Today I’m going to give you an overview of the TOP UX design agencies in 2020. I will introduce the top UX agencies here and shamelessly put our team on the list as well. Let’s jump right in and look at the top UX agencies list.
The Top UX Agencies
- Digital Telepathy
- UX studio
- Fantasy Interactive
- Work & Co
- Nielsen Norman Group
A legendary innovation firm based in Palo Alto, California, Ideo started in industrial design in 1991. They have worked with most of the big brands around the world, based around their very strong presence in the tech world of Silicon Valley. You can’t write about top UX agencies without mentioning Ideo.
In their early days, they famously designed the first-ever Apple Mouse. They also designed one of the Palm PDAs (if you remember PDAs at all).
Later, as software became more and more important, Ideo turned to interaction design. Founder David Kelley realized early that they had to convince their client companies’ managers to follow their design methods. To that end, they came up with the term “design thinking”.
They rebranded the designer’s mindset and methods as management practices. They then persistently pushed the idea for more than 15 years until it became part of the curriculum even in major business schools.
Most famous for their innovative work and the love of prototypes, Ideo provides diverse teams with designers, engineers, and researchers to a project. There they can think freely, build fast-and-loose prototypes and present clients their big ideas.
It is not a coincidence, Ideo is one of the top UX agencies. They work on innovation projects for big enterprises that want to bring back the start-up spirit. Their projects rarely end up with tangible products.
Although they rank as one of the most expensive firms on the market, critics often mention how they usually present only a raw prototype in return for the large pile of cash. Despite these critics, Ideo has become one of the most popular design firms. They also invest heavily in design education.
Ideo employs 700 people in nine offices worldwide.
A San Diego-based UX design agency, Telepathy originally started as a web design firm in 2011 and later became a UX agency.
Well-known for his tribe-building ambitions, founder Chuck Longanecker provides his 45-person team a fancy office. Upon entering, you see the words “I am because we are” written on the floor, highlighting the community spirit they try to maintain there.
Telepathy’s most famous clients of include Adobe, Patagonia and Marriott. They work together on fixed projects or through design subscriptions. The team also holds trainings and workshops.
Acclaimed for the sleek design of their website, Telepathy also runs a blog which attracts 300,000 readers a month. The team has also incubated many products and have built Hello Bar.
ServiceNow recently acquired the company, so they have probably stopped taking on clients for now. The team has stayed together and are working on ServiceNow’s enterprise products.
Telepathy employs 45 people in its San Diego office.
UX studio rates as one of the top 10 UX design agencies worldwide according to Clutch and several other independent ranking firms. Although our company gets prestigious spots on these lists, we still come in as the youngest and fastest-growing among the top UX agencies.
Founded in 2013 to become a world-class digital product design agency, UX studio provides each client small teams of designers and researchers. This team setup can deliver not just beautiful, but also useful and super easy-to-use products.
A team of 40 enthusiastic and friendly professionals based in Budapest, UX studio works with clients worldwide, from New York to London and Shanghai. We usually keep in touch with clients remotely, but we often visit them in person as well to run workshops. Our team members love to travel and explore new countries, so we consider working with different clients around the globe a real gift.
HBO and T-mobile count among UX studio’s best-known clients, but we have also worked with dozens of fast-growing startups. Clients love our friendly designers and researchers. Fun to work with, we always keep it honest as we value candor so highly. We also set a high bar for the design we deliver.
Noted for its self-managing culture, everyone takes responsibility at UX studio. Within the team, we have full financial transparency so everyone knows all the numbers. We also define our company strategy and future goals together. These goal-setting workshops often happen on our two-day retreats, when we go to the countryside together to have some fun.
Besides for the team spirit, people also know UX studio for our teaching activities. We like to give back to the UX community. We run a product design course every six months, have published an actual print book about digital product design, run a popular blog, and also frequently feature as speakers at meetups and events.
At UX studio, we don’t just design digital products for our clients – we have our own product as well. We call it uxfol.io, and UX designers have made it a popular online portfolio platform. Developing both our own and our clients’ products gives us a unique view on what works and what doesn’t.
UX studio employs 40 great people in our Budapest office (and wherever they have gone to around the world at this moment).
A UI/UX design agency, Fantasy has offices in many locations in the US (New York, San Francisco, Miami) and London.
David Martin founded Fantasy in 1999 but no longer serves as CEO. The company gained fame for the beautiful UI design they always present. Their own brand has a very strong visual presence as well, with an almost too-professional taste.
