Universal wage | July 2, 2016

Stories of mass underemployment due to the rise of Artificial Intelligence have been popping up all over the place the past 18 months. It would be easy to dismiss them as crack-pot theories, were it not for the credibility of their authors; from scientists like Stephen Hawkins to industrialists like Elon Musk.

Self driving cars seem to have gone from science-fiction fantasy to real world fact, in a matter of months, and the worlds transport workers are right to be concerned. Uber are already talking about making their drivers redundant with fleets of self driving taxies, while various local governments are experimenting with autonomous bus services. However the real employment risk comes from the huge swathes of haulage vehicles which could be made redundant. This won’t happen soon, but I suspect our roads will be 30% autonomous vehicles by 2030.

While it’s easy to assume that AI will only affect blue collar jobs, as we saw with the automation of manufacturing, I’m not so sure. I’m currently using an Artificially Intelligent PA to book my meetings and manage my calendar. It’s fairly crude at the moment, but it won’t be long before internet agents will be booking my travel, arranging my accommodation, and informing the person I’m meeting that I’m stuck in traffic. All things that are possible today.

Jump forward 20 years and I can see a lot of professional classes affected by digital disruption and the move to AI. In this brave new future, how will governments cope with rising unemployment?

One idea that’s been raised by both right and left is that of a Universal Wage. Put simply, every citizen would automatically receive a small, subsistence payment at the start each month. This would be enough to cover basic expenses like food and accommodation, but it wouldn’t guarantee a high quality of life, so most people would still choose to top up their incomes through work.

Unlike unemployment benefits, people don’t lose their universal wage if when they do work, removing a huge disincentive for many people. Instead this provides greater flexibility in the type of work people are able to do. For instance carers could fit work around their caring duties or students around college. As such, the Universal Wage supports the current trend we’re seeing towards the gig economy.

This may seem like an impossibly expensive solution, but various economic studies have shown it to be just about feasible today with only a marginal rise in tax. The reason it’s not more comes in part from the savings it would provide to the state. No more judging benefits on means, or policing infractions. Just a simple monthly payment for all.

The left love this policy for the social equality it brings. People can now spend their time in education and training, raising families and caring for loved ones, or exploring the arts. The right like it for similar reasons; empowering individual entrepreneurship while simultaneously reducing the size of government.

Several Universal Wage experiments are taking place around the world at the moment, so it will be interesting to see what the findings bring.

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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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Why do agency account managers exist? | January 26, 2016

This morning Alison Austin asked the question…

It’s a valid question and one I’ve often wondered myself. As a company we’ve always been resistant to hiring dedicated account managers, having seen the worst excesses of our industry. I remember chatting to an account manager from a large digital agency, during a BBC supplier evening a few years back. She bragged at how she only got the job because she went to the same private school as one of their major clients and had a lifetime membership to The Ivy. It seemed her job largely involved getting clients drunk.

I suppose this is what account management was like back in the days of Madmen. You would win a big “account” made up of multiple smaller projects, then do everything you could to keep the client sweet. This is somewhat understandable when I remember another conversation I had a few years back, with the marketing manager from a large fizzy drink brand. He explain that their agency selection process involved picking 3 agencies from the NMA top 100 list each year, hiring one, and firing one of their incumbents. In this environment of fear, is it any wonder why agencies would do everything in their power to curry favour?

Fortunately I’ve only experienced this attitude once in my professional life. It was in the early days of our company and we’d just had a really positive meeting with a prospective client, so we invited them to lunch. From the booze fest that followed, it was clear these folks were used to being entertained; as they explained how they judged their agencies on the quality of restaurants they got taken to.

In some ways I could understand the attitude. I got the sense that they weren’t especially well paid (or indeed respected) by their company, so agency entertaining was one of the few perks of the job. However I looked back on the episode thinking that if we had to win work based on our ability to entertain clients rather than our ability to deliver, we would have failed as an agency.

While this attitude may still exist in some corners of our industry, it’s not one I recognise anymore. I like to believe that the majority of projects in the digital sector are awarded based on skill, experience, quality and price. So if the Madmen age is over, what do modern account managers do?

For very large accounts spanning multiple projects, the account manager acts as a constant presence on the project, ensuring the needs of the client are met. They’ll have a good understanding of the big picture challenges the client is facing, and be able to share those insight with the individual teams. They will also be there to help solve problems and smooth over any bumps in the road; essentially acting as the client champion within the organisation.

From the agencies perspective, they are also there as a consultant; helping to develop the client as a longer term prospect. This means working with the client to find new opportunities to solve their problems, possibly in areas the client didn’t know they had experience in.

In smaller agencies, this role is often done by the founder, project managers and project leads. In larger companies it’s centralised amongst a small number of account executives. It’s an important role, but not without it’s challenges.

Speaking with friends at agencies with a strong account management ethic, common gripes often come up. The main one being less experienced account managers promising clients new features with little understanding of what’s entailed. This is especially problematic on fixed price, fixed scope projects where margins are tight.

I tend to hear more concerns around account management from clients, who often feel that account managers are either too overtly sales driven (constantly trying to get them to spend more money) or acting as blockers between them and the people working on their projects.

Too often, these problems are caused by a misalignment between the clients needs and the way account managers are being judged and remunerated. Either that to it’s a reflection on poor agency practices and an attempt to keep clients at arms length, possibly to hide an ever changing team of junior practitioners and freelancers.

As such, while I understand the benefits of larger agencies hiring a small number of very experienced account managers, with a solid understanding of the industry, a large number of junior account managers always feel like a bit of a warning sign to me. However as somebody who has never really experienced account management first hand (good or bad) I’d love to know what you think?

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The Death of the Agency Has Been Greatly Exaggerated | March 10, 2015

If I lived and worked in San Fransisco, the current “death of the agency” debate may have slightly more poignancy than it does in the UK. San Francisco and the wider Silicon Valley is undoubtedly living through a huge tech bubble, and has been for some time. The slew of new tech businesses quickly hoovered up the local talent, before starting to ship them in from around the country and the rest of the world. This includes dozens of Brits I know who have left these shores for a better life in California.

The tech giants have started to reach their local hiring event horizon, which is one of the reasons they’ve started setting up outposts in London - to gather up all the local designers and developers they couldn’t (or wouldn’t necessarily want to) relocate.

They’ve also started poaching local agency staff or even buying out whole agencies for their talent. So I know at least 4 agency founders who have been bought by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google the last few years. It would seem like design staff are now valued at around $1-2m per head as part of an acquihire, similar to their developer counterparts.

Does this mean the end of the agency? Well if I was running an agency in San Fransisco, I may start to worry. It’s a hostile hiring environment and a difficult place to recruit. After all how do you compete with 6-figure salaries, free staff canteens, company climbing walls and a host of other perks?

However that presumes that everybody at an agency want’s to go in-house. Working for an agency has a number of perks, not least the ability to cycle through a whole range of different problems and challenges during the year, rather than focussing on one single product. So maybe you’d prefer to use your design skills to help a charity, rather than optimising ad placement for a wealthy-beyond-belief tech company. Or perhaps you’d like to help improve the digital services offered by your local council, rather than inventing a new way to poke people online?

Not every design or development role at a tech company will be rewarding, even if the salary and environment are. Several friends on mine have described the acquihire scenario as retirement. Getting off the difficult design or development treadmill and settling for a gentler pace of life.

This rings true when you consider that most of the recent agency sales have been companies who are 10-years older or more. Many of these agencies have seen co-founders leave to work with large tech-companies or follow their own entrepreneurial ideas. If this is the environment you’re working in, I can definitely understand some agency founders wanting to get off the merry-go-round and have a more stable existence.

While some of these sales have been a graceful exit for agencies struggling to find business, the majority have been agencies at the peak of their careers, with big order books and companies falling over each other to work with them. So I hardly think that’s a sign of difficulty. If anything I think it demonstrates the ability of agencies to hire great talent, build brand and create demand.

After all, not every company is able to hire a kick arse team, so need to turn to agencies for help instead. Outside the Silicon Valley tech bubble there are all kinds of organisations that need our help, from online retailers to household brands, from universities and charities to museums and public bodies.

Some of these organisations are waking up to the need to upscale and bring some of their digital capabilities in house. As such agencies like ours are as used to integrating with in-house teams as they are working on their own. In fact a lot of clients come to us to help them improve the skills of their digital staff and set a standard, patterns and working practices they can follow. So we augment, extend and provide external perspective, rather than simply offering outsourced delivery.

The skills and resources required by digital transformation are vast, and I believe it’s going to be impossible for every company that has a digital component to resource it completely internally and maintain quality. So while monocultures like Silicon Valley may turn into agency wastelands, large and diverse cities like London, New York and Tokyo will always need a healthy and robust agency culture to both supplement and extend their digital capabilities.

Now this doesn’t mean that agencies won’t struggle. With services like SquareSpace and Shopify eating into the lower end of the market, I think many smaller agencies or individuals will find it difficult to complete. As such I think it’s even more important for agencies to work their way up the value chain than ever before. Otherwise they may find their market slowly eaten up by self-service products and white-labled tools.

On the positive side, this means that agencies will inevitably be forced to get better at what they do, raising the quality for everybody. This can only be a good thing in my books. Sure, a few agencies will wobble along the way, while others will sell their studio and move on. But for every large agency that exists, I see dozens more waiting in the wings, and boy, are some of them good.

So is the agency culture dead? Far from it! If anything it’s the healthiest I’ve ever seen it.

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My Concerns about Value Pricing | February 5, 2015

While I think the argument for value pricing has a logical constancy, and sounds great in theory, I worry how it will end up being applied in practice. My main concern is the effect this approach will have on the practice of design and our relationship with clients, although I have a number of practical concerns as well.

The ultimate goal of value pricing is to tie the amount you charge to the value you deliver, rather than the time you’ve spent. After all, the argument goes, the client only really cares about achieving their goals, and not the time you spent getting there. Clients aren’t buying time, they’re buying results.

On first inspection this feels like a perfectly reasonable argument. After all, if your car breaks down you really just want it working again, irrespective of how long it’s going to take. In fact what you really want is a fixed price, rather than the fear that your mechanic will present you with an ever expanding bill you have no choice but to pay. So from the customers perspective, value pricing feels like a good deal.

