Don’t be so complicated

This winds me up. Seriously.

A story about Mindy

Say you’ve got Mindy. She’s come to you for a website for her new personal training business. She hasn’t got a big budget (who has?), and she would like something live asap.

Traditionally, a web designer would explain that it’s not that simple, that they need to design a bespoke website, craft copy, do a photoshoot, code the website, test the website and then, after all that, launch.

There’s something wrong here. It’s too waterfall. Mindy isn’t going to have a website for several weeks, maybe months. She’s paid 50% upfront, the project runs over because the web designer has gotten themselves busy and Mindy can only meet on selected evenings.


A better way

‘Agile’ isn’t just saved for the world of software and web development. Agile should be a manifesto for life. Make something quickly (a minimum viable product) – something good enough to start with, and then over time iterate.

With an agile web designer, Mindy could have had a website made in that first meeting

Seriously (Check the video below for an explanation). If Mindy is busy, make the most of that first meeting and make the website then. A competent web designer should be able to start with a framework, modify it, work with Mindy to write the correct text, add ‘good-enough’ photos for now and leave the meeting with the barebones, or a MVP ready to put on the web.

Over time, Mindy and the web designer could get better photos done. They could start working on an SEO strategy, start writing a blog etc. Get the website better and better. Iterate


Use GoCardless to collect regular payments – hassle free!

In terms of billing, the web designer would charge lower but over a longer period. The task of maintaining a website is an ongoing process. Direct debit would be better, with services such as Go Cardless.

Mindy would be able to see over time what she’s investing in. She would also be able to get bookings in from Day 1, not Day 60.

The lesson

Don’t hide behind ‘good design practice’. Web designers should think about customer service and being agile.

If you were a customer – what would you want from a web designer?

Ryan Singer puts this together beautifully in the video below, where he explains how he would go about designing and coding a client website.

Ryan Singer: Designing from start to finish from webexpo on Vimeo.

Don’t be so complicated

Have you got any tips on providing great customer service and great design? Follow any agile methods – I’d love to hear them!

The distributed agency

Having previously run a design studio for four years, I know what it takes for an agency to survive. The key elements include:

  • A constant stream of qualified leads coming in
  • Trusted freelancers available to do the work
  • A steady fixed income (clients on retainer)
  • An ability to get noticed and be in people’s mindsets
  • A very thick skin
  • Low overheads

I’ve spoken with other agency heads in recent years, some successful, some not so much. In an age when anyone can setup a website, do a bit of social media and call themselves an ‘agency’, or when clients bring the whole operation in-house, I feel it has become quite unclear what an agency can deliver to its customers and why they really exist.

Mad Men is a fiction

Sure, there was a time where clients would throw you a load of cash and you create some fantastic projects, but those days are long gone.

Budgets are tight, agencies are fighting over clients and younger, more IT-savvy professionals are entering the market, offering a more personal service and taking the work as a result. Schools are teaching our children how to code. These are the ‘digital-natives’ – so what’s the advantage of engaging with an agency nowadays?

The distributed agency model

This isn’t an entirely new idea, but the old agency model still exists and (from what I can see), they survive by merging with competing agencies (to improve resource and grow client base), reinvent themselves (what we tried to do with Skysoclear) or simply fizzle out all together (with some agencies calling this an acquisition). The first agency I ever worked ended up being ‘acquired’, being, at the time:

…the latest web company to be rescued from the brink of closure and reborn elsewhere (The Guardian 17 Jan 2002).

Mashable defines it as:

The distributed agency model, or “virtual agency,” as it’s sometimes called, is simply an agency that hires and collaborates with workers remotely. The team might be made up of full or part-time employees, freelancers, contractors, partners, etc. These employees might be spread across a particular city or over the entire world. In short, a distributed team is location-agnostic.

These agencies do exist, just look at Simple As Milk – a group of individuals working together as a flat team across the world.

I recently read about the story of Charley Radcliffe, who was moving from the UK to Chamonix with his wife for a better quality of life.

What was particularly of interest was when he talked about preparing for the move:

We made conscious decisions over the last few years to develop our skills so that we have the most flexibility for where and how we work. I have taught myself to build websites and applications as well as honed my business and entrepreneurial skills through founding two companies. Sophie has worked even harder to almost completely reinvent herself as a fantastic writer and communications expert, adding to her already impressive skills in people development, business development, and partnerships.

Charley illustrates the opportunity there – those with the drive and the ambition to learn the skills can work where they like for customers wherever they may be. Apart from Yahoo!, most large clients are globally distributed or don’t mind where you are as long as you do the work.

Now is the time

I can say for certain that now the tools are there to make this happen. 3G and public wifi has matured. Skype and Google Hangouts are better than ever, platforms such as Slack and Flow enable real-time communication and even CRMs have improved with Insightly and Base. Your accountant can be remote with Freeagent and there’s even job boards tailored to working remotely.