Fantasy gained notoriety with their “What if?” videos when they reimagined the digital products of certain industries in a new, modern way. These early videos showcased their high-end visual design skills and contained animated UI designs, rather common back then.
Since their early days, Fantasy has grown into a much bigger digital agency. They now work with big corporates like Porsche, USA Today and Mitsubishi.
Fantasy currently employs about 50 people, down from a few years ago when they enjoyed even greater popularity.
One of the old players in the design world, Frog turned 50 last year. Originally more of an industrial design and branding firm, they turned to the digital world and became better there as well as technology evolved.
Frog does everything design, from designing furniture and hardware to branding and mobile apps. To compete with Ideo, Frog also got on the innovation bandwagon. Now you can read the terms “digital transformation” and “strategy” on many pages of their website.
Should anyone declare a single multinational design company, Frog would earn that title. They currently operate from 10 offices around the world.
Still strong in industrial design today, Frog shines best with projects where digital interfaces, hardware and branding all get involved together.
Frog employs more than 500 people.
Alan Cooper and his wife Sue Cooper founded their eponymous company in 1992. Although a professional manager now runs it, the founders remain involved in certain areas, earning them a place on our top UX agencies list.
One of the great veterans of the software industry, Alan Cooper fathered the Visual Basic programming environment and became a real hero in the Microsoft ecosystem. One of the few who realized the importance of design during these early days, he has written a famous book about software design, About Face.
Today, Cooper works with companies like Google and Starbucks on interaction design and service design projects. They also take an active part in design education with different courses, boot camps and trainings.
In 2017, the Indian IT giant Wipro Digital bought Cooper. They now work together with the firm’s international design conglomerate Designit.
Cooper employs around 30 people in their San Francisco and New York offices.
The other big multinational design agency, Fjord makes up a part of the Accenture management consulting firm. They mostly do pricey projects for Accenture’s clientele.
Originally founded in Europe, Fjord now has 27 offices on all continents. How many of these count as Fjord and how many as Accenture remains unclear.
As part of a management consultancy, Fjord takes pride in how they shape the strategy of their clients through design. They also work a lot on service design, which lets them use design methodologies from outside of the tech world and implement them to reimagine offline services.
Fjord employs more than 500 people around the globe, but their merger with Accenture has complicated the headcount.
Work & Co
The name Work & Co comes from the two things that matter most in professional life: the work you do and the company you surround yourself with.
Agency veterans founded Work & co and quickly got famous tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook on board. One of the fastest growing agencies, Work & co went from zero to hundreds of people in just five years. This makes it not surprising that they get mentioned among the top UX agencies now.
One of the key Work & co promises: They put senior designers and senior engineers on each project. In the company, they have 14 partners. They emphasize the fact that one of them personally runs each client project. With their current size, this means each partner has to oversee 20 people and at least three or four different clients, making it incredible that they can still live up to their original promise.
Work & co did their first and most famous project redesigning the Virgin America website. The bold new interface won numerous awards and serious attention in the UX community. Unfortunately, that redesigned site no longer exists online anymore, since Virgin America experienced serious financial difficulties and got sold to Alaska Airlines.
Work & co employs 270 people in their offices in New York, Portland and Sao Paulo.
David Lipkin founded Method in 1999. As he wrote, “We weren’t interested in being defined by medium—we weren’t a web agency and we weren’t specifically digital. We were interested in making products and services that would build and define strong brands.”
Today, Method works closely together with its partner, GlobalLogic, an engineering consultancy. Method does the design and GlobalLogic does web development, mostly building products for enterprise companies. Method’s own brand uses a strong blue color popular in the corporate world.
Method has headquarters in San Jose, New York, and London, but together with GlobalLogic they have 30 offices in 12 countries around the globe.
Method employs around 100 people (no public number available).
Nielsen Norman Group
The fathers of the UX profession founded NN/g as a UX consulting firm. And if you find that an overstatement, just look at these guys.
The first person to hold “user experience” in his job title, Don Norman joined Apple as a user experience architect in 1993. Together with Jacob Nielsen, another pioneer of web usability (or “web ergonomics” as they called it two decades ago), they invented many fundamental things in this field.
The NN/g team has great knowledge of the foundations of design and usability. They have gained renown for their research studies which they publish on their website. They highlight the importance of UX research everywhere. Even their slogan includes the phrase “research-based user experience”.
As you would expect from a company run by industry veterans, NN/g focuses on teaching and giving advice. They don’t do actual design projects, but organize trainings and conferences, and provide research and advisory services to other companies.
