The world is changing faster than ever. Advances in technology have made it “easier” to make units, market and sell units, buy units, and ship units. Continuous innovation is currently a huge marker of success in most industries.

Marketing today is vastly different than in the age of the infamous Mad Men. Digital is no longer an optional or secondary channel; at the same time it’s also different than traditional advertising. Read on to learn how user input changes strategies, and why it’s time to cast aside those RFPs (request for proposal) and fixed bid projects to empower teams to create the best possible solution. Stop creating one-off budgets for large scale initiatives. Design is a critical differentiator in today’s marketplace. Here’s our approach to developing for the agile web.

Nixing the Discovery?

RFP’s are a pain in the ass. They’re impossible, really. Companies publish an equivalent of a Craigslist missed connection ad – who I am, what I want, when I want it. Agencies then spend an inconceivable amount of time reviewing, researching, and responding to these solicitations with impressive keynote presentations. The net result of this highly competitive, lengthy, and often stressful process is a contract that holds an agency to a lot of  “specifics” … in a contract that is about as reliable as a Nostradamus quatrain.

Agencies can’t predict the future, and neither can clients. This antiquated mode of contracting makes it a challenge to be agile and adapt to the constant change that is unique to digital projects. At the outset of a project, it’s extremely rare to understand everything the client wants, the user needs, or what the agency will need to create. To mitigate this, “discovery projects” have become standard practice.

To prepare the RFP, clients assemble teams that work hard to create ideas and secure budget. They think they know what they want. So, the last thing a client wants is a 4-week project to “discover” what they’ve already spent time dreaming about and planning for. There’s no denying that discovery helps, but it often raises more questions than it answers, and it can lead to bloated requirements (and budgets) for the “real project.”

Objectives Based Design

Championing Objectives-Based-Design

About two years ago DT decided to stop responding to RFPs. Instead, we’ve lengthened our sales cycle to better evaluate our potential clients’ needs and how we can help. Our new process is much more collaborative as we interview stakeholders and bring in our designers and strategists to evaluate if our teams mesh well. At the end of this process we share a common understanding of our client’s business objectives.

DT has also ditched fixed-bid projects for anything larger than an Impress. Now we operate on a subscription model which hinges on making the highest caliber resources regularly available to our clients. Instead of identifying massive lists of deliverables, we agree to simply work together and make incremental improvements every day.

Our engagement levels vary depending on the client and their current objectives or priorities. One of my primary responsibilities as an Account Strategist is to identify and record my clients objectives. We then apply Objective Based Design to develop strategies and tactics that produce results. This process is rooted in the principles of Lean UX and includes the small projects that can be more effectively planned with greater detail than the large projects most agencies yearn for.

The Benefits of a Subscription Model

Fixed bid projects are out. Here’s why we think partnering with our clients in the form of a subscription is the way to go.

1. Eliminates the Notion of “Scope Creep”

Instead of worrying about whether a modal qualifies as one of the “four page types” listed in a contract, we consider whether it’s the best solution for the user. Extra rounds of revisions? No problem. Sure, that’ll have an effect on the timeline. But we won’t need to write a change order.

2. Allows Us to Pivot on a Dime

Our team operates on bi-weekly sprints. At the beginning of each sprint we select which objective(s) to pursue. By the end of the sprint we can cross a few items off our list, and be confident that we’ve made real progress. We have a loose plan that forecasts a few sprints out – but if priorities shift, we can pivot for maximum value.

3. Increases the Fidelity of Our Work

Since our team is collectively focused on moving forward a specific objective, our clients get the best minds collaborating on the solution. We are able to brainstorm, prototype, and design much more rapidly because we are aligned on what is most important. Our priorities are our clients’ priorities – not meeting the bullet points in that aging contract.

4. Keeps Us Focused on Priorities

Priorities matter. A lot. We meet regularly to discuss our progress and the roadmap. If priorities shift, that’s okay. We understand that things come up. All we ask from our clients is help us decide which item to move back when an unplanned item has to be done ASAP.