Value pricing advocates will often say that fixed pricing take the risk away from the customer and put it in the hands of the supplier. So in our car example, the mechanic quickly determines that the problem is most likely a broken exhaust, and gives the customer a fixed price based on all the times they’ve done similar projects in the past. If this job ends up being especially tricky, it’s not really the fault of the client so why should they pay extra? While if the mechanic finishes the job quicker, they can squeeze in an extra job that day and make a bit of money.

Of course this also means that the customer won’t get any benefit if the mechanics realises they can patch the exhaust rather than fitting a whole new system. The customer may also feel a little hard done by if they thought they were getting a new exhaust, only to find that the car breaks down again a few months later. However that’s part of the risk of a fixed price contract that focusses on results rather than approach or methodology. As such I suspect there are ways to structure a value priced contract that helps mitigate this issue.

The problems with fixed price contracts are fairly well known in our industry, so I won’t go into too much detail. However there is a tendency for value-pricing advocates to pick relatively simple examples like that of a mechanic to illustrate the benefits of their approach. Now I don’t think this is a surprise, as I believe value pricing works best for problems that are relatively simple and replicable, like fixing a car or doing a tax return for a small company. Sure there will always be some variance, but it’s usually not that great, and is likely to even out over time.

Design and development services aren’t like fixing a car. Often we’re dealing with very complex problems, the full scope of which only comes to light when we’re half-way through the project. In fact a big part of the project is usually figuring out what the problem is in the first place, making accurate estimation almost impossible. We’re also dealing with problems that vary immensely depending on the companies involved. So the same problem in a large and bureaucratic business could take five times as long as with a small and highly engaged team.

It’s issues like these that prompted the agile movement, and especially agile pricing. While I’m sure it’s possible to blend the two, most of the value pricing advocates I’ve spoke to still adopt a relatively traditional approach to contract negotiation, locking down the scope in order to prevent scope creep. As such this feels like a bit of a backwards step to me.

Up to this point we’ve talked a lot about the fixed nature of value pricing, but we haven’t tackled the issue of price setting. Going back to our car example, our value-pricing mechanic would start by asking the owner a range of questions to determine how important the car was to the driver. So they may ask how much the car was worth, what sort of job the owner had, whether there was a second car in the family, whether the driver had any important meetings coming up, or any commitments they needed the car for that week. If it turned out that the driver needed their car for a big meeting tomorrow the mechanics would price the job higher than if the person was going on holiday for a week and was happy to wait.

This all seems fairly reasonable so far. The fat cat executive gets charged a bit more while the family man has to pay less. However what happens when the mechanise decides that they only want to work for fat-cat business men and women who can afford to pay more?

This is my main worry about value pricing. It used to be that agencies would choose projects based largely on the design or technical challenge. Sure the clients would still need to pay, but a metered rate provided some level of fairness and democracy. Like hopping into a taxi, as long as you could afford to pay the fair, the taxi driver doesn’t mind whether you’re on the way to a business meeting or just seeing the sights. Everybody is treated equally. However with value pricing the driver will ask you a bunch of probing questions to decide whether they can make more money off of you, or wait for somebody more profitable to come along.

As such, there seems something inherently unfair and mean-spirited about value-pricing. Like when a hotel charges you five times more for something from the mini-bar than you’d pay at the corner store. You understand that you’re paying extra for the convenience of not having to leave your room, but it doesn’t feel especially nice being taken advantage of that way.

This brings up one of the big issues of value pricing, which is transparency. If you’re a customer buying digital services, you’re probably dealing with other agencies who charge by time and publish their day rates. As such you probably have a pretty good understanding of what the market rates are and what different agencies of differing abilities, experiences and reputations charge. This allows you to compare one proposal to another, based on how much they charge and how much time they are proposing to spend.

By comparison, companies who engage in value pricing typically refuse to give a day rate or detail how much time they will spend or how the proposal was put together As such you simply have to believe that they will do as good a job as the other companies who are more transparent with their approach. Because of this I can definitely see why some clients would struggle with the concept of value pricing and fear they may be being taken advantage of.

The main approach to value pricing is to figure out what the client values and charge accordingly. So some clients may value a quick delivery while others may value deep engagement. Some may value an immediate spike in traffic while others may value the lasting power of good design. Putting a figure on esoteric values like brand or engagement is difficult, if not impossible, so I worry that value-based agencies will priorities easy to track metrics like profitability. This may encourage them to chase projects that offer quick wins and big payoffs, over projects than deliver harder to track but no-less meaningful value.

I’d hate to live in a world where the best design and development agencies priorities working with banks, oil companies and large retailers, over arts institutions, charities and local government, purely because it’s easier to quantify the value you deliver to these types of organisations, and charge them more. As such this new interest in value pricing does somewhat worry me and I hope it doesn’t signal a slide into a more money focussed and less caring era of design.

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Introduction to Value Pricing | November 25, 2014

I think most designers would agree that design has a huge amount to offer businesses in terms of differentiating products, solving complex problems and delivering increased value to consumers. I think most designers would also agree that this ability is often ignored or seriously undervalued by those same businesses.

Value pricing is an attempt to redress the balance by pricing work based on the value it delivers to clients rather than the time it takes to create. The argument goes that the value of a logo, like the Coca-cola logo, is often worth more than the hours that went into its creation. So whether the final creation took a team of branding experts 6-months, or was sketched on the back of a napkin during the first meeting, the value to the client-and hence the cost-should be the same.

This can be best illustrated by the fable of the plumber, who when asked to fix a boiler, pulls out her hammer, hits the boiler in exactly the right spot to get it working, then asked for £100. When the homeowner questions how she could justify such a high charge for so little work, the plumber responds by saying “that was £10 for me hitting it with the hammer and £90 for knowing where to hit”. The implication of this story is two-fold. First off the plumber wasn’t charging for her time on the job, but for all the years of training that led up to that point, and ultimately the customer wasn’t paying for the time either, bit for a working boiler.

It’s a great story and one that makes a lot of sense. After all, there are plenty of circumstances where you care more about the output than the time it took you to get there. In fact with time being so precious, getting there quicker can often be worth more. This is one reason why Concord was always more expensive than a 747, and why some people will pay more for an abridged audio book than the full version - because they value their own time over completeness.

Designers often struggle to price projects based on the value of their work, so typically sell their time instead. As such, the only way to earn more money is to increase their day rate or sell more hours. So when you see news stories of that latest multi-million dollar rebrand, you can’t help but wonder whether all that time was strictly necessary to come up with final logo, or whether it was the agency trying to justify extra revenue through unnecessary focus groups and consultation.

By contrast, value pricing takes elapsed time out of the equation and tries to focus on outcomes instead. That way it doesn’t matter if it takes one month to solve the problem or six if the problem still gets solved to the clients satisfaction. If you’re good at what you do (read “efficient at solving problems”) you’re able to generate much more profit than simply billing on time alone.

Value pricing seems to require a little more work up front as you need to spend time understanding what the client values before you can come up with a figure. For instance, are they willing to pay more for the project to start sooner, or for access to specific experts. Are they looking to hit specific revenue targets by a certain date, or are they more interested in developing out the capabilities of their team? Do they need every page designed and built, or would some kind of pattern portfolio deliver more value? Now none of the questions are exclusive to value proving, but you do need to spend more time uncovering these issues when you take this approach.

Value pricing also seems to imply fixed scope contracts, as you need to define exactly what value you’re proposing to deliver to what price. So there’s an interesting question as to whether value pricing can work alongside agile practices.

On the whole I think value pricing is a very interesting concept and one that I’ve seen come up more frequently over the past few years. Possibly because designers are feeling ever more squeezed to produce more for clients on less. So I can definitely see why people are attracted by the concept. However I also see a number of challenges with this approach, not least that fact that it’s not how the majority of agencies price their work.

In my next post on the subject of pricing I’m going to flag up some of the issues I see with value pricing. Then I’m going to look at the more traditional approach of time-based pricing, paying particular attention to agile pricing. Finally I’ll end things up with a short summary and a list of places you can go to find out more information on this subject.

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Better design through Web Governance | February 8, 2014

I meet a lot of in-house designers in the course of my travels and the same frustrations keep bubbling up - how can I convince the company I work for to take my expertise seriously. It seems that companies have a pathology of hiring highly talented people but taking away the decision making abilities they need to do their job.

Quite often the people at the top of the business know what is broken and are trying desperately to fix it, while the people at the coal face can see the solutions but are unable to act. So whats going on here?

It seems to me that theres a mid level of management responsible for turning strategy into tactics. So its their job to understand the business goals and communicate them to the experts in a way that ensures the problems find a good solution. If this was their only responsibility, I think we’d be in a good place. However a lot of the time this middle tier also start filtering solutions and this is where things start to go wrong.

Im a firm believer that the people with the most experience in a particular facet of business should be the ones making the decisions for that facet. As such it would be nonsensical for the tech team to be making core financial decisions, as it would for the finance department to drive the technical infrastructure. So why do product managers, designers and UX practitioners constantly find their recommendations being overridden by managers from different departments with little experience in digital.

I think one of the problems lies in the hierarchical approach to management which is a layover of the industrial age. There has always been the assumption that as you rise up the hierarchy you gain more knowledge than the people below you and are therefore more capable of making important decisions.

However in the knowledge age this process is often reversed, with the people at the top forced to rely on the experts below them. Sadly a lot of mid level managers still believe they are in the former model and end up prioritising their opinions over the expertise of others.

This is one reason why I really like the idea of Web Governance. The idea is simple to put in place a governance strategy that explains how decisions get made in the digital sphere.

Web Governance allows an organisation to identify the experts in a range of different disciplines and cede responsibility for those areas over to them, even if they happen to be lower in the organisational hierarchy. For instance, the governance document may state that a senior stakeholder has responsibility for delivering a set of business objective and metrics, but that UI decisions are the ultimate responsibility of the head of UX.

Imagine working in an organisation where the head of UX actually had genuine responsibility for the user experience of their product and can turn down bad poor ideas if they cant be demonstrated to be in the service of a specific set of business outcomes.

Of course, there will be times when these issues clash, so the governance document needs to include information about who needs to be consulted on various decisions. However the goal here is to encourage discussion and negotiation over blanket control based on status alone.

The main thing here is to clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of each individual, rather than have them implied by status or inferred by domain. Its also about breaking out of the traditional corporate hierarchy and allowing experts to have decision making responsibilities that can override more senior members in certain well defined areas.

Web governance feels like an effective solution to me and all the documentation I’ve reason on the subject so far seems extremely logical and positive. So if you’re struggling to get your expertise heard, maybe its time to start thinking about a governance strategy.

