5 Tips for Managing the Digital Product Design and Development Process

Everybody knows that the three most important words in real estate are location, location, location. But did you know that the three most important words in managing digital product design & development are communication, communication, communication?

No, this is not a new Geico ad. We recently interviewed Designing North Studios’ Managing Director and Executive Creative Director Lisa Peacock  and Head of Technology Nigel Peacock about how best to navigate the sometimes stormy seas of digital design and development. The interview was timely, as we just completed a retrospective on a major digital product design (yet to be unveiled to the public) – a process we undertake religiously after every big digital endeavor.

What tools or processes are most critical to the successful execution of a digital development project?

Nigel:

If the decision is solely ours, then we employ the Agile development methodology, which has consistently worked well for us. Depending on the Nigel_Peacock-colorclient’s preference, we can employ offshoots of Agile such as Scrum, Kanban or even Extreme programming.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt to other more traditional processes, however, such as Waterfall or Critical Path Method (there’s one for the teenagers). That said, we often find ourselves working in a hybrid environment to accommodate a particular client’s internal processes. Whatever the preferred methodology, we do insist that a decision is made early on in the engagement usually during the discovery process which ensures that we get everyone on the same page thus completing stage one of “communication, communication, communication.”

Lisa:

Yes, and I think that the daily stand-ups are probably the most beneficial or critical element of that process. Every team member who is deployed on the project is part of the daily stand-up, and is expected to report on what they’re working on that day, what’s next on their task list, and any blockers or impediments that might cause them to not complete their task.

Nigel:

I would add  that it’s imperative that those meetings are kept to the brief three-point agenda that Lisa mentioned. In fact the meeting leader, the “Scrum master,” has a responsibility to keep the stand-ups organized to the point of being regimented and steer each contribution to a 5-10 minute slot at the same time every day.  Longer discussions can be saved for the “Meet After” or “Huddle.”  Working with a virtual team means that we don’t have the luxury of “water cooler” discussions, so tools like Slack and Basecamp are vital additions to our project arsenal, and allow us to continue conversations outside of the stand ups. Or we can just say “Hi’ to make sure we keep the team socialized and the energy levels up.

You’ve both managed countless digital projects over the course of your collective careers. What are the biggest potential pitfalls to be wary of – the perennial hang-ups?

Lisa:

designing-north-studios-lisa-peacock-pointingTwo Things: Business Requirements and Business Rules. Not keeping requirements top of mind throughout the project, and not documenting the product’s business rules effectively so that they are not lost in the hand-off between Design and Tech is critical. Establishing requirements up front, which is part of an Agile process or any project process for that matter, is the easy part. But it takes strong leadership to continuously circle back and hold both the requirements and subsequent business rules up against decisions points as the team progresses through a project.

Nigel:

Yes, and steady tracking of the requirements and designs makes it easier to eliminate disagreements as they arise. When you encounter a conflict between a proposed UX solution from the designers and a technical solution from the developers, we’ll grab the applicable business set to help inform a direction. I would also add that guiding the customer toward defining the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is paramount to any product launch success. It’s super easy to get excited as the product begins to take shape and keep adding more and more bells and whistles until you eventually have a difficult time reaching the finish line. Keeping a backlog of great ideas, with a quick prioritization indicator for add ons later is critical to keeping the creative thinking logged. It also helps to remind clients that you can eventually get everything you want, but not all at once. This is where Agile, used properly, can be a real asset.

Speaking of settling conflicts, how do you solve conflicts that aren’t necessarily settled by a review of the business rules?

Nigel:

branding-design-gallery01Even the most well documented, evolved business rules can still be open to interpretation when the development rubber meets the road. It’s really important to have members of the design, development, and analysis teams joined at the hip from the project inception to deployment.  Rather than constrain enthusiasm or creativity, we tend to let ideas flow freely, then before committing to them, we’ll have the Tech team make sure that designers aren’t writing checks that can’t be cashed.

Lisa:

Hey now, expertise comes at a cost my friend. Ha! No, this is true. Creativity can jeopardize scope. A good creative director will spot it when its happening. I would also add that the designers can often help to rein-in the tech team too when their solution is more elegant than might be needed for a particular requirement or business rule. Again, daily stand-ups can give tech a better understanding from the design and business teams as to what the customer not only wants but really needs. Then assumptions aren’t made along the way that can cost everybody extra time and money.