Today NN/g acts a bit like a wise grandpa for the UX industry. They don’t come up with cutting-edge new ideas anymore but teach the younger generation and test new trends. They also publish research reports to give feedback and help the industry stay on the right track.
Comparison of the top UX design agencies
Although all these companies count as experts in UX design, each has its own field where they shine as strongest on the market. This section will examine the most important attributes of the top UX agencies here.
Full disclosure: These charts represent my opinion based on personal experience and industry insights. As I said earlier, I also have personal involvement in the UX design profession, so don’t take my blog post as an independent research material. I have just done my best to give a realistic view of the top UX agencies.
Usability vs visual design
Each agency has a slightly different philosophy of design. Some focus more on visual design and branding, while others obsess over usability and making everything easy to understand.
By now, all UX professionals agree a good-looking digital interface doesn’t suffice and consider usability one of the most important factors of success. For that reason, almost every big brand builds super user-friendly apps that follow the design principle of clarity and simplicity. Nevertheless, the best designers haven’t given up on visual design. They still acknowledge that the aesthetics of a product can contribute to its success.
No single best answer decides the aesthetics/usability dilemma. Everyone should evaluate their own products and services, and decide what to focus on more. Some industries and use cases see usability as king (millions use Wikipedia even though no one finds it the most beautiful website on Earth). Other scenarios make it worth spending more time with aesthetics.
All the design agencies on my list can perform outstanding work both in visual design and usability. But on this chart, I tried to rank them based on their primary focus.
Concepts vs implementation
You can read the magic word “strategic design company” on the website of many firms on the top UX agencies list. But what does it mean?
A few decades ago, when you said the word “design”, everyone thought about only the visual appearance of a product. Later, usability rose to become one of the most important factors. Today, designers spend most of their time not with making things looking cool but creating products that make our lives easier.
In the meantime, design professionals have learned a lot of useful skills and methods. These include prototyping, researching what people need, facilitating workshops and ideation sessionsas well as creating strategies to select the best ideas. Data analysis also came into the picture with the digital world. Later, we realized that these skills don’t just come in useful in design projects, but that these methods can help define a company’s business strategy as well.
Many designers today don’t work on designing products, but on defining strategies or exploring new concepts for companies. Large corporates love to run innovation projects where they can experiment with new ideas. They don’t aim to create a functioning end product, but to research, the market, come up with many concepts and test the viability and feasibility of these ideas. Critics always mention how they rarely end up in actual products and new businesses.
Some companies like Ideo focus entirely on innovation projects. Others take pride in the fact they do hands-on work and focus solely on implementation, like Work & co. Many others try to keep a healthy mix. Both of these focus on strategy when needed, but they can also turn ideas into real, working products.
Advertising vs Product
Businesses use digital interfaces in two main areas: marketing/advertising and products.
When you visit a company’s website, you are probably looking at a marketing site they use to provide information about the firm and promote their offerings. Many UX designers work on these advertising-related interfaces which focus on pushing the marketing message through. They try to ensure people find the sought-after content and information so they can make a purchase decision.
Products make up the other big area of UX. In this case, UXers work on tools that people will use for a certain purpose. Most of the mobile applications fall into this category. Desktop software provides a good example as do web applications like Gmail and many other SaaS products you can sign up for.
Sometimes, no strict boundaries separate promotions and products. We can consider a webshop a promotional interface, but also as a purchase tool which has a lot of usability aspects to consider. One company can have both advertising sites and products. Nike has a promotional site for its shoes and a tracking app for runners.
Some agencies specialize more on advertising and marketing interfaces, while others focus on products only. The top UX agencies on this list all have vast experience in working on both types of interfaces, but some do better in one category or the other.
The chart below shows who has more experience in advertising-related and product-related work based in my opinion.
Digital vs Physical
By default, most people think UX agencies work on digital interfaces like software, websites, and apps. While this holds true, many agencies have skills in other mediums as well.
Many teams get together originally as industrial design firms. They come to excel at designing physical objects and hardware devices. These companies work on many connected goods and IoT products nowadays, where they can use both types of their design skills.
Other teams start using UX methodology in non-digital projects. We call this “service design” when we broaden the scope of design from digital-only products and start designing omnichannel services that have physical aspects as well. Big telecoms love service design as their services cover both physical touch points (stores, installations) and digital experiences.
And of course, other UX agencies specialize only in digital products. They usually hire people born into the digital age – real digital natives who have mastered the art and science of creating great digital experiences. They focus on this area only, and they do best in digital design.