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Most Web Design Agencies Suck | March 5, 2012

Over the years Ive heard plenty of designers moan about their clients. Ive also witnessed a recent outburst of complaints against authors and speakers on Twitter. However the group that rarely comes under fire in public, but probably should, are the mass of terrible agencies out there.

Through my travels I get to speak to lots of designers and developers, and am constantly amazed by how smart, knowledgeable and engaged these folks are. These people care passionately about doing the right thing, but are thwarted time and time again. Its not clients getting in the way and its definitely not the bloggers and authors building their influence. Its the companies they work for actively preventing them from doing good work.

Cutting corners

Good design takes time, but in the desire to win work, sales people, account managers and company owners continually force their staff to do more with less. The culture of winning work at all costs forces good designers and developers to do bad things, forcing them to compromise their work and act in ways that go against their better nature. They are fed a lie that we just need you to cut corners this one time but cutting corners is addictive and one youve done it once youll continue to do it again and again.

It is any wonder? The agency world is filled with middlemen preventing the makers from driving the projects. Its full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work. Its full of account handlers who are supposed to act as client champions but instead seem there to sell extra services while simultaneously making clients feel good about the money they are spending. And its full of company founders who knew how things were done 10 years ago, but are now woefully out of date and motivated more by profit than good design.

Hidden charges

I constantly see clients being sold inappropriate solutions by convincing sales people so they can meet their monthly targets. Once the project has been won its somebody elses job to deal with the fall-out. Very often these sales people go in cheap to win projects and then make the money up through hidden charges and change requests. Recently we had a prospective client ask us to send them our charge sheet as they wanted to know how much we charged for faxes, photocopying and other sundries. It turned out that their previous agency charged one pound fifty per printout and they were left with a printing bill running into the thousands. Its one thing to cover your costs but its another thing to make this a hidden revenue stream.

Resulting bad morale

I also keep coming up against designers who know they are designing or building a feature that nobody wants and could actually be detrimental to the product, simply because it was in the initial spec and nobody thought to push back. Either that or they were actively told not to push back as losing that feature would mean billing less.

In order to keep profitability high, companies try to maximise billing efficiency and end up burning their staff out at a rate of knots. They will fill this churn with hoards of juniors on relatively low salaries but painfully high day rates. This is appalling value for clients, but looks good on the end of year report.

Other ways of keeping costs down include forcing staff to work on redundant equipment and restricting access to training and conferences. In recent months Ive met designers suffering through daily crashes because of their ancient machines, and having to fight over measly conference budgets that are dished out like rewards rather than training.

These agencies will undoubtedly have a few seniors spread throughout their ranks. However they will usually be reserved for important pitches and their most high profile clients. So despite being sold on the agencies expertise, unless youre paying big money youll end up with a junior team, if youre lucky.

Middle-men to freelancers

So many agencies win work first and then try to resource later. Im constantly meeting freelancers that get brought into projects at the last minute and are forced to lie about their status as a freelancer. Many of these freelancers end up having to run the projects themselves with little or no support from their paymasters. So while clients buy into the seniority of the team, then end up getting none of the benefits. In many cases web design consultancies can be little more than employment agencies, hiring people in cheaply and simply slapping a margin on their day rate.

I was recently having a pint with a friend who informed that that out of the 200+ people in his design and development agency, just 10 were designers and 20 were developers. To that they had a 60 person sales team, 40 project managers, 20 account handlers, and then a load of admin people. People came to this NMA top 100 agency for their expertise, when the majority of their work was actually executed by freelancers, unbeknownst their clients of course. The agency was little more than an admin and sales front, being fed large amounts of money and excreting mediocre design.

I regularly receive emails from frustrated designers telling me about the appalling conditions they are forced to work in. The fact that they feel over worked, under valued and under resourced. One recent email correspondent explained that they worked for an agency with an enviable reputation, with clients ranging from premier league football clubs and multinational companies, to start-ups but every minute is billable, so there is no time for learning or development. This person went on to say that there is no interaction or praise for work well done and that It appears that money and profit really are the most important factors. I wish emails or conversations like this were unusual, but sadly they are the norm.

Dont stand for it

Im not sure what if anything can be done about these agencies. Except for designers leaving these battery farms to set up their own more ethical firms. However before making that next snarky comment about clients on Twitter, have a think about the terrible service most of them are getting from their agencies and then question whether their comments or concerns may in some way, be justified.

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Why designers are holding themselves back | December 3, 2011

Have you every been in the situation where the client keeps requesting tweaks to the design or changes in functionality? As you sit moving boxes around the page, the budget is slowly draining away and you’re no longer sure whether the project can be completed on target? In these situations what do you do? Some designers will push back on the client, claiming that these changes were never in the agreed brief and that they had only budgeted for 2 or 3 rounds of design. Others will simply swallow the cost in the hope that the changes are almost finished and in the knowledge that they’ll never find themselves in this situation again. Well not until the next time.

If this is a familiar situation to you, it’s because you’re a designer. This isn’t an unusual experience. Instead it happens to almost everybody to some degree. It’s just the nature of the game; and it’s completely your fault.

Clients come to us with little idea how much a website should cost. Often this is the first website they have ever commissioned, or at least the first in several years. So they assemble a list of agencies, put out a loose brief, and wait for the estimates to come in. If the client has done their homework and selected designers of similar quality and experience, the variation in prices isn’t that great. However most shortlists are assembled in a more scatter gun approach and the resulting estimates can range from the high thousands to the low hundreds of thousands. With little knowledge to base their decisions on, how do they choose?

As humans we don’t carry around a constant notion of value in our heads. Especially not for something we’re inexperienced at purchasing. Instead we take input from our surroundings and make a decision from the range of options availible. So if you’re an inexperienced wine drinker, you walk into the shop, take a look at the different shelves and map your purchasing decisions on to the range of prices available, some perceived notion of quality (often the design of the bottle) and the occasion you’re purchasing for (do I want a cheap wine to take to a party, a mid priced wine a a gift for a friend or an expensive one for a special occasion).

Market prices are dictated by the availability of suitable alternatives. So when an average client is faced with a group of undifferentiated agencies, they will inevitably decide based on price. I’m sorry to say that this is your fault as a designer. You’ve failed to differentiation yourself from the other suppliers and demonstrate why you are worth a price premium. You’ve failed to show that you have a stronger focus on quality, that you have a better team or that your process will help ensure that they’ll get the solution they want. When this happens you’re faced with two alternatives. You can choose to compete on price, or you can walk away.

Sadly far too many designers choose to compete on price. We enjoy what we do so much, we’ll do it for free in our spare time. So when somebody says they are willing to pay useven if it’s less than what we wantedwe feel flattered and eagerly accept the challenge. The desire to create is so strong in most of us, it clouds our judgement.

Budget conscious clients have a knack of sensing this desperation and a skill at holding designers to ransom. I’ve met far too many designers who have taken projects at or below cost and signed all their rights away just to have a big name brand in their portfolio. Music clients are especially adept at this, but they’re not the only ones. These clients see designers as a mere commoditythere will always be hungrier and more desperate designer around the corner for them to use.

The problem is, when a professional relationship begins with a compromise, it’s very difficult to gain your power back. And to create good design solutions you really need to be in the driving seat, with the client acting as navigator. One compromise on price leads to another compromise on quality and very soon you find yourself a supplier rather than a partner, having to acquiesce to every demand.

We think that budget conscious clients are the norm, but they’re really not. Most clients want to balance between cost and value, while the best ones are willing to pay a price premium for quality. However if you’re unable to differentiate yourself from the competition, price becomes the only deciding factor.

As designers we think that it’s the prospective client that holds the cards. After all, they are the ones with the money and therefore the ability to choose who to work with. This is exacerbated by the pitch, where clients surround themselves by 5 or 6 agencies all competing against each other for the favour of the client. But here’s the dirty little secret in our industry. It’s not the client that has the power, it’s you, the designer.

Clients have the money, but they don’t have the expertise. Design is becoming one of the only business differentiators left, which is why they are coming to you. You, the designer, have something special, something rare and something in demand. The truth is, there are plenty of prospective clients out there, but few good designers to satisfy them. So it’s up to you to drive the engagement, to set your prices and to chose who you work with.

If a client’s budget is too small for you to do a good job, don’t compromise on quality and drop your prices. If you do that you’ll always be stuck in a self imposed price ghetto. Instead, explain to the client why their budget isn’t sufficient and encourage them to reconsider. If you focus on quality while everybody else in the pitch is focussing on price, you’ve successfully differentiated yourself. You may not be able to do this in one leap, but if you push every client to be a little braver, each project you do will be that much better than the last.

If your prospective client isn’t willing to budge on price, it’s a good indication that they won’t be flexible in other areas. In this situation it’s best to walk away. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself working on a project where client expectations exceed what’s possible and everybody loses. These projects become toxic. They sap your energy and eat into your profitability, while delivering little value to the client. Leave these projects for some other poor sap to take on. You’re better than this.

It’s hard leaving money on the table, especially if you don’t know where your next project is coming from. It takes character to turn down a big project from a respected brand, even when you know it’s the right thing to do. However it’s usually worth it. The number of times I’ve seen agencies take on a mediocre project only to have to turn down their perfect client a week later because they are already committed is astonishing. Turning down a project which is under budget closes one door, but you’ve no idea how many other doors this will open in the future.

Some times you have to take what’s offered in order to pay the bills. I just believe that this should be done as a last resort rather than your opening gambit. So let’s stop holding ourselves, our clients and our industry back because we’re so desperate to win work that we’ll drop our prices and compromise on quality. Instead, let’s endeavour to make each successive project we take on better than the last, and in doing so raise the professional standing of our industry and the quality of the web as a whole.

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The Next Learning Thermostat | October 29, 2011

It’s amazing how good industrial design can turn something mundane into a highly desirable product. I wonder what other dull, household objects would benefit from similar treatment?

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The X-factorisation of the Web | September 19, 2011

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a strange and disturbing trend amongst web practitioners.

There was a timenot so long agowhen passionate individuals would blog about their work for no other reason than to share their discoveries. The more prolific of these individuals built up an online reputation and became seen as experts. Some of the more articulate ones were asked to write books or present their thoughts at conferences, and received a modicum of success.

After years of sharing their knowledge freely, some were able to capitalise on their notoriety by securing jobs at interesting companies or setting up small agencies. A few even managed to make a living off publishing books and speaking at conferences, although how they managed this is anybodies guess. However unlike many professional vocations, being a well known designer wasn’t especially well paid, so most folks did it for love not money.

