Ever made a web site? It’s one of the most difficult things to do.
I used to own a successful ‘traditional’ brand design agency, with clients like Sony PlayStation, BAFTA and Hasbro. Print production was a piece of cake compared to the maze of doom that a tech project can turn into. There’s a vein throbbing in my temple just thinking about it.
As ideas get more complex, and technology platforms change, the tech becomes ever more complex to deliver. Having an idea is one thing, making it work is another.
We work with leading marketing and PR agencies. A number of these partners have had torrid times with tech contractors – from poorly executed builds (bearing little relation to your designs), to ‘computer says no’ responses, to the functionality just not working right. This can be compounded when you offshore, or when your freelancer disappears off the radar – along with your client’s code.
So run a deep bath, light a candle, put on some Kenny G, and let me share the top 5 ways you can de-stress your development.
1) Get organised
Due to a million and one internal and external pressures, the agency production process can descend into “hell, we have too much to do – we’ve all got to stay late”. But the way to successfully deliver a tech project is not by simply working harder, it’s by working smarter.
We have a 6 stage workflow system, the result of 17 years experience of making web sites (I started making them in ‘97!). We design all our operations around this workflow, in effect a series of checklists, and stick to it – which helps us to get things right first time, at all stages from specifying work to delivery.
This is really important if your teams work in different offices, or are working with third parties – so if you sub-contract your tech (as many agencies do), getting focused on process is the only way to ensure that everyone is working in concert.
By adopting more structured procedures – as usually associated with an IT company – you can deliver better quality work (creatively and functionally), on time & budget, with far less stress.
Importantly, however, with our workflow system we say to our team that they can update it. Our mantra is: “the system is the boss”, “you can change the system”, “therefore you are the boss”. This empowers everyone to channel new insights and learnings into iteratively updating operations.
This means that we are getting better and better every day, as new tech emerges, and we learn from errors, or new ideas. As a result we create a learning organisation.
2) Agree things upfront
Getting your business systematised is no mean feat, but if you want the single most important thing to do today – which requires no time to implement – then it is this: agree things upfront.
This sounds really obvious, and it is. But it’s very easy to feel compelled to ‘just get on with it’ – just do stuff – and do it now now now!
So people often dive into new projects without getting things agreed in detail between themselves, the client or their sub-contractors. Small misunderstandings start, like hairline fractures, and develop throughout the project to become massive crashing fissures between expectation and reality.
And when the job is reviewed between Dev and Creative there is a lot of churn, late nights, upset and bother. And that’s before it even gets to the Client. It turns out everyone has a different view on what the project will deliver – and when you have already done the dev before realising this, you can get real problems.
That single line item included without much thought can be the one thing that causes a rift between you and your client, or the difference between a job being profitable or not.
So take the time upfront to interrogate your own spec. While it feels like a delay you will never regret it. The number of times this approach has saved our bacon is terrifying!
3) Write things down
When agreeing things upfront, you also need to write it all down. Again, this sounds really obvious, and again, it is. But many jobs are agreed over a phone call, or a coffee, and never get properly documented.
While this can work fine on more design-led projects, you just can’t get away with it on a tech job where an understanding of those specs can be the difference between an hour’s work and a week’s work. Specific functionality can be lost in translation almost immediately, creating wasted time and – ultimately – disappointment. Write it down, talk it through and get client signoff.
Be super clear – this includes listing what things will do, and sometimes for clarity what they will not… It will send an email to the specified recipient… but it will not log responses, create a report and make you a cup of tea in the morning 🙂 This is critical when it comes to crunch time, as it helps ensure that what was agreed is universally understood. The devil is always in the detail and this detail cannot be truly grasped if the spec is floating around your heads.
Creating additional clarity through ‘plain English’ documents is important as well. Jargon, acronyms and tech speak may work for your developers, but your account manager and client won’t truly understand. And it’s these people that will need to sign it off with confidence.
Your client does not need to understand how the work will be delivered from a technical point of view. But they sure as hell need to understand – and sign off – the user journey, what exactly is going to happen when you click X or Y, and whether it will work on their 2006 vintage Blackberry or not…
We aim to draft all our Statements of Work in simple clear language which communicates the objectives as well as any top line technical specification. This means that everyone from the client, to the account managers, designer and developer can read this document and understand what it all means. Your spec in effect becomes your test script – and if it does what you have written down and agreed with your client, it works.