Culture and atmosphere
Although measuring and categorising may come quite difficult, team culture makes up one of the most important factors when choosing a UX agency. Teams with the right culture and mindset can generate much more value than those with bad habits or who get overwhelmed with internal issues.
Usually, like-minded easy-going people, UX designers have great communication skills. Still, each agency has its own preferred way of working and collaboration. Some have a real startup-style internal culture, with all the flexibility, agile practices, and so much enthusiasm! Others play it cool, with a more professional atmosphere. They like to communicate through well-designed presentations. Loose Slack messages just annoy them!
Here, I tried the impossible and put the teams on a scale from the startup-style atmosphere to the corporate culture.
UX research capabilities
As mentioned earlier, the designer’s role has gone through major changes over the last 20 years. Today, a design team doesn’t just draw beautiful screens. It figures out what product to build (concepts and strategy) and how to make it easy to use and understand (usability).
To live up to these challenges, UX teams have to master what we call UX research. A new profession, UX research uses many qualitative and quantitative research methods such as interviewing, usability tests, analytics, and A/B tests to gather data and insights about why and how people are using digital interfaces. Lacking this data makes it nearly impossible to build a successful digital product.
Most of the teams on the top UX agencies list have some sort of UX research capabilities. Some of them teach designers to do these research tasks, so one person oversees all the necessary data to make design decisions. Others have dedicated UX researchers because they consider these insights more important than to sacrifice them on a busy designer’s schedule.
On this chart, you can see which agencies do the most UX research work.
Speed to start a new project
Depending on the popularity and internal organization of each agency, they can start new projects in different time frames. Some UX agencies you have to wait months on to start working with. Others can start new projects in weeks.
Naturally, a great team merits a few weeks’ wait to work with, as the added value will bring back much more than the cost of a short delay. On the other hand, I understand the pressure many teams have on delivering products. In certain situations, you want to look for UX agencies who can jump on board quickly.
Leadership role in the design community
When you hire a design team, you want to trust the very best in the industry who can design an outstanding experience for your customers. Many people judge UX firms by their level of establishment within the design community. This logic dictates that a studio must have earned their respect within the UX community.
The top UX agencies don’t just practice design, but also teach what they do. Many run courses, boot camps and trainings. Many run blogs where they share their learnings. Check out ours, where we post quite often. The best designers often write books about their craft. And naturally, almost everyone on this top UX agencies list gives talks on meetups and conferences. Many also organize their own events or sponsor the local community.
On this chart, we have collected the most active agencies in the UX community.
UX agency prices
And finally, we hit the sensitive topic: pricing and budgets.
UX agencies have many different pricing models. They most commonly use time-based pricing, when a company has hourly (daily, weekly) rates. You pay based on the time they spend working for you. Although this gives the collaboration flexibility, sometimes clients feel they can’t really control their budgets, so costs can blow up in a mismanaged project.
Many teams also do projects for a fixed price. In this scenario, clients have total control over their budget. In almost all cases, fixed projects end up with arguments about the scope. Only very rarely can you plan everything up front. And when unforeseeable obstacles arise, you either have to cut the scope (so the team delivers less than planned) or raise the budget (so you pay more). For this reason, fixed price projects often lead to conflicts.
Of course, pricing can involve many mixed methods as well. At UX studio, you can hire a design team (usually with a full-time designer and a researcher) for a fixed monthly price.
Even on the top UX agencies list, huge differences can occur between UX agency prices. If we consider hourly rates, UX design prices can range anywhere between $50 and a few hundred dollars.
Older and bigger companies usually charge more, as they have to cover more administrative and organizational overhead. Critics say that this extra price doesn’t necessarily mean better results. Big companies usually like to trust bigger firms, which means lower risks for them. In most cases, they also speak the same corporate language.
Price can also vary based on the UX agency location. In San Francisco or London, prices run much higher than in Portland, Berlin or Budapest.
On this top UX agencies list, Ideo, Frog, Work & co and Fjord work the most expensively. You need a really large budget to work with them (and you can find huge differences between their prices as well).
You can’t find cheap companies on this top UX agencies list, even though hundreds of them lurking out there. As someone said, you can always find a cheaper agency, but do you really want to pay the price of working with them?
I think of UX studio as a boutique UX agency working with modest prices – not too low, but more affordable for most of the companies out there. If you would like to hire a design team to work on your digital product, just reach out so we can talk and send you a proposal based on your specific needs. Just leave us a short message here.
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