The early web was a meritocracy. Some people became nodes in the network, sharing information freely, and everybody benefited.

As the industry matured, more blogs started popping up, making it harder to get noticed. Micro blogging services like Twitter favoured the early adopters and amplified the voice of a small group of established “names”. This helped create a more personality driven focus which in retrospect may not have been so helpful.

Those arriving late to game didn’t understand the effort that had been put in. To them it must have felt like the industry was already sown up. That there was an existing hegemony bourn not from merit but from being part of a specific cast or social circle.

Many of these people were angry at the elders, crying foul and blaming back room dealings. “The only reason you’re invited to speak at conferences or write articles” they would argue, “is because you’re friends with the organisers.” While it is true that this can help remove some barriers and give people a way in, it’s not the real answer. The real reason why these people continue to be engaged is simple; they’re good at what they do and bring in the crowds.

Iconically what seems to be a long standing hegemony is changing all the time. There are plenty of “usual suspects” on the speaking circuit who were unknowns just a few years ago. However a chronic lack of talent means that once somebody shows a small amount of aptitude, they are pushed into the limelight and quickly become over exposed. So in a few short months you can go from being a new face on the circuit to part of the establishment.

Without seeing or understanding how people got to where they were, a sense of entitlement started to form. “Why should these people get all the fame and fortune” people would think, “when I’m almost certainly as good as they are”. This is said with no irony considering there is little fame, and almost no fortune to be had. Some of this comes from a sense of youthful ignorance. The Dunning-Kruger effect writ large.

Even if you happen to be a genius in the waiting, there are no Svengali’s to pluck you from obscurity and put you on the pedestal you know you deserve. No Simon Cowell’s in the web equivalent of X-factor. Success, as the saying goes, is 1% talent and 99% effort. So if you want to contribute to articles, write books and speak at conferences, you’re the only person in the way.

Just like the bands of old, you need to play the small gigs first. So tweet interesting thoughts, write good content on your blog and speak at local community events. Don’t wait to be asked to speak as these people aren’t mind readers. Instead approach conference organisers with proposal. My first ever public speaking opportunity was at SXSW, not because I was asked but because I offered.

The cream rises to the top so if you’re good, there’s a strong chance you will be discovered eventually. However if you’re mediocre, don’t expect to get noticed and don’t blame others for you short fallings. The industry doesn’t owe you a living and you have to make your own luck.

More importantly, you should consider your motivations. Are you wanting to write books, submit articles, talk at conferences or run a successful start-up because you have a burning desire to share your knowledge and experience with the world? To push the industry forward in some tangible way? Or are you simply doing it to make a name for yourself?

Just like musicians, fame is the medium for sharing your talent with the world, not the end goal. Otherwise you’ll end up like just another X-factor hopefultomorrows chip wrapper.

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Conference Nonsense | September 15, 2011

There’s a lot of nonsense being written about conferences at the moment; so as a regular speaker, organiser and attendee of both free and paid for events, I thought I’d redress the balance.

First off there is a big difference between community driven events and professional conferences. I started a free monthly event called SkillSwap way back in the early naughties and know a stack of people who run similar events now. These FREE events tend to rely on local speakers (who typically don’t charge), community organisers (who work for free), venue donations (usually from companies or community groups) and the occasional spot of sponsorship to pay for beer and pizza. These FREE events have grown from small local happenings into large community events like HackDay, BarCamp and Design Jam. You’ll often find them run by a whole committee of organisers and bankrolled by big corporations and local sponsors. They are great fun and provide an opportunity for novices to get a flavour for these kinds of events and maybe cut their teeth on the conference circuit.

Next up you have the semi-professional conferences. Events like Build, dConstruct and New Adventures. These type of events are usually run by passionate individuals or small companies who have experienced the value conferences can give, and want to bring some of that magic back to their local community. This is exactly what the newly found members of Clearleft did upon our return from SXSW back in 2005. We paid close to $2k each from our own pockets to attend this event and found it so valuable to our personal and professional lives that we wanted to do something similar (albeit smaller) in the UK.

These kind of events tend to take place outside of major cities (which are cheaper), in quirky venues (which are cheaper) and pick a mixture of established speakers and up-and-coming talent, and expect everybody to pay for their own lunch. If the organisers are lucky, these type of events will cover their costs and pay their organisers a small amount for their troubles. So to give you a scale of reference, each year dConstruct brings in the equivalent of a single web design project for Clearleft (we probably do 20-30 per year). However it takes significantly more effort to organise than one of these projects.

As an individual or small company it is incredibly risky to put on events like this and I know numerous folks who have lost money on their conferences. As such, organising a conference isn’t the path to riches than many people suspect. In fact it’s an incredibly stressful endeavour that is just as likely to see organisers out of pocket. But people continue to organise these events because they love the industry and desperately want to put something back into the community. As such I really feel for these smaller conference organisers when people accuse them of not trying hard enough or profiteering.

Lastly we have the big, expensive conferences that typically happen over multiple days and multiple tracks (which means more speakers and more venue costs) at professional conference venues (which are pricey) in major cities (which are expensive). As these events are over multiple days, attendees expect to be wined, dined and generally looked after. The costs of running an event like this are extremely high, as are the risks of failure. To give you an idea of the scale of these risks, the up front costs of running an event like UX London was around 100,000. So conference organisers try to mitigate some of these risks by picking big name speakers they know will fill seats.

In the article over at tutsplus, the author bemoans the cheek of conference organisers for charging as much as $1k per ticket, calls into question their motivations, and accuses them of either incompetence or profiteering. Just what you’d expect to hear from somebody who has never run such an event. To explain this they do some really hokey pseudo-maths to show how attendees are being ripped off. However rather than pseudo-maths, let’s look at some more realistic figures.

Let’s assume that this $1000 a ticket conference happens over 3 days with 3 tracks and attracts 300 people. That would indicate an income of $300,000. However once you’ve taken off transaction fees you looking at closer to $275,000. Let us assume that the venue day delegate rate is $100 per day which is actually quite low for a major conference venue. This brings the coffers down to $185,000. As a conference organiser you also have to pay the day delegate rate for all your speakers and volunteers. So let’s say there are 10 speakers per day and 10 staff. That brings your balance down to $173,000. If you pay each speaker $2,000, fly them over for $2,000 and put them up in a $250 per night hotel for 5 nights, that brings it down to a scarily low $15,500. Now let’s assume that wifi is charged at $10 per head, per day. Let’s also assume that the AV set-up is $5k $10k in total. This brings you down to a profit of $300 This gives you a loss of $4,700.

Let’s talk about sponsorship. Say that we get 8 sponsors at an average of $4,000 a piece. That works out at an additional $32k in revenue. Now let’s assume that as part of the package each sponsor will get 2 free tickets to the event, as well as 2 stand passes for their staff. That’s 16 tickets we can no longer sell and 32 day delegate rate fees we’ll have to pay to the venue. So knocking $25,600 off the total bill, this leaves us in profit, to the tune of $1,700.

Let’s also assume we’re going to print up goodie bags and give away a notebook and sharpie at a cost of $30, as Eric suggested in the comments. That’s an additional $9k. Most conferences have a pre and post party. Assuming $1k venue fee (which is very cheap) and say $10 per head on drinks. That’s an additional $8k. It’s always nice to take speakers out for a meal to thank them for the effort. Let’s say we take them out for a $100 a head meal, that comes to an extra $3k. Lastly, we’ve also had to hire a professional conference organisers to help manage logistics. Thankfully she charges just $150 per day. However she’s invoiced 40 days work over the last 6 months, which comes to another $6k.

Totting up my figures here I can see that despite an additional 32k of sponsorship income, we’ve still made a loss of $24,300. Next year it looks like this mythical 300 person conference will actually have to put their ticket price up to $1,081 to make sure they break even.

The truth is that conferences are hugely costly to run and what seems like a massive profit to the untrained eye quickly fades to nothing. So what does this mean for conference organisers. Should all conferences be a single day long and only feature unpaid and inexperienced speakers? Should they all take place in second tier cities in low cost venues and force attendees to bring a packed lunch? Or should they be scrapped altogether, in favour of paid for content on a tutorial site as the folks behind tutsplus (an ad supported and paid for content tutorial site) would have us believe? Personally I think not.

Like all things, it’s about the value proposition. If you are time rich and cash poor; reading books, scanning online tutorials and attending free community events makes a lot of sense. However if you’re cash rich and time poor, you may not have the resources to do this. Instead paying $1,000 vs weeks of private study can start to seem like a darned good investment. Especially if you come away with some brand new skills and a few extra business contacts.

As somebody who has attended a lot of conferencesmany of which have come out of my own pocketI can’t begin to count the value I’ve received. I’ve learnt new skills which have allowed me to charge more for my time or at the very least help me out of tricky situations; I’ve met new business prospects and built a network of friends and associates who provide leads and recommendations; I’ve found new staff for my company and met many people who have found jobs via a similar mechanism; and these are just the tangible things. I’ve met speakers who have inspired me and had hallway conversations that have helped crystallize thoughts I’ve been having for months. I find myself explaining techniques or using concepts with clients that I know I picked up at conferences, although I can’t for the life of me remember which ones. There are so many benefits to attending a conference above and beyond the tangible; it’s difficult to put a dollar value on them.

This reminds me of an article I read a while back about researchers trying to put a dollar value on a holiday to see if it’s worth the expense. They calculated that (and I’m making the figures up here) a $1,000 dollar holiday bought you about $3,000 worth of equivalent happiness. I wouldn’t be surprised if attending a conference had a similar effect on both your happiness and your potential profitability.

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Cargo Cults, Artificial Reefs and the East London Tech City | May 16, 2011

Back in November 2010, David Cameron announced plans to turn the Olympic Village in East London into a technology hub to rival Silicon Valley. These type of Grand Plans are great at generating headlines and creating a legacy for all those involved, but how likely are they to succeed? Are we going to inherit a shiny new creative centre in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics, or will it become just another mediocre science park like the ones clinging to the sides of the M4?

It would seem that successive governments have tried to align themselves with the dream of Silicon Valley, with little success. Back in the late 70s and early 80s I grew up in a town called Bracknell which was supposed to be Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley. It had great transport links, a large business park intended to attract high tech companies, and plenty of social housing for all the staff. Companies like 3M and Panasonic moved in to set up offices, but it never really became more than a administrative centre and distribution hub. In part because the economic and regulatory incentives were’t in place, and in part because it just wasn’t a very nice place to live.

Jump forward to the 90s and it seemed that every region of the UK with more than than a couple of web designers wanted to lay claim to the Silicon label, so we laughingly inherited places like Silicon Glenn, Silicon Fen and our very own Silicon Beach. However if a few large, homogenous tech companies fails to make an ecosystem, a dozen small web design agencies definitely doesn’t.

This time around the government has decided to target the start-up community. “Hey”, they must be saying to themselves, “Silicon Valley has start-ups like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Old Street also has a few start-ups. That must mean that Old Street is like Silicon Valley.” As they say this I picture them leaning back in their Chesterfields, hands clasped behind their heads, feeling awfully smug about the mental leap they’ve just made. Silicon Vally has become short-hand for any and all technology, just as Holliwood has become shorthand for the movie industry.

Of course, the idea that East London in any way resembles Silicon Valley shows a distinct lack of understanding about our industry. However it is incredibly flattering that the government are starting to wake up to the importance of the UK tech sector. In a recent report it was suggested that the UK Internet economy contributed 7.2% to the gross domestic product back in 2009, making it the fifth largest sector in the UK, and just two points behind the financial sector. While many other sectors have been struggling, the Internet has been booming.

The cynic in me may attribute this newfound interest in the web as simply a PR opportunity for the government. A way of aligning themselves with a booming part of our economy in the hope of getting some Halo effect. The more practical side of me hopes that the government are really starting to understand the value of the digital economy and invest appropriately. Sadly, while the plans for an East London Tech City are grand, I worry that they are missing the mark.

All Governments have the tendency to think big, and try to solve big problems with big initiatives. Governments also tend to think in a very linear way and don’t often engage in system thinking. As such, there is a certain amount of cargo cultism going on here. The Government understands that big companies like Google and Facebook have big offices in big science parks. So in order to encourage the next generation of UK start-ups they propose building big offices in big science parks. The problem is, I don’t believe that lack of 5,000 square foot offices in East London is necessarily the thing holding the Old Street start-up community back from global domination.

An East London Tech City may well encourage Google to expand or Facebook to set up a significant outpost in the UK. Especially if they get the kind of tax breaks other countries like the Republic of Ireland have giving in the past. However if these new offices are going to be anything less than administrative and sales centres, the large companies need a mass of highly skilled engineers and designers to populate them. At the moment our current education system is critically failing the technology industry, so the only place to find such people is amongst the very start-ups the government are trying to support. Some start-ups may end up being acquired for talent, but more will probably go out of business as their star developers get poached by Google for twice the market rate. As such, the short term effects of the Tech City could potentially be quite damaging. Like putting a large shark in a tank full of minnows and coming in the next morning, surprised to find that it’s eaten them all.

Rather than building a Cargo Cult technology park in order to summon down the great silvery gods from the sky (or in this case, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Mountain View), we need to take a more holistic view of the problem. Instead we need to look at the factors necessary to stimulate and grow an ecosystem. In short we need to create an artificial reef.

One of the fundamental things every marine biologist understands is the need for a nursery; a safe place for young animals to grow and learn, free from major predators. In the marine world this is often the mangrove forests. In the web world it should be the Universities, but is more often than not the small design agencies and in-house web teams. So one of the fundamental things the Government needs to do if they are serious about the digital economy is to protect and replenish these nurseries. So they need to invest in the creation of world class design and technology schools to rival those in the US, while at the same time raising the quality of courses across the board. They also need to make it easier for companies to take on Interns and office juniors, through funding and work experience programs.

When creating an artificial reef, it’s very easy to throw a few concrete blocks in the water in the hope of attracting marine life. However the wrong PH levels in the concrete and animals won’t touch it with a barge pole. Instead, you have to understand the types of habitat particular breeds of animals prefer, and create an environment to suite.

Building an industrial park on the Olympic Site is like building an artificial reef with the wrong PH levels. While some companies may be looking for large building in a big industrial park, that’s not the environment most start-ups are looking for.

Instead creative communities tend to form in areas with low cost, quirky offices in interesting parts of town. They have great independent coffee shops just around the corner, relaxed bars and nice restaurants by up and coming chefs. They have art galleries, independent cinemas and music venues; farmers markets, gastro pubs and small fashion retailers. The also have reasonable transport links and low rents. Places like Shoreditch, Bermondsey and now Dalston in London; Southpark, The Mission and DUMBO in the US.

The above description may sound like a clich or a stereotype (and I am somewhat over egging the pudding here for effect), but if you want to manufacture a new creative hub on the site of the Olympic city you’d probably be better off funding art spaces and offering free rent to independent coffee shop owners than building a traditional enterprise park. Get your architects to create building of character out of brick and stone, rather than giant warehouse sheds. Focus on office space for small and medium sized companies as well as mega corps, and optimise for walking rather than driving. Take a leaf from Malmo council in Sweden, or the folks in Bristol and set up interesting incubators and arts spaces like Minc and the Watershed. Make sure there is high quality training to teach the new generation of technologists, while ensuring the start-up ideas can the funding and support they need.

In short, don’t try to build a scaled down Cargo Cult version of Silicon Valley. Instead create an environment where people can experiment and ideas can propagate. Not through enterprise parks and business centres but through bars and coffee shops. That’s where innovation really happens.

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The app goldrush is over it's time to apply some business sense | April 20, 2011

The rise of smart devices like the iPhone and iPad has led to an application goldrush, with companies racing to stake their claims. In the early days we saw a few lucky pioneers strike gold with novelty apps. There were also a handful of independent developers and well-known brands that invested in user experience and captured the high end of the market.

However, as with most goldrushes, the obvious targets were depleted very quickly. Digital prospectors are arriving to find a very different market, one rife with competition and few obvious deposits to mine. Furthermore, our appetite for apps seems to be dwindling as we fall back on a few must-have staples.

Recent studies have shown that we tend to limit our use to a few core apps and the bulk of others are never opened. Also, smartphone use is still fairly low in the UK, making it difficult to gain scale. So despite newspapers and magazines hailing the iPad as the saviour of the publishing industry, and blue-chip companies rushing to create trophy offerings, does it really make business sense to jump on the app bandwagon?

For a lot of companies the answer is no. Good app design takes a level of time and investment thats hard to justify commercially. Only the international brands have the mindshare and level of traffic they need to guarantee scale. Even then, most rush out poorly designed and undifferentiated products with no real user need. Who, for example, loves a particular generic high street brand enough to download its dedicated store finder when you can get the information from Google?

One common trend is to create near-carbon copies of your website. These apps are often paid-for in an attempt to claw back some revenue from previously free content. However, this is rarely successful because consumers are savvy and mobile usage patterns are quite specific. If youre thinking of creating an app thats almost identical to your web experience, why create it at all? Mobile browsers have come a long way and recent advances in HTML and CSS mean you can now create a mobile-optimised version of your site, which is likely to reach more people anyway, for a fraction of the price.

Im not suggesting that companies shouldnt commission apps, we just need to be careful about what we build and why. Theres still gold in them there hills, but its going to be a lot more difficult to find and a lot more expensive to extract. We need to view apps as a business rather than a faddish get-rich-quick scheme.

This article was originally published in New Media Age.

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Selling Design | April 12, 2011

As the managing director of a design agency, its my job to bring in the business. That means talking to prospective clients, writing proposals and running pitches.

Im lucky to work with some amazingly talented people and together weve developed a strong reputation in the industry. Ive got a huge amount of faith in our team and really believe in what we can achieve. This makes meetings prospective clients for the first time really easy. I simply channel our passion and expertise in the hope that theyll be convinced by our experience, buy into our vision and be infected by our love of good design. This isnt a particularly sophisticated sales approach, but then again Im not a particularly sophisticated salesman, being first and foremost a designer.

I have a good understanding of where our strengths lie, the kind of clients we work best with and the type of projects we excel at. Im also aware of our limitations and know the type of projects and clients we should avoid. This is partly though intuition and partly though experience. Weve resisted the urge to grow, so arent forced to take on every project that comes our way simply to pay the bills. Were proud to be a lifestyle business, so its as much about doing good work as it is making money.

This puts us in the enviable position of being able to be selective about the work we take on. So when I meet prospective clients its as much about assessing the appropriateness of the project and the cultural fit as it is about selling our services. This may sound a little arrogant, but its a sellers market at the moment and we want to lend our services where its going to find most value and deliver the biggest reward. Too often have we taken on the first project that came along, only to have to turn down our ideal project two weeks later because we no longer have capacity. So one of my biggest recommendations is to be selective about the work you do and dont be afraid of turning things down. If anything weve gained more respect and referrals by turning inappropriate work down than by taking it on and doing a half hearted job.

For a long time I assumed that all design agencies took a similar approach to sales, outlining their abilities in an open and honest manner and letting their clients choose the right company for the job. However the more clients and agencies I speak to, the more naive I realise this assumption has been.

For many people the sales process is seen as a game, and like most games the ultimate goal is to win, irrespective of whether youre the right person for the job. So Ive seen lots of projects won by inappropriate companies because theyve come in with a convincing presentation and a hard to beat budget.

Ive talked with large London agencies who apportion up to 20% of a projects potential earning to the pitch. One agency head proudly explained how they researched every person at the pitch meeting in order to find their weaknesses. For example in one instance they found that the MD of a company to which they were pitching was a fan of a particularly expensive watch, so they went out and bought the same watch for their MD so they could bond during the break. I spoke to a client handler at another big agency whose sole value seemed to be the fact that she was a member of the exclusive Ivy club where she would wine and dine prospective customers.

If you think this sounds a little Mad Men youd be right. However cunning sales techniques arent the preserve of the big guys. Ive come across numerous small agencies with equally cunning strategies, like the company who insists on pitching first so they can lay traps for the agencies that follow. Plenty of agencies will overstate their experience or promise things they know they cant deliver, just to win the work. It would seem that game mechanics are in full force. Whenever people are pitched in competition against each other the desire to win will often take over.

As an agency we are often asked to provide creative solutions as part of the pitching process, if only to give our potential clients an understanding of our abilities. To this I refuse, explaining that good design comes from a deep understanding of the problem and close collaboration with the client. Were not being difficult, we just dont work that way. Well happily show off previous work and explain how it solved our clients problems, but we hate turning design into a beauty contest. It can demonstrate craft, but shows none of the underlying thinking.

We even hesitate at giving out ideas. Not because we think ideas are precious, almost the opposite in fact. A myth abounds that good design is about creativity and there is nothing more creative than a unique idea. This may be true in the advertising industry where novelty is a key factor, but it couldt be further from the truth in digital product design. The best ideas are a product of insight and understanding rather than a flash of creativity. The most appropriate solutions come from evaluating and synthesising these ideas based on a deep knowledge of the problem. By providing ideas during the pitch process you run the risk of being judged on something you know to be shallow and inappropriate. Even worse if these ideas become accepted and form the basis of your whole approach. So we feel that its much better to resist the urge of premature ideation and focus on how we get these ideas instead. One method is explainable and repeatable, the other is magic.

The problem is that a lot of people are looking for magic and drama. The pitch is a performance after all, far removed from the skills and abilities you need to actually deliver the goods. So is it any wonder that clients prefer to see an agency creative in colourful trousers and designer glasses excite and enthuse their audience through the power of their ideas alone. That sounds a lot more exciting than an agency explaining that they dont have the answer to your problems but know how to get it. The first process sounds effortless and fun while the second feels uncertain and potentially hard work. How do we know if your ideas are going to be the right ones if we cant see them in the pitch? A perfectly valid question and one that can only be partially answered, thought our experience and track record.

Is this gradual realisation going to change the way I present our services? Probably not! I admit that our sales strategy is incredibly simplistic and naive. I also realise that we lose more work than we could by steadfastly refusing to play the sales game. However I think designers have an obligation to their craft and a duty of care towards their clients, which goes above and beyond their desire to win work. A sort of Hippocratic oath for design. By sticking to your principles from day one I believe you attract the right projects and the right clients, while maximising your chances of success. Lets hope that Im right os the salesmen will have won, and who wants to live in a world designed by salesmen? Not me, thats for sure.

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Stop the press! Design costs money? | March 7, 2011

The most recent guardian technology podcast opened with these headlines

“On this weeks podcast, were looking closely at why a 32×32 pixel digital icon designed for the UK Governments Information Commissioners Office cost 585 of public funds!”

To discuss this topic of national importance, Margaret Manning, the Director of the design agency responsible was bought in and grilled as to why the creation of an icon could have cost so much.

Margaret stated that the actual design and production work would have taken a couple of hours, and the bulk of the cost was actually administrative. At this point Margaret was interrupted by the interviewer, Charles Arthur, who exclaimed with incredulity, how hed heard that icons could be done in a matter of minutes.

Hearing this I was genuinely gobsmacked. Ive long been a fan of both the Guardian newspaper and the tech podcast. However It was as if they had somehow been hijacked by the Daily Mail on a slow news week. They just seemed to have no clue what they were talking about.

For a start I couldnt believe that this story was considered newsworthy, let along lead the headlines. With some Government IT projects costing tensif not hundredsof millions of pounds, quibbling over a few hundred pounds seemed trivial by comparison. It reminded me of a story from a few years back where Ashley Highfield from the BBC was criticised for buying two iPods for testing purposes. Oh, the horror of it all!

I also took exception to the fact that just because the interviewer had heard from one web designer that they could create an icon in a couple of minutes, that meant all icons took a couple of minutes. I know somebody who can design a whole website for 100 but that doesnt mean that all websites costing more than 100 are therefore a rip-off.

Good icon design is a detailed and methodical process. As such its perfectly reasonable for an icon to take several hours to create. Add to that the feedback and revision loop and 585 inc Vat doesnt seem unreasonable for a company charging 600 plus Vat per day.

Even if you were to quibble over their day rate or the exact number of hours it should have taken, its not like were talking about a clear and premeditated attempt to rip off the UK tax payer. Some times design and production costs money. Deal with it.

The thing that really annoyed me about this story was that it was another example of the appalling way the news media treats the digital sector. On one hand they fawn over big money startups while in the same breath labelling all SXSW attendees as money grabbers. They congratulate costly white elephants like the governments Tech City initiative while at the same time force a company director to justify why a small piece of design work cost 585 instead of 350. I honestly dont think that this is a mature and healthy way for the news media to cover what is an increasingly important part of both our economy and our personal lives.

Implying that web designers are systematically over charing their clients is just wrong. Sure there are bad agencies out there with bad practices, but the majority of people Ive met in this industry are nothing but honourable.

I also think its wrong to imply that all government design jobs need to be done as cheaply and quickly as possible or you risk being interrogated by the national press. I personally believe that good design takes time and that taxpayers deserve to be given the same quality of design, and treated with the same level of respect, as any other user.

Note: This article is about the way the Guardian Technology podcast positioned this story and not about the story itself. The actual story was about the wastefulness of government bureaucracy, which I completely agree with. Interestingly this story was sparked by a freedom of information request from a web designer who felt that the creation of an icon should take no longer than 5 minutes. Something with I firmly refute. There’s an interesting discussion over at Hacker News about whether the cost in this particular case was fair or not. The fact that there are 84 comments, with a fairly even split of opinion seems to indicate that it’s not as clear cut as the Guardian makes out. Its also worth noting that this freedom of information request probably cost the UK taxpayer more than the contested icon itself.

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Lies, dammed lies and web analytics | March 3, 2011

At Clearleft we’re an incredibly business focussed agency. So we work closely with our stakeholders to understand their business needs, and then turn these into Key Performance Indicators to track. In the vast majority of cases, our clients KPIs increase after working with us. However on the rare occasion that things go in the other direction, we take it as a matter of professional pride to rectify the matter.

Thankfully we’ve only seen this happen on 4 occasions in our 6 year history. The first time this happened it was a temporary blip and righted it’s self naturally after a month or so. This can occasionally happen when new designs go live and users need to adjust to a new way of working.

The next two times this happened were more of a concern. Bounce rates had shot up, conversions had plummeted and our project sponsors were getting grief from the board. Both clients understandably panicked. One rolled their site back to the previous version while the other took versions of previous designs we’d supplied them, and rolled their own hybrid version.

The funny thing with both these stories was that it turned out there was nothing wrong with either site. Instead the clients analytics packages had been set up incorrectly and they were no longer tracking the whole picture. With one project they had accidentally started tracking spam “attacks” to the site, causing the bounce rate to seemingly go through the roof. In the other instance the client was only seeing some of the conversions due to the fact that several of the processes we now Ajax driven and weren’t registering as completed goals. Adding in some virtual page views and events in Google Analytics seemed to sort the problem.

Analytics are incredibly important, but easy to misread. In fact I always liken managing your website based on analytics to driving somewhere only with the aid of your GPS and not look out of the window. It’ll only give you partial view of your journey and doesn’t account for glitches in the system (I once knew somebody in the middle east with an in built and non-updatable GPS. Land reclamation meant that their drive home from work showed them driving through the sea!)

The final project is still ongoing, and we’re looking into all the various options to see how we can help. However from previous experience I wouldn’t be surprised if this was also analytics related.

So if you see a sudden and dramatic drop in your KPIs after launch it’s tempting to panic and roll back or make dramatic changes in the heat of the moment. Before doing this I urge you to take stock of your analytics setup and if necessary call in an expert. After all there are lies, dammed lies and web analytics.

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How much does a start-up really cost? | February 5, 2011

In 1884 Thomas Marks opened his first market stall in Leeds. Over the next few years he opened 20 other stalls around the UK. In 1894, Thomas Spencer invested in the business and retail chain Marks & Spencer was born. From it’s humble beginnings M&Sas it was colloquially calledbecame one of the UK’s biggest success stories and was the first retailer to make a pre-tax profit of over 1 billion. Companies like WH Smith, Woolworth’s and AMSTRAD all started the same way, so it would seem that in order to make it big, you should start small. Can the same thing be said of the Web?

As the founder of a relatively well known digital design consultancy I’m often approached by entrepreneurs wanting to start their own online business. I try to help them as much as I can, but I’m constantly amazed how little they know about the web or the cost of doing business online.

Starting your own online business has definitely got cheaper over the last few years. For instance you no longer need to buy expensive hardware or suffer crippling data costs. It’s also possible to piggy back off existing technologies and string together open source projects. Even so, setting up a company which you hope will become a multi-million dollar business isn’t cheap. As such you have to invest in proportion to what you hope to achieve.

I often see entrepreneurs lured by tales of plucky geeks starting their own business on a shoestring and making it big. Movies like Social Network don’t help quell the myth of the overnight success. The reality is somewhat different, with many of these so-called overnight successes spending 3 or 4 years in the wilderness and burning through hundreds of thousandsif not millionsof dollars before they make it big. More importantly, for every overnight success, we see tens of thousands of start-ups sink without trace.

Popular culture has created the myth that start-ups are cheapcheaper than regular businesses anyway. This can be true for designers and developers who band together and use their own labour in the form of sweat equity. However if you don’t have the necessary skills and connections yourself, you have to hire in talent and that isn’t going to be cheap. Good products take time and effort after all.

A competent freelancer will typically cost you around 8k per montha good agency staffer doubly so. With these rates in mind, an early prototype taking two people a couple of months could cost in the region of 30-60k. For a fully fleshed out beta version, you’d probably want a team of three or four people working on it over a four to six month period. Plugging those figures in you’re looking at anything from 100-350k before you’ve even launched. Suddenly this starts to feel less like a cottage industry and more like a real business.

Having spoken to several successful investors, these figures seem to stack up. It would seem that most investors expect it to cost around 50k to get your proof of concept and around 250k to get that product to market.

In 1978, John Mackey borrowed $45k from the bank to set up a small, natural health store called SaferWay. Two years later they merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery to form Whole Food Market. At 12,500 square foot and a staff of 19, their first store was larger than most health food shops at the time. The place was beautifully designed, the staff were knowledgeable and the quality was exceptionally high. By 1984 they had expanded to Houston, Dallas and New Orleans and continued to grow throughout the eighties and ninties. At the end of 2009 they owned 302 stores in 3 countries and were considered by many as the best grocery store of it’s kind.

The story of John Mackey in not dissimilar to that of Thomas Marks. Both started small and both rose to the heady heights of success. The main differences is that what counted for small back in 1884 was very different to what counted for small in 1980. The competition was stronger and peoples expectations had changed.

I try to explain to potential entrepreneurs that the amount you invest needs to be in proportion with your expectations. If you want to make a living wage then the digital equivalent of a market stall is just fine. However if you want to set up a national or even global business, you need to maximise your chances of success and invest accordingly. Good start-ups don’t come cheap so you need to spend as much on your digital business as would on it’s physical equivalent. It’s as simple as that!

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The digital economy act to kill start-up culture in the UK | April 17, 2010

The recent passing of the UK Digital Economy Act has generated outrage amongst the web community. Large media business have effectively lobbied government under the spurious claim that without protection the future of the digital economy in the UK is at threat. However the future of digital isn’t locked inside a few big content companies distributing their goods electronically. The future of the digital economy is in empowering a creative class to produce new and as yet unheard of business opportunities on the web. So rather than protecting the digital economy, the Digital Economy Act will have the effect of protecting outdated business models and harming innovation in the UK and handing over initiative to more liberal and less restrictive countries.

One potentially damaging aspect facing UK start-ups and freelancers is the one makes the owners of open wifi networks responsible for the traffic that passes over the network. This three strikes and your out process that requires no proof and provides no real means of defence will have a damming effect on the coffee shop culture in the UK. Bars, cafes, public libraries and any other wifi provider will now be responsible for the traffic on their network. As such, many will stop providing open access for fear of disconnection, and the cafe working culture so important to the start-up community is at risk of coming to a crashing end.

Considering it’s taken so long to foster this culture, I think it’s going to be a huge loss to the digital economy and a terrible shame. How many potential Dopplers, Moos LastFMs are we going lose because of this? I wonder?

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The public sector web design dating game | July 29, 2009

Somebody contacts you out of the blue, possibly through a friend or from an advert you posted on a dating site, interested in meeting up for a drink and possibly more. They like what they’ve seen so far, but before telling you about themselves, they want a little more information. It’s noting big and perfectly normal. They just want a copy of your passport, your last quarter bank statement and the phone numbers of your past couple of dates. Oh, and could you sign this contract agreeing with my standard date conditions assuming I chose to go out with you.

From the persons point of view, this approach makes a lot of sense. They know there are a lot of sharks out there and may even have been bitten before, so prior to releasing any details about themselves, they want to make sure that you are who you say you are. They’ve also dated far too many cheapskates in their time, so want to ensure that you’ve got money in the bank and won’t start scrounging off them, or worse still, run out halfway during the date without paying . Lastly, they don’t want to waste their time, so want to chat to your exes to see what you were like, how you treated them and why they didn’t take things further.

The only problem is, this approach doesn’t make you feel particularly wanted or valued. In fact it’s rather insulting and dehumanising. It starts the relationship off on a negative footing, assuming that you’ll turn out to be a scoundrel and forcing you to prove otherwise. It’s also asking for a lot of personal information without giving anything back in return. It’s all a bit one sided. So if you’re a half decent person you’ll probably turn the offer down and keep looking for a nicer, more reasonable person instead. Somebody who approaches you as an equal and treats you with the care and respect you deserve.

The irony is, in a bid to filter out the scoundrels and wastrels, this person has actually scared off their only chance of meeting somebody nice. Instead, the kind of people who would respond to this tactic are the professional players. The kind of people who stand in a bar every night flashing the keys to their Porsche, hoping to impress you with their designer wardrobes and their well rehearsed patter. The type of people your mom always warned you about. You may date for a while, but ultimately it will be a shallow and unsatisfying experience, and they will quickly move on to their next conquest. For them it’s about the game rather than the quality of the relationship.

Now this is obviously an unrealistic and frankly ludicrous scenario in the world of dating. However it’s the norm when commissioning design services from the public sector. Rather than a polite email or phone call, you’ll often get sent an impersonal email asking you to tender for work. These emails usually take you to some kind of tendering portal that requires a 10 step registration process before you even know what the tender is for. Sometimes you’re given a 378 page RFP (seriously, I had one of these only the other week) which still doesn’t explain what the project is about. At other times, before even being sent the RPF you’re forced to fill in a formal “letter of interest.” These documents can be very long and time consuming, taking days to complete and asking all kinds of intimate questions from the amount of money you make to the racial make-up of your team! They will often include legal terms which force you into a timeline or kick-off date before you even know what the project is about (I had one of these the other week as well)!

The whole process seems dehumanising and designed to elicit the worst response from the worst kind of agencies. Smaller agencies rarely have the time or resources to respond to these tenders, so you end up limiting yourself to sausage factories. Big agencies who spend their whole time responding to tenders in a cookie cutter fashion, going in with the lowest quote in the hope of wining the pitch. No time is spent talking to the clients or understanding the problem, because the process doesn’t allow for this. As such it’s largely as numbers game, devolving design to a pure commodity. So is it any wonder that the majority of public sector sites are so bad if the tendering process actively encourages this type of behaviour?

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Why Friends Reunited Failed | March 2, 2009

I was recently interviewed by the Independent on Sunday to get a design perspective on why Friends Reunited ultimately failed. However rather than the design of the site, I think the design of the system was ultimately to blame.

Friends Reunited was one of the first “Social Networks” in the UK, long before the term had even been coined. Like all good web applications it made something that was difficult to do in the real world, incredibly easy. You could now re-connect with people from your past and spark up new friendships. It also tapped into two basic human traits; curiosity and gloating. Whether this was through design or by pure accident, the desire to see what had become of your childhood sweetheart or your school bully proved impossible to resist.

Like all social sites, Friends Reunited relied on the network affect, so when membership reached its tipping point the whole site went viral. However a lot of viruses burn through their fuel so quickly they die almost as fast as they grow, stifled by their own success. So with Friends Reunited once you’d registered, seen what your old friends were doing, connected with the ones you’d wanted to and had a laugh at the (hopefully) tragic lives of your childhood tormentors, there was very little reason to stick around.

The design of the site was delightfully amateurish, which was no surprise considering the background of the creators. However it had a low-fi aesthetic that made it feel genuine; something it shares with it’s later contemporaries like MySpace. The truth is, while a better design would almost certainly helped its fortunes, people are willing to ignore bad design and usability if the perceived value is great. With Friends Reunited there were no credible alternatives or competition so people were happy to make do.

I think one big problem was the business model itself. With so many users, Friends Reunited wanted to capitalise on this by charging a membership fee. Now this was during a time when Internet business models were still being tested, so it’s impressive that they managed to charge for the service at all. However charging for a service changes the whole dynamic of a site and causes people to game the system in order to get the maximum return on their investment. So it becomes less of a community and more of a commercial relationship. Like a lot of commercial relationships, once the value runs out, people will stop paying and leave.

Modern social networks do a much better job at keeping their members engaged than Friends Reunited. So Facebook quickly expanded from a way of getting to know people on campus into a way of connecting with old friend and managing new ones. In fact you can now use Facebook in numerous ways, be that chatting with friends, playing games, managing your social life, flirting or micro blogging. Facebook has managed to create a whole ecosystem and become an essential part of peoples social lives. What’s more, rather than charging for this privilege, they give it away for free and make their money from additional services.

Conversely LinkedIn started life as a generic social networking site but quickly specialised in the field of professional reputation management and recruitment. This model has much more longevity than simply “getting in touch with friends from school” and allows LinkedIn to charge for professional services that help their users solve a real world problem.

Product design and business model speculations aside, I think there is also a big element of timeliness and zeitgeist. Friends Reunited managed to capture the attention of millions of people and was very successful in it’s day. However human attention is fleeting and you can only maintain this until the next cool meme comes along. Because of this I’m unsure if any of the big social networks have much longevity and if we’ll be having the same conversation in 10 years time. Is social networking here to stay or is it just a blip on the evolutionary path of the Internet?

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Why I Can't Afford Cheap | February 9, 2009

I remember reading a story once about an octogenarian discussing her most prized possessions with a researcher. She shows the researcher an iron that’s been going for over 40 years and explains how she had to scrimp and save to buy the product and how it ended up out living even her husband. Quizzed on why she spent so much money on the iron she said “I’m too poor to buy cheap!”

Too poor to buy cheap. That simple phase really resonated with me and has stuck with me ever since.

Cheap is quick. Cheap is dirty. Cheap is disposable.

Cheap breaks.

Cheap costs money. It costs money to fix, it costs money to replace.

Cheap seems like a good idea at the time but cheap fails when you most need it.

Cheap is flimsy and unsatisfying.

Cheap is inefficient.

Cheap gets in your way.

Cheap costs you time and it costs you customers.

Cheap always cost you more in the end. That’s why I can’t afford to buy cheap. Can you?

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How your online business can survive a global recession | October 16, 2008

Traditional business is simple. You create a product or service you think customers will want, and then spend money to drive people towards that product or service. If you’re lucky, some of those people will want to user your product or service and you’ll make money. This can be through direct charges or, in the case of content creation, selling this attention on to other companies.

During times of economic slowdowns, marketing budgets are usually the first things to be cut. However in doing so you reduce the number of people who’s attention you capture, reducing your potential market, and the whole things turns into a downward spiral. This is why most marketing pundits recommend that you increase your marketing budget during time of crisis, in order to shore up potential customer numbers.

Despite this obvious logic, there is a lack of liquidity in the market and budgets are going to be cut whether we like it or not. So product owners need to think of better, more effective ways of spending their money and maximising their return on investment.

The ironic thing about the preceding couple of paragraphs is that I’ve not actually mentioned the quality or suitability of the product or service, only the fact that marketing spend can drive attention. Yet we all know that it’s harder and more costly to acquire new customers than it is to satisfy existing ones. So rather than driving more traffic and hoping that some of those people will stick, we need to improve the core offering itself.

What does that mean? Well, first off, most websites are incredibly inefficient and converting customers, and can you blame them? Up until now it’s all been about volume rather than efficiency. As such sites are littered with usability problems that literally block your clients from spending money with you. In fact only this afternoon I abandoned a website for its competition because the site was so painful to use. You wouldn’t lay barriers in front of your customers in the real world, yet this is what we’re currently doing every day online. So the first step to slowdown success is to spend time removing these barriers and reducing your drop-out rates. This can be done quickly and for a fraction of what it would have cost to recruit those customers in the first place.

Next, we need to use our understanding of consumer psychology to promote our products more effectively. So rather than just laying out all our wares on the ground and hoping that somebody will wander past and buy something, we need to think about the purchasing process and make it more enticing for our users. This is the stuff that any marketing graduate will have learnt in their first year at school, yet for some reason it rarely seems to make it onto the web. This is largely because marketing departments don’t really get the web and either ignore it completely or shout at the top of their voices. However the web is full of discerning consumers who want to escape from overt marketing, so this stuff needs to be done subtly and with aplomb.