Stay Flexible - Triple Constraint

Staying Flexible

Before I paint too rosy of a picture … digital is still challenging. Sometimes there are tough decisions. Sometimes things take longer than expected. Higher-ups still sometimes kibosh a design concept that the core team really loves. And for those reasons, we’re fluid. Engagements can scale up or down monthly, depending on demand.

Our goal is to help our clients achieve their objectives; we do that by focusing on doing what’s most important. We’re ready to think big – or small. Some engagements last months, even years. We keep our eye on the prize by mapping the tasks we’re doing to the objectives our clients declare. This sanity check keeps both sides of the project team aligned.

Consider the triple constraint: time, budget, scope. Which two factors are most important? It’s possible – maybe even highly likely that something will go unfinished – so which tasks could be deferred, delegated, or deleted? I’m continually impressed with how much progress we make by staying focused on clear objectives instead of delivering against a contract.

Remembering the User

Human interaction is the primary difference between traditional and digital media. Print, television, and radio are generally one-way conversations, whereas digital is an immersive experience that offers users the opportunity to learn, explore, and connect at their own pace. Don’t get me wrong – traditional media can be compelling, but great digital is visceral.

My friend Alejandro said it best: “At the core of all online experiences is a need to feel human.” Users are humans too! Customers and business partners are welcome to play a role in our process. We jump at the chance to conduct qualitative and quantitative research and users love getting involved because digital is fun – especially when people like it 🙂

In the absence of (or sometimes in addition to) user testing, personas are a great tool that help us stay laser-focused on building an experience tailored for the intended audience. These archetypal users are helpful when priorities are unclear or team opinions differ. If a room gets heated, someone might ask, “What would ‘Sara’ do?” We also have an innovative approach to persona development, but that’s a post for another day.

Seeking What’s Next

We continually execute a running list of strategies that are mapped to prioritized objectives. Each strategy is composed of one (or many) tactics. This helps us navigate through ambiguity and continue to deliver the right kinds of results. Sometimes we need rounds of user testing, sometimes production testing with Optimizely, and others take refactoring of javascript to speed a page load. Whatever is required, we’re ready for it.

As I said earlier, sprint-by-sprint we work with our clients to determine priorities. We also regularly measure the results of previous work. This creates a snowball effect of constant improvement that pays off dividends versus the old RFP model. Our job isn’t done when we meet the initially interpreted requirements; it’s done when we’ve exhausted all possibilities to drive more value for our clients.

Stop planning the for perfect solution. Start producing results.

Are you following any of the principles in our Objective Based Design model? What’s working? What’s not? If you’d like some coaching/feedback please leave a comment below 🙂

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Comments
  • Wonderfully insightful article! This gives me plenty to consider, and I’m going to see how I can implement such a structure with my own clients. I know it won’t work for every project, as you pointed out with Impress, but it sounds like a greatly beneficial model for everyone involved.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mark. DT has tried a lot of things over the years. Not every potential client “gets it” – so we’ve had to resolve ourselves to that fact. Overall this is working better than we ever anticipated, hence why we shared some details on the blog.

      Please, let us know how it works out for you!

  • Brent, great article… thank you for sharing. In this model how do you track capacity and the allocation of resources as a company across all your clients/projects ?

    • Great question, Dane!
      A retained model actually makes it easier to forecast capacity. We know on average that each person can work XX hours/week on client-work and we multiply that individual capacity times our headcount. We confirm subscription levels 30-60 days in advance which allows us to sign new clients when prior engagements are scheduled to end.

      Our resourcing is done bi-weekly sprints in a Google Spreadsheet to allocate resources to clients in half-day blocks. Our goal is to provide each client time that is *focused* on their product or website. Depending on specific needs we may stack those blocks more densely for rapid iteration of design concepts, or spread them further apart to allow for longer feedback cycles in between deliverables.

      Hope that helps!

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