You touched on time and money and that translates to budget. What tools do you use for scheduling and for tracking budget?

Nigel:

Typically we use Microsoft Project for the project schedule and Google Docs to communicate high level planning.  Depending on the customer preference we will use a variety of development planning tools, but most often focus on Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS) or JIRA for sprint planning.

Lisa:

In terms of tracking project budget, we’re a Harvest shop. Everyone works to a detailed time sheet that’s approved every week. Harvest reports make it easy to see exactly where you are, and forecast burn rate which is especially helpful when talent is working on more than one project at a time. Specifically, for tracking design deliverables, we like Trello, and find it to be an effective way to assign tasks, see what’s coming up next, what’s in-review with the client, and finally fill-up the complete column once a deliverable has been handed-off to tech.

What happens when a designer or a developer just isn’t getting it?

Nigel:

You know, that’s honestly one of the best parts of our business model. We’re a blend of freelancers who have worked together on a variety of projects. When we select our team, it’s after Lisa and I have a good feel for the type of client we’re dealing with, the type of project we’re tackling, and the methodology that’s going to work best for the client. We handpick the team from there. We’re not saddled with having to use anyone “on the bench” just because they’re filling seats at an office.

Lisa:

And look, despite that flexibility, we still need to have the fortitude to acknowledge when we’ve got the wrong person for a particular task. We recently had a very talented designer who came out of the chute with the client’s favorite overall design for a digital product, but whose follow-up design comps kept missing the mark. Rather than beating our head against the wall, we just made the change; swapped out one talent for another talent more suited to the pace and ‘feel’ for the product brand direction. It worked out great, in no time, we were back on track. It was the right move.

Nigel:

Again, our business model gives us a lot of flexibility. We usually shoot for the Extreme Programming model in that we assemble a team dynamic which comprises a mix of business experience, technical talent, innovators, and leaders but most importantly a team that works together, understands each other, and just gets off on producing quality products.

Any final thoughts or advice?

Nigel:

No process is perfect. We see digital product design & development as an iterative process always. We’re continually improving and refining how we tackle new projects. But without question, effective communication between team members and between DN and the client, is paramount. And actually, a true strategy we believe in.

Lisa:

I agree with Nigel, and would add that having people who are generally happy, energetic, and who come to the table with the DN mindset we’re always looking for in our stars, is what I strive for. We put together teams filled with people who enjoy what they do. It makes life much easier during crunch time. You can have the best full stack developer on the planet, but if everyone hates working with him, it can make for a rough project. Respect for one another and collaboration are key.

Nigel:

And I think that when team members have a common goal and a mutual respect for one another, it also eases the process. When everyone has a solid understanding of the scope of the project and has respect for each other’s abilities, it goes a long way. 

Top 5 tips for effectively managing a digital product design & development project:

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1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

Conduct daily stand-ups. Every team member knows what he or she is working on that day and that week. Blockers are addressed and mitigated.

_______________

2. Revisit requirements & business rules.

They’re established during discovery with the client and are revisited frequently – Scope creep kills the project, erodes motivation, and makes planning a pain in the ass.

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3. Establish an MVP.

Make sure the project plan has a clear definition of the MVP and successfully execute that first. Refer to the “wouldn’t it be great” list later, and don’t let that distract anyone.

_______________

4. Assemble the right team.

And don’t be afraid to make changes when needed. One wrong apple makes the whole tree look like it needs water.

_______________

5. Iterate.

No process is perfect, so keep striving to refine your processes with each new project. Wisdom comes by learning something every single day.

_______________

Ready to get started on a new digital product or redesign?

GIVE US A HOLLER

_______________


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Bootstrap/Material Design vs. Custom: When a Designer Goes Rogue

We periodically receive requests for advice from friends and colleagues. If you’re not knee-deep in design mud on a daily basis, it’s easy to wonder if things are going along the way they ought to be. And it’s equally common to wonder if you’re spending your design dollars wisely. You want to be fair, but not taken advantage of. You want to make sure that nobody is blowing smoke…

Here’s a recent one that we thought might be useful to more than just our friend:

I contracted out a designer for our company to help us design our new Web app experience. We had wireframes in place so I needed someone to bring them to life.  One of the requirements I gave him upfront is that we have a very weak front-end development team and my preference was we built the design off a Bootstrap/Material Design theme.  He didn’t show any resistance to this early on.

