JournalFeb 2014

Figuring out a better way to run a design consultancy

With a lot of change and growth happening at our end, we wanted to keep our clients updated and explain where we’re headed. In trying to live up to our principle of ‘work in the open‘, we want to share these experiences more publicly so that they can help other teams to learn from our experiences, too.

We’re absolutely certain that we’re getting a lot stronger – we think we’re well on the right track for where we want to be as a team of designers producing outstanding work for clients.

But we’re still not happy with that

We’re massively self-critical by nature, and there are some things in particular that we were unhappy with, in the way we were working previously:

  • Task-switching‘ between projects – juggling a large number of tasks and trying to keep mental focus and quality of work while doing so. It’s tricky, as everyone knows – we’d go further than that and say it’s the enemy of quality design work and getting results for clients.
  • Protecting ourselves. Related to task-switching – there’s always a tendency to do whatever we can to jump on and fix help requests and respond to emails quickly. Sometimes, this is critical, especially in an emergency situation. But frequently, it hurts both us, and clients too, in the long-run. There’s less in-depth focus on single tasks, projects take longer, run at a less predictable pace (for both of us) and it’s harder to hit the same quality of result as a consequence.
  • Client fit. As we’ve grown, we’ve retained a lot of clients (several of these were original freelance clients of mine) – but keeping these clients serviced and maintained was detrimental to Hanno in the long-run, because it took up a disproportionate amount of our time and prevented us from focusing on the clients who needed our help the most, and were providing the income which kept us operating. We’ve made the call that it would be in the best interests of some of these clients to help them switch to work with other freelancers, where they’ll receive a level of service which is more appropriate for what they need from an agency.
  • Better collaboration. We absolutely love collaborating with clients – we think it’s one of the biggest advantages we have, as a smaller team, over a big agency which simply can’t do the same thing at this level. But when we juggle lots of projects and try and squeeze things in at short notice, that means we’re less predictably available, and neither we, nor you, can plan to be available for feedback and review. It stands to reason that if you have no clue when we’re going to be tackling the work, you can’t be expected to be on hand 24/7 just in case it’s completed and you’re needed for feedback. While we know we do collaboration a hell of a lot better than some other teams, we feel we can improve it a huge amount.

So what’s happened at our end recently?

  • The team (myself, in particular) have been working with Pivotal Labs on some big startup projects. I’ve been following Pivotal for a long time and they’re one of the companies I respect the most in our line of work – they’ve built a sustainable working environment for their team, which allows them to deliver absolutely fantastic results. They’re massive proponents of agile, and do it in a way that directly leads to results on their projects – not just as a marketing buzzword. They also have a huge focus on collaborating deeply with clients (to the extent that they’re demanding on the client’s time and resources) because they feel this is the best way to do great work and maximise the chances that a product is going to be successful.
  • We’ve also been working a lot with Novoda, which has been interesting as they’re a smaller agency, but they have a really top-notch agile development process. They also have less of a focus on physical proximity than Pivotal (Pivotal quite often have a requirement that the product owner on the client end works out of their office), which has been interesting to learn from.
  • We’ve been out in Malaysia, and one of the big projects that we’ve delayed for the last 6 months until we arrived, has been working intensely as a team of 4 (2 of the guys aren’t out here) on our own site. This has been a massive learning experience, and has also been really revealing. A big part of it was writing our Manifesto – it might seem like a load of rubbish to some people checking out the site, but we firmly stand behind it, and as a team, we feel we know exactly where we’re headed, as a consequence of writing it. We’re passionate about the values in it and want to fully live up to those when we work on projects.
  • We’ve been doing more and more work with startups and on rapid prototyping projects, which has really hammered home the value of shipping early, collaborating deeply, and focusing on making tough decisions and taking ownership of projects wherever we can.
  • We’ve grown! Zsolt has joined the team, bringing with him a lot of experience in UX design and a more structured user testing process. Arnas has taken on a much bigger role in the last few months.
  • We’ve improved our fronted development workflow a ridiculous amount – we’re very proud of where this is headed.

Where do we want to get to as a team, and what’s the solution?

We’ve a few big goals:

  • Live up to the values in our Manifesto
  • Produce quality work, and work with people doing good stuff. And deliver value, while we’re doing that – find every way possible to maximise this.
  • Build a company that’s sustainable and can stick around for the long term. That means, doing things in a way that’s different, and better, than other agencies.

I think a client is constantly weighing up the cost and benefit of hiring an agency, versus bringing someone on board into their own team full-time. If you’re going to be the external team on a project, you’ve got to deliver value that is greater than the cost (both financial, and also time-wise) that making a full-time designer hire on your own team would involve.

We think that a couple of changes will help deliver better projects…

  • Switching to pre-planned, scheduled sprints on projects. This means being tough on ourselves and not allowing ourselves to say ‘yes’ to every request that comes in, as much as we might want to. By pushing back, and scheduling more firmly, we think this is more painful for clients in the short-term, but miles better in the long term. Everyone can prepare in advance for projects and get mentally engaged with them, so that when we all start work, it’s much more focused and we move a lot quicker.
  • With existing clients, where we have an ongoing work effort, while planning and prioritising sprints, we can also group bugs, change requests, and new features, into a nice, tackleable block of work that we can get our teeth stuck into.
  • While we’re not going to stop hourly billing on ongoing projects (sometimes something just needs to be fixed, and it won’t take a full day to do so), the shift to scheduled sprints means we’ll also be billing in 4-hour, half-day blocks, rather than ad-hoc, with hours here and there. We’re absolutely convinced that the quality of work that comes from this means that the billing system is way better value for clients.
  • By being more structured and scheduling better, we can also help clients to prepare for sprints better, too. We can give them a better way to anticipate when they’ll be involved and need to be available to collaborate, which helps shorten the feedback loop, and move faster.
  • We’re also finding we’re getting dramatically better results when we not only schedule sprints in advance, but also co-ordinate so that (when needed) more than 1 person works on the project at once. So a sprint might involve 2 (or even 4 or 6) of us working at the same time. Way quicker progress, and deeper collaboration on our side, too.
  • That also allows us to be a bit more demanding about client collaboration, which we think is essential. Rather than spending lots of time thrashing out a scope of what’s to be tackled on Basecamp, we can essentially set ‘homework’ to clients, to gather up the information we need to do a great job. That might mean compiling a Google Doc with customer needs information or a prioritised list of changes and feedback. We realise that what we do is expensive for our clients, so just as you probably wouldn’t go to a lawyer, being billed by the hour, without preparing all the information they need in order to do a good job for you, the same should probably apply when you’re working with a design agency.

The upshot – what clients can expect

For small bugs and requests, we’ll aim to qualify these as they arrive in our inbox, and set you tasks/request more details so that we have the information we need, in order to tackle them. But we won’t kick them off straight away – depending on ongoing projects, we’ll be tough on ourselves and push back to protect the work we do have going on.

We’ll be working hard to improve the process and be more demanding, planning and executing projects as a team, with more focus and organisation.

We feel that in the long-run, the changes we’re making here leave us in a far better position to do a great job for our clients, and stick around for a while.

Posted by
Jon Lay

Jon is a Partner at Hanno. He wears many hats, but his primary focus is on leading our engineering and technical operations.