Take a hard look at yourself

So, are you stressing out because your agency has huge overheads, but isn’t getting the work in? Cut the office overhead and meet your clients at their office or a local cafe. Are you finding it difficult to attract new talent in your local town? Look online. Moving to this model has ‘concrete benefits’:

Early adopters across marketing services are thriving with the home-working virtual agency model. (ref.)

Moving to a distributed agency model is a risk, but isn’t riskier to do nothing?

Re-evaluate what you do and how you do it. You may find that you’re going about this all wrong. Stay agile, grow and shrink depending on your workload. Is January a quiet month? Go on a company retreat and brainstorm the upcoming years activites. Flatten your structure. Ask your customers what they need – you may be surprised with what you hear. Agencies exist to serve their clients – when was the last time you asked ‘what else can we do to help?’.

My UX working document

There are often lengthly debates about tools for designers that never seem to go away. For user experience, I find the best tool is Powerpoint and I’ll show here how I use it.


Yes, you heard right. Often one of the most misunderstood pieces of software out there, Powerpoint is ideal for user experience designers.

What we often have to do is communicate a vision, share user research and do low-fidelity work. Powerpoint excels at this. For example – say I needed to make a clickable prototype. I could code it in HTML, but that would take longer and eventually get too high-fidelity for what it needs to do. Now with Powerpoint, I can create a clickable prototype, pass it to a coworker and they can edit the same document. Now that is collaboration.

And with my first point, I use Powerpoint to share my work. No links to mockup jpegs on a server, no explaining where all my documents are. I collate everything in my Powerpoint working document and then to relevant stakeholders to see what we are doing.

There are other tools I’d use – for developers a pattern library would be better, but presenting my working document to stakeholders in this way is something I find works really well.

Benefits to having a working document

What is fantastic about using this as a template is that I can “fill in the gaps”. The user journey slide is blank? Oh, that’s something we better do. A photo is missing from the card sorting slide? Card sorting is the next tool to use in this project.

Obviously not every project will be the same, but using a template like this means that we know where we’ve come and what we’re working towards.

Things to include in a working document

Here’s a list of slides I’ve used in my past working documents:

  • Stakeholders
  • Concept (what we’re trying to accomplish)
  • Use cases (think about how people would use what we’re making)
  • User personas (who are we making it for?)
  • User stories (high-level things the users what to do)
  • Sketches (initial sketches)
  • Scenarios (so we can imagine what a day in the life would be for our users – essentially a storyboard)
  • User journey (a flow diagram showing the interactions by the user with our product
  • Interaction sketches (each view is sketched out)
  • Wireframes (where we move from sketch to wire framing)
  • Prototyping and testing (Photos of us testing the prototypes out – paper or powerpoint prototypes etc. initial usability testing)
  • Iterations – so we can see how the product changed over time

This format is loosely based on a fantastic working document I found by LaiYee Lori, Interaction Designer at Amazon – download it here.

Other slides to consider:

  • Content inventory – something I’ve seen Julie Blitzer talk about – especially for a redesign – mapping all the existing content – done very early on
  • User Feedback – a slide just before User Stories – what are the users saying they want/need?
  • Competitor analysis – what do other products do like ours – can we identify a need we can fill
  • UX metrics – how will we measure the success of the product from the first iteration?

The UX working document

I find that having one document that includes all of my work gives me an honest overview, something I can share immediately and something that everyone in my team “gets”.

Do you have a working document like I do for each project? How does yours differ, or is similar? Please let me know in the comments.

Incentivising users to give feedback

We know now that user feedback is essential when building web experiences that people will use. We know we can conduct user testing sessions, use analytics tools and do surveys. But what I am conscious of is measuring and getting feedback without spamming the user – that’s not the aim here.

Test the user feedback experience

Bit of a no-brainer, but I always consider what the user experience is when giving feedback. Essentially “if I was in your position, how would I feel?”.

Choose the right feedback tools

I class tools in two groups – visible and invisible. Visible would be a survey, invisible would be your Google Analytics.

For visible feedback tools, you have to make giving feedback fun, otherwise, you may not getting the most comprehensive feedback you can. I’ve been testing out, where a users chooses a red, amber or green smiley face to answer a very short set question. So a user reads the question and clicks a face – how simple is that?!

Use to add a little enjoyment to gaining feedback

Use to add a little enjoyment to gaining feedback

Think about what you’re getting out of it

The data you collect has to be usable, or rather, you have to be able to use the data your collecting. That has a lot to do with asking the right questions at the beginning, such as:

  • Why are people not getting to page X?
  • Why are we losing people in the checkout process?
  • Why are people not downloading the free ebook?

So the answers we seek to gain could possibly be:

  • Page X isn’t visible enough
  • We are forcing them to login
  • The copy doesn’t provide benefits to the user

Thinking about how to answer the question will demonstrate what data you need to collect.

Say thank you

When you’re asking for feedback, what you’re really asking for a user to volunteer their time to help make your product better. Be gracious, say thank you. Maybe offer them a discount at your store, or send them a funny thank you message (with lolcatz). I’ve found that pizza works for user testing sessions!

If you’ve got any suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments.