The benefits and challenges of running a slow-growing business | February 22, 2016

It’s understandable why we’re all so interested in fast-growing businesses, thanks to the drama involved. Will the company in question be able to raise the next round of funding, or will they hit the end of the runway in a ball of flames? Will they be able to hire fast enough to meet their demands, or will the culture implode on itself as people flee to Google or Facebook? Will the company fight off unwanted takeover bids and gain an even bigger valuation, or will they end up regretting not taking the deal? Will the founders end up as multi-millionaires, or just another Silicon Valley casualty? Each option is a juicy as the next, and equally deserving of comment and speculation.

As rapid growth is considered the yardstick of start-up culture, it’s unsurprising that the majority of how-to articles focus on the challenges of running a fast-moving business. So how do you embed culture when your team has grown from 30 to 100 people in less than a month? How do you ensure your infrastructure is up to the task when your user base is doubling every few weeks? And how to you keep the company going when your monthly payroll is in the millions, but your income is in the thousands?

These are all very interesting questions, and ones that will help many budding entrepreneurs. However as the founder of a deliberately slow-growing company, there is a real lack of articles charting the challenge of slow growth; and challenges there are a-plenty.

For instance, when fast-growing companies hit problems around team management, marketing and sales, or HR, they can usually hire their way out of the problem. So they’ll create a new management layer, build a sales and marketing team, or hire HR professionals. The speed they are moving, combined with the funding they have raised, is often enough to power through these inevitable growing pains and get to the other side in one piece.

By comparison, slow moving companies often have to live with these challenges for years, until they have the revenue or work available to justify even a part-time position. Until that point, slower moving companies need to make do with the resources they have available, figuring out ways to self manage, spreading sales and marketing across the management team, or using external agencies for ad hoc HR work.

That’s why smaller companies end up having to focus on their core commercial offering, be that building, maintaining and supporting software if you’re a tech start-up, or offering design and development services if you’re an agency like Clearleft. This means that the traditional business functions you’d find in a large company (finance, marketing, HR etc.) end up taking a back seat; either by being distributed across the whole team, or concentrated amongst a small number of operations staff.

Neither of these approaches is ideal. For instance, you can adopt a “many hands make light work” attitude by distributing common admin tasks across the team. But having experienced (and expensive) practitioners spend time on admin isn’t particularly cost-effective. It can also be a little demoralising, especially if colleagues at larger companies don’t have to do this. The other option is to centralise typical business functions amongst a small group of operations staff. This works well for general admin duties, but can be challenging when you start to need specialists skills like sales, marketing or HR. So in the end you just struggle through until you grow big enough to justify these additional roles.

In fast-moving companies, hiring new people is less of a cultural challenge as the team are used to job descriptions fluctuating and new people joining all the time. In a slow-growth company, people get used to the status quo. It can be hard to relinquish part of your job to a new hire, or suddenly find yourself working under a manger when you never had one before. These changes need to be handled with much more care and sensitivity than the typical start-up environment.

Fast-moving companies obviously have their fair share of cultural problems. Still, the pace of change can make it easier to shape the direction of growth. For instance it’s common to see companies between 20-50 people start to define sets of company values. A fast-moving company may reach this point in a year, when the culture is still fairly new and malleable. By contrast a slow-growing company can take years to reach this point, by which time the culture has already solidified. This solidity has many benefits, such as cultural resilience; but it also makes culture change much harder.

These challenges aside, there are a lot of positives in running a slow growth company. For a start there’s a lot less stress involved, and a lot less risk in something going spectacularly wrong. You have much more time to build the right team, and ensure the culture sticks, rather than just papering over the cracks. More importantly, you get to build a sustainable business under your own terms, rather than those of external funders. The biggest benefit for me is where you place your focus.

If you’re focussed on growth above everything else, it’s easy to sacrifice things like quality of service provision. Sometimes this is deliberate—like hiring less talented staff to meet current staffing needs, or winning less interesting work than you want, just to pay the bills. More often than not it’s just accidental; the natural result of managing so many spinning plates at once. For me, slow growth allows a company to focus on what really matters to them, building a sustainable business focussed on quality.

Of course some businesses need to grow fast in order to gain the economies of scale they need to survive; to jump over that chasm to a world of profitability. There are plenty more businesses who have found themselves forced to grow needlessly fast; either as a result of pressure from investors, or the founders’ own desire for scale. Many potentially sustainable businesses end up growing beyond their means and burning out too soon. I know the goal with many businesses is to “go hard or go home”, but I’d prefer to see 100 successful start-ups making 10 million in revenue each, than one billion dollar unicorn and 99 failed ventures.

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We won the moral argument but did we lose the business case for UX? | February 11, 2016

When we first started Clearleft 10 years ago, the bulk of my effort was focussed on explaining to clients what user experience design was, the extra value it offered, and why design needed to be more than just moving boxes around the screen. I’m pleased to say that it’s been a long time since I’ve had to explain the need for UX to our clients. These days clients come to us with a remarkable understanding of best practice, and a long list of requirements that contain everything from research, strategy, prototyping and testing, through to responsive design, mobile development and the creation of a modular component library. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of the average digital project has soared over the past 10 years, but so has the effort involved.

This isn’t unusual and happens across all kinds of industries as they develop and become more professional. You only have to look at the advances in health care over the last 50 years to see the dramatic rise in quality. Back in my childhood, the most advanced diagnosis tool was probably the X-ray. These days a whole battery of tests are available, from ECGs to MRIs and beyond. The bar has been raised considerably, but in the process, so has the average cost of patient care.

Over the past few years I’ve seen client expectations rise considerably, but digital budgets have remained largely unchanged. We’ve done an amazing job of convincing digital teams that they need proper research, cross-platform support, and modular style guides, but somehow this isn’t filtering back to the finance departments. Instead, design teams are now expected to deliver all this additional work on a similar budget.

I believe one of the reasons for this apparent lag is that of tempo. Despite the current received wisdom of continual deployment, most traditional organisations still bundle all their product and service improvements into a single big redesign that happens once every 4 or 5 years. Most traditional organisations’ understanding of what a digital product should cost is already half a decade out of date. Add to this the fact that it takes most large organisations a good 18 months to commission a new digital product or service, launch it, then tell whether it’s been a success, and you have all the hallmarks of a terrible feedback loop and a slow pace of learning.

I think another problem is the lack of experienced digital practitioners in managerial positions with budget setting authority. It’s relatively common for digital budgets to be set by one area of the company, completely independently from those setting the scope. Project scope often becomes a sort of fantasy football wish list of requirements, completely untethered from the practical realities of budget.

I couldn’t begin to tell you the number of projects we’ve passed on the last couple of years because their budgets were completely out of whack with what they wanted to achieve; or the number of clients who have asked for our help when their previous project failed, only to discover that the reason was probably due to their previous agency agreeing to deliver more than the budget would actually allow. These organisations end up spending twice as much as they could have done, because they wanted to spend half as much as was necessary—the classic definition of a false economy.

Fortunately once you’ve made this mistake once, you’re unlikely to make it again. Speed of learning is hugely important. In fact I think the organisations that will fare best from the effects of digital transformation are those who can up their tempo, fail faster than their competitors, learn from their mistakes, and ensure they don’t happen again. Basically the standard Silicon Valley credo.

It is possible to avoid some of these mistakes if you hire strategically. I’ve seen a fairly recent trend of hiring in-house digital managers from the agency world. You end up hiring people who will have delivered dozens of projects over the past 5 years, rather than just one or two. These people also tend to be fairly savvy buyers, knowing which agencies have a good reputation, and which are little more than body shops.

As for us practitioners, I think we’ve done a great job of convincing our peers on the value of good UX design and digital best practices. We now need to up our effort getting that message across to the people commissioning digital services and setting budgets, to ensure we can actually deliver on the claims we’ve made.

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The Industrialisation of Design (or why Silicon Valley no longer hires UX designers) | February 3, 2016

Despite having their roots in Silicon Valley, UX designers are a rare breed inside traditional tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. In some cases they are so rare that other designers claim UX design doesn’t even exist. As a result I thought it would be interesting to explore where this attitude has come from, to see if it can hint at where our industry is heading.

In my (largely anecdotal) experience, Silicon Valley startups are focussed on hiring product designers at the moment. If you haven’t come across the product designer term before, you can think of them as next generation web designers; talented generalists with an affinity towards mobile and a desire to create great digital experiences for all.

While hiring product designers is all the rage at the moment, that hasn’t always been the case. Many early stage start-ups were originally conceived by individuals who considered themselves user experience designers. Many of these individuals have subsequently moved into design leadership roles at companies like Amazon, Adobe and IBM.

UX design is undoubtedly a specialism, focussing on the strategic and conceptual aspects of design, rather than the more tangible elements of UI. In that regard it has close similarities with service design, but is typically scoped around digital experiences. As practitioners traditionally came to UX design later in their careers, either through Information Architecture and Human Computer Interaction, or UI design and front-end development, there are naturally fewer experienced UX Designers than other disciplines.

This lack of supply, combined with increased demand, started to cause problems. Thankfully, a rising awareness around the general concept of user experience (as opposed to the practice of user experience design) saw more and more UI designers explore this space. Designers started to gain an increased sensitivity towards the needs of users, the demands of different platforms, and an understanding of basic interaction design practices like wireframes and prototypes. A new hybrid began to emerge in the form of the product designer; somebody who understood the fundamentals of UX Design, but retained their focus on tangible UI design.

The viability of the Silicon Valley product designer was made possible by several interesting trends. First off, tech companies started to hire dedicated design researchers; a role that UX designers would often have done themselves. They also started to hire dedicated product managers, releasing the need for designers to engage in deep product strategy. The has led many experienced UX designers to follow careers in research and product management, while others have moved towards IoT and service design.

At the same time, the rise of design systems has reduced the reliance on traditional craft skills. Rather than having to create interfaces from scratch, they can now be assembled from their component parts. This has allowed product designers to spend more time exploring newer fields of interaction design like animated prototypes. You could argue that thanks to design systems, product designers have become the new interaction designers.

This is further helped by companies with a vibrant developer culture and a focus on continual release. Rather than having to spend months researching and strategising, you can now come up with a hunch, knock up a quick design, launch it on a small subset of users and gain immediate feedback.

As a result of these infrastructure changes, tech companies no longer need people with deep UX expertise at the coalface. Instead these skills are now centred around management and research activities, allowing the companies to grow much faster than they otherwise would.

However this approach is not without growing pains, as I learnt when chatting to a design team director at one of the big tech companies recently. There was definitely a sense that while the new breed of product designers were great at moving fast and delivering considerable change, they lacked some of the craft skills you’d expect from a designer. Instead, design languages, prototyping tools, research teams and multi-variant testing were maybe acting as crutches, hiding potential weaknesses. There was also a concern that product designers were so focussed on the immediate concerns of the UI, they were struggling to zoom out, see the big picture and think more strategically.

All these concerns aside, it’s easy to see why, inside the tech industry bubble, UX design may no longer be recognised as a distinct thing.

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