UX and usability in agencies: the experience of Frédéric and Laurent from Affordance

Marine Wolffhugel
July 5, 2020

Arthur and Marine at Evaneos, Solène at Bouygues Telecom, all the UX professionals we have interviewed so far have worked in a UX agency at some point in their professional life. What are the specificities of working in an agency? What role does user research play? What issues are they faced with?

We interviewed Frédéric Falletta and Laurent Bidoïa, both usability / UX consultants at Affordance, a usability consulting agency they created together 6 years ago. Through the various projects they have worked on and the experience they have gathered, they explain their vision of user experience and how to place it at the centre of design.

Let's start by explaining your background: what brought you to the creation of Affordance?

F : I've been an ergonomist-UX consultant for 20 years after completing a psycho-cognitive and neuroscience course and a master's degree in ergonomics. I started at the Orange research centre where I worked on the ergonomics of early stage technologies. For example, in 2001/2002, I worked on smartphones which came out 5-6 years later. I worked on the web, the voice interface and business applications. I also created the Orange UX community. I then worked as a consultant and joined the insurer Generali for 5 years. In 2013, I started my own business and very quickly merged my structure with Laurent's to found Affordance, which has been in existence for 6 years now.

L : I trained as a product designer. I did a master's degree in ergonomics at Paris 5, where I met Frédéric. Then I was a consultant at Bertin Technologies in user-centred design with a wide variety of usability problems: consumer products, software interfaces, business applications, etc.

I stayed there for 8 years and then I went out on my own. When Frédéric did the same, we started working together informally until we merged the structures in 2015 to create Affordance, which now has 9 (and soon 10!) people.

UX vs Ergonomics: For you, it's different?

L : One is 20 years older ;)

F : It all depends on what you are working on as an ergonomist. In some areas it's exactly the same. In other areas, ergonomics may be more limited and UX more global.

L : What is central in the ergonomics approach is the analysis of the activity. For example, if I have a food processor to design, it's trying to understand what happens for users on a meal preparation task in its entirety: where do I get the ingredients, how do I prepare the ingredients, where do I find the recipes and then how do I implement this with a processor or with something else.

It is really the understanding of the user's logic, his needs and expectations, the situation and the task, that will allow us to model the user's activity and experience and to implement relevant principles with adapted functionalities. These are the fundamentals of ergonomics.

In UX, we don't always find them. There are other dimensions in addition, but this notion of activity analysis is not always as central as it should be in what we see today in UX.

F : There are areas where it lends itself to this. For example, when designing a website, it's not useful to go so far in putting the user into a context of use.

It's different when designing a business application. When you design an application for farmers, who are going to use it in a barn, a tractor or a field, if you don't go out into the field to observe, analyse and model usage, the design that will be done in an office will be completely out of touch with real life.

Of course, there are UX people who go out into the field to analyse the activity. But there are many others who do not. But in ergonomics, this is the basis of all design. In fact the UX/ergonomics boundary is quite porous.

The UX/ergonomics boundary is quite porous.

L : I would like to add to what you said, there are also subjects for which ergonomics is less important. For example, when redesigning the home page of a luxury brand's corporate site, the problem is no longer one of ergonomics, but rather one of esteem and image. Affordance does not respond to this type of project: we have little added value on this type of subject because there is little criticality from the user point of view. On the contrary, for a rail traffic supervision interface, there is a real usability issue, understanding a situation with real critical points. On these subjects, we have much more added value.

In 20 years, how has the discipline of UX evolved?

In 20 years, how has the discipline of UX evolved?F: It has grown in importance, that's for sure! There are more and more UX departments in companies.

L : Today, the notion of UX is one of the evolutions of the profession. There are two trends around this discipline. On the one hand, there are professionals for whom understanding usage, user logic and real activity is central. On the other hand, there are professionals who are more focused on the graphic design of interfaces and interaction.

In the past, we had people who were digital art directors, web designers, who then migrated to interface design. Today they are evolving as UX designers, remaining above all graphic interface designers. They do this very well of course, but they often forget that in UX there is U for User:

They do it very well of course, but they often forget that in UX there is U for User: you have to be willing to go out into the field to really understand users and not just put yourself in their place. This ability to analyse an activity and translate it into relevant design principles is, for me, one of the pillars of UX.

This ability to analyse an activity and to translate that into relevant design principles, for me that's one of the pillars of UX.

F : Afterwards, I notice that the activity is splitting: some people specialise in design, others in research. It's a bit of a shame to divide up the skills: when you design, it's good to have been in the field to understand the reality of the users, their needs. You can have a colouring: be UX with a preference for search, for example. But you also need to do design work to have the design constraints in mind, to know how the data you are going to obtain will be interpreted and used. And vice versa: when you design, you also need to know how field studies are conducted and how they are interpreted.

Our clients have both types of organisation: there are UXs who do everything and there are specialist UXs. And the problems of communication between UX arise mainly when it is split up: those who do the research start to disconnect from the design constraints and there appears to be a certain incompatibility between the conclusions of the user research and the reality of the design field.

L : In a somewhat caricatural way, you get organisations with those who know on one side and those who know how to do on the other. This requires an enormous amount of work to translate what comes from the field and what is going to be used in design.

F : At Affordance, we want everyone to be able to design an observation protocol, to design an interface, to conduct a user test. It takes time: it takes 4 to 5 years to start mastering everything, but for us it is important to master these different skills.

L : The fact that we are a small agency also forces us to be in this model.