As the project progressed, I noticed that he wasn’t using any themes and, instead, was creating his own design.  I called him out on it and he went back and swapped some of the visual components with ones from Bootstrap (e.g., paging control).  I, then, did a full assessment on his comp and found that almost all of it was custom.

I brought this up to him and he started getting defensive saying that I shouldn’t have hired him if I just wanted him to a apply a theme.  So, I’m in a bit of a bind.

What’s your perspective on Bootstrap/Material Design vs custom?  For our company, it’s most important that we move fast (even with weak front-end development) and provide our end users a super simple experience.

Hmm. A few things come to mind here:

The planning, the agreement, the approach.

There are a bunch of Material Design framework themes based on Bootstrap that already exist – did you guys start there? “…build the design off a Bootstrap/Material Design theme.” If you purchased an existing framework, then I don’t know why the designer didn’t follow and work with the purchased theme – seems odd if that was the plan. If you did not purchase a theme, was the agreement clear as to what you meant by “…build the design off a Bootstrap/Material Design theme?” Because Material Design is more than just color and visuals, it also offers tested layout principles to follow (particularly with regard to the interactions around the Android OS) – but the approach to working with Material Design can and should be interpreted/considered/potentially mixed if designing for both Android and iOS.

As for getting defensive around working with a theme, it still takes design talent to work with a theme // but you need some code chops or a good developer partner to actually execute against a canned theme well – it’s not an out-of-the-box exercise.

As for my opinion – both options can be expensive and turn out badly without a good upfront plan. If you get a rock star designer that understands how to design for a developer – then custom is best. If you get an all-in-one designer/developer that finds it easy to work and pull apart a purchased theme, great – but that’s likely a designer-focused person who can hack at the code vs. a developer who can follow a design aesthetic  (good developers hate purchased themes, faster to do stuff from scratch). But if you were just trying to follow the principles of Material Design so as to execute good UX – then the designer and developer should have been working closely from the beginning. And they both should have known to ask for that up-front.

fast=crap // slow=crap // appropriately steady=quality.

Got a question? Shoot us an email.

Yup. Mobile. Again.

We really don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but it continues to amaze us when we see successful companies which have still not addressed their unresponsive (read: not mobile-friendly) websites. This recent chart from the insightful folks at Statista underscores the trending well.

decline-of-global-pc-market

PC sales have done nothing but decline since 2011, and are forecasted to eventually stabilize per research from International Data Corporation (IDC). Tablets, phablets, detachable tablets, and phones have all impacted the market substantially. There are, of course, other factors such as the general economy (commodity prices and foreign currency headwinds for example) and perceptions regarding added value or lack thereof of new PCs that affect these trends.

But let’s face it, most of us are hard-pressed to think of a day in which we haven’t used either our mobile phone, tablet, or phablet to access a website.

And there are few things more irritating than landing on an unresponsive website. Your handy hand-held now requires two hands as you try to awkwardly use your fingers to blow-up the micro-text you’re trying to read. Then you have to slide around in an attempt to find a tab in the main navigation to get to your intended destination. A few expletives, and BAM, you’ve abandoned the site in search of greener pastures.

We’re pretty sure that most university marketing programs do not stress a make it hard for the customer to find your product or service philosophy. So why isn’t every company on the planet jumping into website redesigns? Good question.

We think there are four main reasons:

 

You can't WISH away mobile. [Photo credit: SuperFamous.com]

You can’t WISH away mobile. [Photo credit: SuperFamous.com]

  1. They don’t think there’s a big problem with having an unresponsive website.

We can always point to Google’s demoting of non-mobile friendly websites as the most actionable reason to believe it’s a big deal to have an unresponsive website. And now Google is preparing for what some are calling Mobilegeddon2. In May 2016, Google plans to,“…start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.” As a design studio that’s deeply involved in creating fantastic and intuitive user interfaces and user experiences, we struggle to digest that a successful company doesn’t view unresponsiveness as a big problem.

2. There’s no money in the budget.

This one we understand. Depending on the size of an organization, the move to a responsive website and/or a mobile app can be a considerable undertaking. We get that. As with most new marketing initiatives, we recommend that you put together a compelling rationale plus ROI that your senior management cannot ignore. Here are few thoughts to bolster your argument.

