Industry Experience

It's a good thing... Right?

By Chris Varosy

As the leader of a Digital Product Design agency, I talk to a lot of prospective clients. Oftentimes people ask about industry experience in a super-specific niche. For example, “What other cellular infrastructure hardware providers have you worked with?” And this is a completely legitimate question. You want an agency that understands your unique challenges. And you don’t want to have to explain absolutely everything from the ground up. However, there’s another side to that coin that may not be as apparent. You don’t want to just blend in with your competitors and get rehashed ideas. Breakthrough ideas often come from fresh eyes. So in looking for an agency with the right skills, there’s a balance to be found here.


I learned the value of this balance from one of our clients, Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland. This is a law firm that specializes in appeals, which means they have to persuade JUDGES, not juries. So they are kind of lawyers’ lawyers, if you will. They have expert attorneys who focus on different areas of law, and they do a regular meeting where they talk across disciplines about their cases. They tell me a lot of the a-ha moments come from people outside of the subject matter. Genius! They manage the best of both worlds by getting fresh eyes on the problem, and then the experts can refine the solution.

Running Dry

After more than 2 decades in UX, I’ve been on the “industry experience” side, and have felt the negative effects of it. I remember being approached by one of our long time clients about a virtualization project and, at the time, I had been doing a LOT of this kind of work. So the ramp-up was quick for me, but the problem was innovating. I had faced a lot of these same problems before, and it was hard for me to turn off the old solutions and come up with a breakthrough. Luckily, I had a secret weapon on the project: Guonan Frankford. She had not worked in this particular niche before, and she had a lot of questions, but she also had a completely fresh take on the whole thing. Her designs really brought a new spin to the project that I wasn’t able to provide. Between the two of us, we had a little version of that cross-pollination that the law firm does so well.

Explain It to Me

In talking about this article, Guonan told me about some of the Visual Thinking work she does through another agency. These projects are to help companies tell their stories in a clear way to the general public, and the agency prefers to assign people that are not experts in the client’s industry to each project. They even encourage them not to do research on it ahead of time. The logic is that industry rookies will have a better shot at capturing the story in a way that non-experts will understand. So in this case, experience can be a handicap.

Mix It Up with In-House and Agency

Many of our clients have considerable internal UX departments. You might wonder why these companies would hire us. An obvious reason is that there is often more work than the internal team can do. But another is that we come in with fresh eyes, and this can be helpful in getting to a differentiating product. We can bring in outside experience from other industries, and they can in turn teach us the nuances of their business.

“Engaging with an outside agency is critical to me, even when we have in-house resources, because they bring in a fresh perspective from working with clients in other industries.”

Roger Hull, Chief Product Officer, CU Direct

When Experience Matters

Of course there are cases where experience is more important. A while back, Primitive Spark was short-listed for a redesign of a business school website. We were up against another firm who had done a ton of college websites. In this scenario, the other firm was a better fit because the school needed a straight-forward solution rather than a high-concept breakthrough. The other guys could check all the boxes more efficiently than we could.

Looking Outward

When I look back on my career that seems like forever in internet years, I notice that a lot of my most innovative work comes when I’m learning a new industry. On the other hand, my most refined executions come from projects where I bring a lot of experience. We’ve found that looking for inspiration outside of the industry at hand is fruitful in getting away from the “me too” solutions.  And if I’m going to stay relevant, I need to listen with an open mind to outside people and junior team members, because that’s often where revolutionary ideas come from.


If you’re on the hunt for a Product Design vendor, consider the obvious advantages of teams with experience, yes. Also remember there’s another side of the coin where innovation and breakthroughs come from fresh eyes.