What role does user research play at Affordance?

L : Very important: it's a bit of a trademark. In any case, it's really what we want to impress on our clients.

There are a lot of companies where user experience is limited to interface design, so people who draw screens. It's more like UI with a bit of UX knowledge and the implementation of methods, but ultimately with very little intervention in terms of knowledge of the uses and activities of real users. That's what we really emphasise in our services to clients: we can only design an application or screens once we have the knowledge of the real users.

This is really what we emphasise in our services to clients: we can only design an application or screens once we have gathered knowledge about their users. This is a pillar that cannot be separated. Today, we do very few services with only screen or application design. There is always an element of activity analysis upstream, of testing or user meetings... This element is always integrated into our service.

More often than not, clients do not ask for it: they come to us with a service, product or interface design problem, but rarely to ask us for an upstream knowledge mission. And it is in the working method that we propose to integrate it.

We can only design an application or screens once we have gathered knowledge of their users.

F : On the other hand, they understand the need rather well. Very recently, a client was asked to provide user data in terms of usage statistics, profiles, factual data on usage. They understood and accepted this very well. We very rarely had the case where they didn't understand. And in this case, all it takes is an initial service for them to see the interest and benefit of observing users before the design stage.

What advice would you give to UX people who want to implement more user research in their team?

F : We recently carried out an audit for a company where the UX department, although integrated, had limited visibility. Their missions were not very clear within the company and as a result UX was under-utilised. Their process was working quite well but it was not formalised, there was no visibility of other teams. Our recommendations focused on the evolution of their team's positioning: they were often seen downstream of design projects, we recommended that they gradually move towards more upstream services, by expanding the role of UX and UI within the company.

We recommended other points that may be of interest to internal teams:


When I was at Generali, I asked from the start to go out into the field, to observe users, to talk to them. At the beginning I was seen as a bit of an alien. For six months I made an educational effort to make them understand what I was doing and why I was doing it, that it provided data on which the design was based.

In concrete terms, I set up thematic cafés or breakfasts, and I also integrated interactivity by sending questionnaires to all the developers and marketers so that they understood that it wasn't just common sense. It then spread throughout the company. When you're in-house, there's this educational effort to be made to educate people.

When you're in-house, you have to make an effort to educate people.

Systematise user-centred methods to obtain objective data

In design, instead of basing yourself on best practices or design standards, try as much as possible to feed objective data into the design, obtained through interviews, observations, tests, analysis of usage statistics, etc. In my experience at Generali, what really convinced me was my first service: I had set up performance indicators in the design. On the basis of interviews and observations, the design we had made was 10 times better than the one before. That's proof in the pudding.

Creating a body of knowledge and user behaviour

It's good to represent the user but it's better to have in-depth knowledge, which is nurtured and maintained. Patterns of user behaviour are then obtained and detected, which will serve as a basis for the design.

Include other project stakeholders in user-centred methods

When you carry out an interview or a user test, try as much as possible to do it in a room with clear glass and invite the project manager, the product owner, the marketing manager to come and observe these users. People get on board, it starts to convince them that they are learning things by asking users and that there are benefits to using this kind of method.

L : Also, there are plenty of other jobs at clients' that are not directly and specifically interested in user behaviour and logic, but which can feed the knowledge: the research, data and statistics departments... they are very precious allies!

What are the main differences between working in an agency and working in-house?

F : There are many differences!

First of all, in an agency, you are multi-client and therefore multi-subject. When you are a UX specialist in-house, even if the projects are varied, you remain confined to one sector of activity. Whereas in an agency, you tackle different problems - for example, you can do business applications in the insurance sector as well as for electricians or farmers. The sectors and areas of intervention are very different.

Then there is the external status. When you are an internal UX, you are over-solicited by the various departments (technical, project manager, etc.) that you see on a daily basis, and we allow ourselves more modifications and constraints on your work.

In an agency, we carry out assignments for our clients that have a pre-defined deadline, price, and output.

Also, when you're an outsourcer, you're listened to more than when you're in-house. It's sad, but it's a fact: in many companies, even in the big marketing departments that have the skills in-house, from the moment a recommendation is given by an external consultant, it has more value.

We even have UXs who come to us to make their point, to help them persuade.

L : There's a fairly objective reason for this: what clients look for when they go through an agency is the fact that you've worked for other types of advertisers - which may or may not be competitive - and therefore seen other types of problems. In the end, you will bring a knowledge that they don't necessarily take the time to have.

F : Or that they can't have. When you're multi-sector, you discover best practices that you can then apply to other sectors, to other clients. When you're in-house, it's harder to get this perspective.

What is your main problem with your clients?

F : I'm thinking of a point that is not so much a problem, but rather something we would like to see: today, we have managed to make our clients understand the usefulness of doing user research before any other service. Now what we would like is for them to ask us for more upstream, exploratory research.

For example, a company has decided to launch a certain service and asks us to design it. We're going to launch user research on the use of this service in a situation to form the basis of our design. But we would like to go up a notch and intervene further upstream, before any decision is taken to design this new service. If they could ask us to try to understand user behaviour and analyse it to help them in their strategic choices of product or service positioning, that would be great! We haven't managed to do that yet, but we don't despair of getting there!

Because that's our real added value. We complement marketing. Marketing has all its methodologies for detecting opportunities, they have skills that we don't have. But on our side, we have all this user data and this analysis capacity that they don't have. We are really complementary in this respect and we have to prove it to our clients.

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