3. It’s a big undertaking because they need to update the whole website anyway – it’s easier to just keep putting it off.

It’s like dieting. You’ve been adding a couple extra pounds every year, but instead of jumping on it, you’ve let it slide and now you need to do something serious. A few pounds has become an even 10. Your favorite jeans don’t fit. You don’t want to go out. It’s like that with your website, if you haven’t been consistently addressing its upkeep (let’s face it, it’s hard to fit everything in), that killer bod is now, well, rather unsightly.

You have to face the facts. It’s only going to get worse. Mobile is not going away, nor are all those updates and subtle improvements that your website needs. The sooner you get it into a more manageable configuration, the better you are going to feel. Just contacting a design studio to start the conversation will help. So hop on the treadmill and cut the carbs. You’ll feel better once you get started. We promise.

4. Aliens have invaded their bodies with no concept of Earthly digital interactions.

We’re closet nerds. It could happen, right? Plus, it would explain a lot.

What are you thoughts? Are we missing something?

If you’re ready to dive in – or perhaps put a toe in the water, GIVE US A JINGLE.

 

 

6 Smart Sites/Apps That Might Make Holiday Shopping More of a Breeze

The holiday shopping season is upon us (yippie! no?), and the team at Designing North Studios has compiled a short but helpful list of sites and apps that have a UX that might just make things easier. From helping you navigate the mall parking lot, to finding the perfect gift, we’ve got you covered.

Fancy

Fancy.com offers a beautiful UI, with the killer combo of intuitive search functions, painless checkout, and stellar product photography. Offering very unique merchandise – from clothing and accessories, to things for your furry friends, food, cars, travel and destinations, this site curiously has it all at your fingertips. Fancy also allows you to “chip in” with friends and family on a gift for someone, where everyone pledges an amount. Crowdshopping, I guess.

Fab

Another great and well-known one-stop shopping experience is Fab.com. With a rotating, easy to search, more modern catalog of gifts and its super smart checkout experience, you can find something crazy for everyone on your list. The site’s product photos, easy to read product details and reviews remove the guesswork from your gift buying, while free shipping and returns (and white space) make it a great overall shopping experience. Yes, it’s Fab.

Warby Parker

Looking for something for the fashionista on your list? Try Warby Parker eyeware at warbyparker.com. The clean UI makes browsing glasses and sunglasses frames pretty neat. The experience takes the guesswork out of the equation. By uploading an image of the person you are buying for, you can virtually try a pair of glasses on them using a simple set of tools to reposition, scale, and angle frames and arms until they fit that person’s face! (What? yep.) Once you have the positioning just right, the site remembers the settings, so you can try pair after pair and find the right look. For you’re friend. (long pause) Or For you. (Stop shopping for you!)

Tadd Car Finder

If online shopping isn’t your thing (like, you’re an alien), and you’re hitting the malls instead, this free app for iPhone and Android is hilarious and helpful (both good mall emotions). Tadd Car Finder will actually help you find your car in the parking lot. This handy and easy to use app uses map annotations and notes to help you remember where you parked, and the exact location of your car, in detail. Note to self: How did I ever get home without this app?

Giftster

Giftster is an app for iPhone and Android and a website that can be thought of as an online gift-registry that is not store-specific. By signing into one group account, you, and those in your group, add things they want along with gift preferences (sizes, interests, etc.). The platform links with sites like Amazon, Target and other stores through your web browser – allowing you to add items to your list with a simple click and drag. It also allows you to mark a gift as reserved or purchased, avoiding duplicate gifts.  Instantly, you have all the information you need at your fingertips to get your holiday shopping crossed out done. Kinda like that old folded up Christmas list you carried as a kid, gave to your mom who then mailed to the North Pole. Kinda.

Wish

Need to drop a few (or many) hints about what you really want this holiday season? Check out wish.com (also available for iPhone or Android). The straightforward design and UX of the site and the app allow you to shop, collect and share products you are wishing for with friends and family. It’s like Pinterest for wishers vs. pinners. There’s a lot of ‘wishing’ going on here at the studio. Back to work people!

So what kind of shopping experience do you look for during the mad holiday dash? Quick? Kind? Beautiful? Simple? One-click? Mind reading? We’re kinda curious this season. Good luck out there.

Chris Mohler is a Creative Director at Designing North Studios. She loves the holidays, her cats, and has nasty case of insomnia at the moment.

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