Feedback should also be written down, discussed and agreed before launching into development – beware the dreaded ‘lost in translation’. Ideally you should run task-centred feedback loops, using software like AtTask (which we use) or a web app like DoneDone to make sure those little bugs don’t get forgotten in the chaos of the pre-launch push.
4) Tough love
Time spent up front to clarify a tech project is time invested for your later sanity. Yes it can be a pain in the short term, but long term your project is delivered smoothly and is right first time.
With the best will in the world, clients will often sign off documentation without fully understanding what you mean. In the cut and thrust of a marketing department it’s easy to go for speed over detail, but this only stores problems for the future – you need to make sure your client’s understanding matches your agency’s.
Sit down with your client and go through your spec line by line, explaining exactly what they will get – and even clarifying what they won’t.
When it comes to the crunch and your client says they assumed you meant X, Y and Z when you meant A, B & C, what are you going to do? You don’t want to turn your project into a loss-making exercise, but running a service business you really really don’t want to be going all “Terms & Conditions” on your client at launch time. Not a great customer retention strategy.
What is required at times is some tough love from the agency, calling “time out” and forcing all parties to focus on the nitty gritty before the work truly starts. But this is often very difficult for an agency account manager to do, especially if they’re not 100% confident with the tech they are talking about.
But agreeing anything upfront that all parties don’t truly understand is the same as not agreeing things upfront at all. Sometimes clients are understandably impatient to ‘get going’, but if you’re not on the same page you will all suffer in the long run. We’ve seen this time after time on our own projects – any major problems we’ve faced over the last few years have boiled down to a lack of time invested up front to flush out misunderstandings.
Truly leading your client – focusing them on what is important, when it is important to do it, and delivering problem-free tech work – will make them love you in the end.
5) Devs are not Designers
There are fundamental differences between how creative marketing types view the world, and how tech development people view it. Let’s call it left brain and right brain, emotion and reason. To achieve a harmonious and successful project, you need these two sides of the brain to work well in tandem.
With our background we have worked on both sides of the fence. I have heard from numerous creatives that their tech guys just don’t “get it”. The “it” being the finer detail of their designs, or the needs of a client. And of course over the years I’ve heard plenty of developers griping that creatives and their clients don’t “get it” either!
One of our most valuable skills as an agency is being able to bridge those two worlds – bringing technical insight into the design process and an understanding of creativity and client relationships into development.
Development people like specifics, and clear objectives. They are happy to innovate, but need clear parameters in which to work, because there are so many ramifications within what they do. For example, language is really important – you say ‘database’ when you mean ‘spreadsheet’ and it can create days of wasted work and frustration for your team.
Dev people tend to assume that the answer to any question is more tech – it’s what they do. They also like a challenge and take great pride in making something work…”I’ll make this work if it kills me!” This makes it extremely important to manage the development process very carefully – otherwise you can find days have been spent fixing a relatively small issue while the overall system does not yet work.
At Techdept we always try to avoid “drilling through rocks” – that is, it may be easier to work around a problem than try and continue straight forward. Our development team takes ownership of their time and great pride in delivering projects to budget. Our culture is to think laterally and keep the ship on course, ultimately leaving us with a very happy client and repeat business on the way.
One of the biggest sources of stress for anyone involved in a project, whether creative or technical, is “churn” – when you think something is done but then you have to test it, document it and test it again. It’s slow, it’s frustrating, and it’s possibly the biggest source of wasted time and unnecessary tension in any tech job.
To combat this we build into our culture a focus on personal QA. Check check check before it leaves your desk! Just because it works on your computer doesn’t mean it works on the live server… even though it should, those gremlins get everywhere! Everything gets double checked by producers, but this approach to personal QA means fewer bugs, fewer problems and a more streamlined working day for everyone.
This cultural focus sits alongside our more ‘black and white’ workflow systems, acting as the glue that binds us together.
A little goes a long way
In this increasingly digital world, new ideas require new tech. And new tech is just plain difficult to get out the door, at least if you want it to work right first time, and 24/7 thereafter. Tech production isn’t going away, so we all need to learn how best to handle it.
We’ve learnt that a little organisation, planning your work upfront, and empathy between teams goes an extremely long way. Embrace this, and you can embrace a healthy positive and de-stressed tech workplace.
Now turn off that Kenny G!
Find this interesting?