTech leaders need to know to when evaluating a UX partner.

Great user experiences with digital products are leading to an enlightened era of consumer engagement. This trend is also leading to a rise in what we call “faUX” practitioners.

Organizations in industries everywhere are recognizing the value of adopting product-owner mindsets that yield much deeper engagement with their customers through digital products. That trend represents a major disruption for marketing and advertising firms who are being upended as clients divert budgets to create new kinds of engagement experiences as part of broader digital transformation efforts.

Creating products that people want to use requires a partner that truly lives and breathes UX strategy, research and design at a cellular level.

The way you build successful digital products is nothing like the way you create marketing and advertising campaigns. “UX” is often listed as a bullet point in a list of agency capabilities, but it’s not just an add-on. For realUX companies that create successful digital products, it is a way of life.

Adopting a digital product mindset means basing all of your decisions on insights that can only be gleaned through rigorous research and testing with real-world users. Successful digital product teams have vast experience helping their clients define MVP launches and planning for future release cycles based on further input from their users. They know how to navigate complex tech infrastructures and integrations.

As the value of  best-practice UX research and design grows, we’re alarmed by a growing trend – design companies that either unknowingly or worse, cynically, claim to be UX agencies when they clearly are not.

Though UI and UX are often used interchangeably, they are distinctly different because visitors and users are different.

Users vote quickly. Website not responsive? Move on. App confusing to use? Move on. The simplicity of the early web gave way to complex sites and apps with layers of content, multiple paths to explore and transactions for value exchange. The focus shifted from artfully presenting content to site visitors — user interface (UI) — to the pragmatic concerns of system architecture, navigation and optimization to deliver personalized experiences to users — user experience (UX). Both are necessary for the success of any digital product, but UI is a subset of UX.

Visitors consume content passively. They are presented with information, but not much else. The evolution from electronic billboards to digital products meant new skills were required to design for these interactions. Designing content for visitors challenged graphic designers during the first decade of the web. They adapted their skills and used new technologies, conventions and approaches to leverage a new digital medium to broadcast ideas and share information. They evolved into user interface (UI) designers.

While it’s still important to think about and measure visitors to digital properties, the experiences created when smartphones are coupled with cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SAAS) models, requires a new yardstick. As popularized on the HBO series Silicon Valley, we now measure the success of digital properties in terms of daily active users, not monthly, or even weekly, visitors.

Users, in contrast, interact. They actively tailor their experience by selecting options, making decisions and executing actions like making reservations or buying goods and services. Their experience is often transactional in nature. This requires a different kind of design-thinking. User experience (UX) is a more technical discipline that researches, considers and relentlessly tests the entire arc of a user’s interaction with a digital product, while focusing on the granular details of how the right options and minimal number of dialogs are presented in the most expeditious way possible.

Graphic of UX attributes


Recently we were asked by a client if we were “familiar with Agile processes.” It’s a telling question, because even though Agile development methodologies have been with us for a while, they are still not mainstream.

User-centered design and Agile are complementary processes. Both require a commitment. And, if you want the much-discussed benefits — speed, resilience, manageable pivots, and sustained results over time via incremental progress — you cannot compromise either one. That means that anyone who says they are just familiar with Agile, or that some waterfall/Agile hybrid is acceptable, is going to disappoint and not deliver.


User activation is a marketing goal. Through successive impressions via brand-coordinated messaging over different media, users are provided with the basics necessary to establish a relationship with your organization — up to and including the ability to see and manage their data. Examples include a retailer providing your order history or a healthcare provider giving access to your lab results.

User engagement is a broader concept that builds on user activation. By providing additional, contextually-based information (the right information to the specific user at the right time), users can leverage their data to make better decisions and embrace positive behaviors. These insights often support mutually beneficial goals for the user and your organization. For example, by encouraging bigger retirement savings contributions, users are better prepared for retirement and the organization has more fee-generating deposits under management.

Creative agencies are adept at user activation, but delivering user engagement requires a shift from representing the brand to managing a product experience. This not-so-subtle re-orientation often means considering integration across a broad ecosystem of physical and digital components. This requires a UX team.


If it’s not clear already, users are at center of a realUX process. They should be involved in strategy creation, prototype validation and ongoing testing of the experience. At every stage, these user-centric costs are not line items that can be struck from a project budget to save money, they are essential to a true Agile approach.


The design review is the mainstay of the traditional agency/client relationship. After a website project kicks off, several months can go by before a client gets to see the design. These milestones are significant. Is the project on track or not? Does the agency understand the target audience? Does the design reflect the vision for our brand? The process, however, is a black box. This lack of transparency is anathema to what realUX requires.

The frequency and cadence of communication when working with a realUX company is very different. Meetings that include the sacred triangle of product owner (client), design (UX) and dev (engineering) are happening daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly. Those same questions are asked in these meetings, but the real-time nature of the answers ensures that the project stays on track through ongoing incremental adjustments versus infrequent step-function changes.

Approach (mindset)

There are over one billion websites on the Internet today. The vast majority were developed to share information — the original intent of the world wide web — relatively few are designed to share that information effectively, and most are dormant. Agencies have spent 25 years designing better websites and many are exceptional. When they become transactional, however, a different mindset is required.

Creating apps, web apps and software means that you are building digital products. The entire user journey must be anticipated and considered. This level of integration requires an understanding of the different touchpoints users will have with your organization, and then smoothing out complex software/hardware interactions over successive iterations to remove friction, or injecting a nudge at just the right moment to ensure that a user completes a critical step. Experience maps are developed and used to guide design and development activities. They can become quite granular as the complexity of your ecosystem increases.

Business Role

For a long time, traditional brick and mortar stores utilized websites as marketing tools. A website was another opportunity to create brand awareness — playing a supporting role to the business. Think Sears and Kmart. What retailers did not anticipate is that a website could solve the last mile (or for that matter the last 10, 100 or even 1000-mile problem) by being an always-on store front.

Amazon did, and they’ve totally upended the retail landscape. Over the past 10 years, Sears and Kmart have been dying slow deaths. Amazon, in contrast, is expanding. It’s digital presence plays a leading role — with strategically-placed, operationally-efficient physical warehouse locations erected in place of traditional brick and mortar storefronts.

The same story is now playing out in financial services, education and healthcare.

Team Access

Finally, consider how the agency team is oriented toward your project. If your only interaction is with a company officer, or you rarely get to see the team, you may be working with an army of individuals who don’t fully understand your project. In this case, the language used by the agency representatives is possessive — “our team is working hard to meet the next milestone.” That is a clue that the agency is not structured for an Agile approach.

A realUX agency should be your partner, and their team should feel like your team. Whether its strategy, research or design, these key individuals will be deeply embedded and committed to helping you achieve your project goals.


  • Photo of Brian Keenan
    Brian Keenan

    As a Co-founder of Openfield, Brian’s focus is helping business leaders understand how UX research and design can help them increase speed to market, while reducing risk and waste. He is an avid student and practitioner of landscape photography, which pairs well with his love of road tripping and exploring vast and wild destinations.

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