(Photo illustration by Brady Dale)
Technology isn’t just making our work more productive. Technology is also guiding teams to think differently about the way we work. The process of work itself is its own kind of technology, and that’s a technology that Huge has been iterating on.
Now the Dumbo creative agency thinks it’s made something of a breakthrough in how it collaborates with clients, and we visited Huge’s office at the end of last year to talk about it. In 2013, we spoke to Huge designers about their prototype-driven approach to design.
“Is there a day when we’re not going to start a webpage in Photoshop?” Huge Global Creative Director Jon Jackson asked toward the end of our conversation. It sounds like an innocuous question about one piece of software becoming less emphasized over time, but when you play it out, it illustrates what’s changed so much about how Huge teams up with its clients.
Once upon a time, web designs all got made in Photoshop, as Jackson tells it. A designer would put together everything he or she might think would look right in various layers, and that would be the design. It would get passed on to the dev team to turn it into a working site.
This worked well for the old approach to client work. You could send over JPEGs of that Photoshop file for approval and cross your fingers that the page would come out that way when all was said and done.
Ditching “the big reveal”
The process used to revolve around a bit of theater, something Huge staff referred to as “the big reveal.” A client hires an agency to make something. The creatives walk away. Bang it out. Then, after a length of time, they come back and unveil the progress they’ve made. There, they sell the client once more, but this time on the work they’ve done so far.
“The big reveal is something that, at least for us, unless a client really wants it — we’ll never do,” Jackson said. The trouble is, that second sell doesn’t always work. “If you come back in two weeks and it’s wrong, then you’ve wasted two weeks,” Jackson explained, better to be in touch with clients throughout the process.
Even better to have them around as you build, he explained.
“The underlying philosophy here is about evolving hypotheses,” Vice President for User Experience Emily Wengert said. In other words, you learn more about a product as you work on it; don’t come up with some proposal you sell a client on at the start (when you know the least) and try to hew as closely as possible to that proposal. Instead, you let what you learn as you work change the hypothesis about what should be built.
Under its new approach, Huge wants to have clients with them, in their offices, as much as the client has time and desire to be there.
Jackson talked about instances when they’ve had clients coming in as much as twice per day. This means that clients become part of the problem-solving team on projects, Wengert said. It also means that small decisions can be made much faster. In the old way, Jackson explained, if a designer needed to run some examples by a client, they would mock them up and send them off as emails (either as PDFs or URLs). They’d sit for a while until the client got to them. This would go slowly — the client passed them around the office, got feedback, kicked it around and then, maybe a day later, maybe two, came back with an answer.
With decisionmakers present, Huge staff can just show them live variations on a working site and make a decision there and then.
The new model
That point about working sites is another critical shift in how Huge works.
The company has shifted to smaller teams in which at least some members of each discipline (design, UX, project management, dev, etc.) are committed throughout the length of the project.
To completely oversimplify this for the sake of illustration: it’s as if they’ve gone from a system where, formerly, six designers would work on a project for a monthlong design phase and then completely hand it over to six developers for a monthlong engineering phase. Now, three developers and three designers would be committed over the whole two months, all of them designing and coding throughout.
It’s usually about the same number of work hours overall, said Brock Boddie, Huge’s vice president of program management, but each discipline stays active from beginning to end with this approach. With engineering in sooner, the project can get into code faster. With design in later, the design can be refined to meet the challenges that arise in code. And so on.
“We’ve adopted much more of an iterative and agile methodology,” Boddie said. “Clients really like that because they get to look at things in a working model.”
He added, “When you get to the technical execution part, that’s where you start learning a lot more about what you can and can’t do.”
"That’s generally a part of the Huge identity: if something's not good enough, just toss it."
We heard similar sentiments from Cameron Koczon when he gave his “Design State of the Union.” Hold off on the aesthetics until you’re sure the solution works for the problem, the Fictive Kin partner said last month. The faster you can get to technical execution, the sooner a team learns about those limits.
For example, Wengert told a story of a client Huge worked with whose site involved a broad collection of experts. It seemed natural to build a search function into the site that would make it easy for a visitor to find the expert they were looking for. So they put search into the design, and since design moved rapidly into code, they were able to see very soon in the process that the actual database of the site wasn’t complete enough to support robust search. In fact, the gaps in the database were such that it would even return results that just looked wrong.
Under the old model, they could have built a complete design with that function and then let it get well into the code process before any users ever tested it. Seeing that their assumptions about the data were all wrong could have even made it to the big reveal. Instead, they were able to change the spec on the function so it met the database where it was at.
Boddie said there’s another advantage. In many cases, Huge designers now have a basically working site well before the due date. There’s always kinks to work out, but, as Boddie put it, a client will sometimes realize that if they were feeling bold they could just launch the site a month early.
And with clients taking a more active role in the process, problems like this don’t look like a giant mistake for the agency. Instead, the client can see how they arose and take part in solving them.
“The fact is that we are working on small enough problems that we can wrestle with them together,” Wengert said.
Embrace the trash can
Teams that have worked with agencies in the past may be familiar with this notion of little approval points along the way. Wengert called this “gating,” of not letting clients revisit past decisions. She said this was a way of protecting scope, not a way of protecting the right solution, and it’s a model that she says Huge has retired for two or three years now.
In fact, sometimes a solution that a lot of time has gone into just isn’t the right solution.
“That’s generally a part of the Huge identity: if something’s not good enough, just toss it.” Boddie said.
“We want to stay on the right path to a creative idea as long as possible,” Jon Jackson told us. He also said Huge will jettison a nice idea if the process has started to show that it’s not the right idea. When the team is taking on smaller chunks of work each time, however, less has to get jettisoned, should that have to happen.
Throwing work out is a natural part of the creative process.
“There’s a lot of great options to take and you just need to get to one of those.” Jackson said. This new approach to working with clients and involving them more heavily over the course of designing and building can look really different for clients who are used to only seeing completed work.
“There’s going to be moments when it’s super rough, and some clients love that,” Wengert told us. Not all of them do, however, so Huge likes to have honest conversations about that early. It’s about building the client the right product, but also the right process.
“To me, what is of utmost importance is the sophistication of the client, not the size,” Jackson said.
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