Lastly, we fundamentally need to rethink what we’re selling. Rather than coming up with a great new product and services and then hoping we find a market to sell it to, we need to learn about the needs of our customers and provide tools they actually want. So you need to go right back to basics and start talking to your customers to see what they need. Doing some smart research can show you’re where you’re currently falling down as well as opening up whole other opportunities you never even knew existed, simply by asking questions like “what do you wish this product did that you currently can’t do”. So surveys, customer interviews, and ethnographic studies can be a powerful tool in your business armoury.

One canny pundit once quipped, “people aren’t queuing up to buy your crappy product”, yet we keep trying to sell mediocre goods by upping the marketing spend. Instead, why not do what numerous other companies do and spend your money making your products better. By focussing your attention on building value in your products and providing an outstanding consumer experience you’ll create products that literally market themselves. Or to put it another way, it costs a lot less to market a good product than it does to market a crappy one.

So in order to weather this current economic downturn and come out ahead, we need to start thinking more strategically and less tactically, more about long term vision than short term success. Otherwise we’ll end up with a slash and burn mentality to driving online success. Instead, we need to build better products, we need remove the barriers to adoption, and we need to promote them more effectively. Doing any one of these things will significantly improve your conversion rates, but doing all three will see you weather the current storm and come out ahead. What are you waiting for?

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Portfolio Clinic | November 9, 2007

As part of the Brighton Digital Festival, Clearleft will be one of several companies attending the portfolio clinic on Tuesday the 13th of November. So if you’re a local graduate or freelancer interested in furthering your career in the industry, why not pop down and say hi. We’ll be there to critique your work and offer advice on how to improve your portfolio and score that perfect job.

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The Real Tao of Deadlines | October 12, 2007

The beauty of Taoism is that it’s a very holistic belief system. Rather than setting down rules and doctrines, Taoism focuses on the natural order of the universe. Nature has it’s own pace, so rather than struggling against the flow, Taoism teaches us to move with it. After all, a young sapling will bend with the wind while the mighty oak gets torn from its roots. Sometimes nature is an unstoppable force and the only way to survive is to understand it’s core essence and be flexible. The same could be said of many a web design project.

In a recent article entitled The Tao of Deadlines, Andy Rutledge lectures that “A designer must never miss a deadline”. While I agree with the sentiment and many of the suggestions, I think the conclusion shows a lack of understanding about then essence of projects and also the Tao.

Sometimes client deadlines are fixed in stone and immovable. These are usually based around some fixed date like a product launch or trade show. However even in these cases, you often find that deadlines are a lot more malleable if quality is at stake. More often than not, client deadlines are a manifestation of a clients desire to see progress. The project may have been on the drawing board for months, and have been the source of numerous discussions and internal meetings. After six months discussion, everybody is so keen to see the project finished, they are only too keen to set a deadline.

Client deadlines are often based on a rough assumption on how long they think a project should take. However, as most clients aren’t experts in design management, there is a very strong chance of underestimating the complexities involved and hence the time it will take. In a desire to please their clients, many design firms will go along with this conceit in order to win work. Unfortunately these agencies end up doing themselves and their clients a huge disservice by over promising and under delivering.

However, even if you are conservative in your estimates, it’s extremely easy to miscalculate deadlines. At the start of a project there are almost limitless possibilities. The Taosists refer to this state of pure potential as P’u (樸). No matter how much documentation the client has written, or how much research and planning you do, you are always operating on limited information. In fact, rather than helping, documentation can hide potential problems and obsfucate matters. Furthermore, what information you do have is often very subjective and open to interpretation. Because of this, the designer will make a best guess estimate based on their feel for the job, the client and previous projects they have worked on. The problem is, all projects are different, and time estimates are more art than science.

As a project progresses, more information comes to light. Issues will rise up and clarifications will appear. The closer you get to the final solution, the more precise your estimates will become. It’s like looking at a block of marble and imagining the statute enclosed within. In fact, the literal translation of P’u is the “uncarved block”. It’s not until you start chipping away that the final form starts to emerge.

I enjoyed Andy’s article, but think he fails to take into account the fundamental Tao of deadlines. Deadlines can stimulate creativity and drive progress. However they can also hinder the quality, virtue or Te (德) of the project. Sometimes designers need more time to think about a problem, developers underestimate the complexity of an issue, or clients are late with sign-off. This has nothing to do with running a bad project or being unprofessional. It’s just the nature of the task. As such, deadlines represent both the dark (Yin) and light (Yang) sides of the hill. They are useful tools, but shouldn’t inhibit the virtue of the project you’re working on.

Setting immovable deadlines is a bit like throwing a boulder in a stream to stem the flow. Water will always find a way around such obstacles. To take a true Taoist approach, you need to see deadlines as guides rather than immutable objects, and be prepared to adapt to an ever changing environment. In short, you need to bend with the wind rather than risk being up-rooted. This is the Taoist spirit of Wu wei, and one we should all strive for.

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7 Habits of a Highly Successful Freelance Web Designer | October 22, 2006

I’ve had a few people contact me recently, asking how to make it as a freelance web designer. Rather than answer everybody individually, I thought I’d post my thoughts online. So in my best impression of a self help book, here are my 7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer.

Love what you do

If you work for a large company, it’s easy to clock in, do your job and then leave it behind at the end of the day. I’ve seen companies where the staff just don’t seem to care about what they do: either the projects they are working on or the profession in general. For them it’s just a day job and they wouldn’t dream of reading a web design book or going to a conference outside office hours.

To be a successful freelancer, you need to have a passion for what you do. Passion (with the aid of caffeine) will keep you working late into the night when the rest of your friends are down the pub or fast asleep. Equally passion will keep you focused, motivated and away from the TV when times are slow. It’s the driving factor that got you into the industry in the first place, and in all likelihood the reason why you chose to go freelance.

Passion is particularly important when dealing with potential employers, be they design agencies or end clients. As somebody who uses freelancers myself, being able to demonstrate your love for the industry is much more important than your experience or technical ability. After all you can teach somebody a new skill, but you can’t teach them to enjoy their work. Ultimately this passion will be contagious and will rub off onto your clients, prospects and the work you do.

Never stop learning

Web design is a multi-disciplinary skill that’s as broad as it is deep. Every day new ideas or techniques are discovered and sometimes it’s hard to keep pace. However the best web designers are endlessly inquisitive and always want to keep abreast of the latest trends and technologies. They will scour the web reading every blog post or article they can find, their RSS reader literally building under the weight of new content. Their Amazon wishlist will be full of the latest titles and they will always have a couple of unread books lying around just waiting to be digested. Simply put, the successful freelance web designer loves what they do and is constantly learning how they can do it better.

Specialise

Having a broad range of skills is vital as a freelancer as you never know what you may be expected to do. However gone are the days when you can get by being a Jack-of-all-trades. Now you need to specialise. Some skills are more in demand than others, but if you’re the top of your field in a particular language or skill, you’ll always be in demand.

Information Architecture is a hot field at the moment, as more and more companies focus on improving the user experience. Good graphic designers are also extremely thin on the ground, especially those who have an understanding of Interface design and the vagaries of CSS. And while on the subject of web standards, it seems that companies can’t find good standards based developers fast enough. Traditional programming languages will always be popular, particularly if you understand higher level concepts such as OOP and UML. However Ruby on Rails is the language du jour (OK, I know Rails isn’t a language), so if you happen to be a Rails expert, you won’t be short of a contract or ten.

It’s important not to specialise at the expense of your other skills. Clients and agencies like well rounded people with a wide set of interests. Your skills should resemble an inverted T. Generally very broad but with one (or preferably more) areas of deep knowledge.

Get a killer portfolio

As a freelancer, your resume isn’t worth the disk space it’s saved onto. Instead what you need is a killer portfolio. If you are new to freelancing, building up a portfolio can be quite tricky. The best way to do this is to contact friends and family and offer to build them a website. I’m not suggesting you do this for FREE as this is potentially damaging to the industry and can also leave you in the difficult situation where your work isn’t valued. If you must do something for FREE, consider offering your services to a charity or community group who just wouldn’t be able to afford the services of a professional designer. Alternatively, create your own personal project or sandbox where you can demonstrate your ideas. I’ve hired freelancers in the past based solely on the basis of their personal work.

If you’ve been working on the web for a while, don’t post up every project you’ve ever done. You’re only as good as your last couple of projects so put your best foot forward and showcase your most recent work. After all, Nobody wants to see a website you created back in 2002, no matter how good it was. People are very visual, so portfolios are a much easier prospect for designers. If you are a developer or Information Architect, case studies may be the better way to go. A good case study will allow you to explain your involvement with the project, justify the decisions you made and demonstrate how you contributed to the success of the project. Above all, be honest. If you didn’t do the design, or worked in partnership with another agency, let people know.

Network like crazy

As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This couldn’t be more true as a freelance web designer. The best way to get work is to use your contacts and network like crazy. When starting out, let all of your friends and family know what you are doing. Ask if they know anybody who needs a website and whether they would mind introducing you. If you are going directly after end clients, local business networking events are a great source of contacts. Events like the local chamber of commerce are a great way to meet potential customers or gain those all important referrals.

Targeting end clients can be very time consuming and costly. Instead, consider letting others do the work by contracting direct with a design agency. Agencies are always on the lookout for reliable freelancers, often at a moments notice. These agencies do the hard work of finding and managing clients, leaving you to get on and do what you’re best at. If you can hook up with half a dozen agencies in your local area, you should find enough work to keep you busy. One way to find potential agencies is to email everybody in your local area and let them know that you are available for freelance work. An even better way is to go where other web developers hang out. Geek events.

Going to pub meets, user groups and conferences is one of the best ways to make useful connections. On a basic level, people much prefer doing businesses with somebody they have met and feel comfortable with. Next time they need help on a particular project, they are much more likely to remember you and get in touch. If they know you are actively looking for projects, they are also more likely to recommend you to other people.

Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but in reality it’s usually just a case of hanging out with people in your industry, sharing war stories and occasionally getting some work out of it.

Manage your time

As a freelancer, you need to make sure you manage your time well, and keep on top of all the administrate tasks you need to do. Many people expect to do less work as a freelancer then when they were in full time employment. However this couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as doing the work you get paid for, you also need to market yourself, manage your projects, do your accounts and everything else that’s involved in running a small business.

When you’re busy, it is very tempting to work all the hours under the sun. Even when you’re not rushed off your feet, the work you have always expands to fill the time available. To combat this you need to put some boundaries on your time and manage your work-life balance. This is particularly true if you work from home. Make sure people know the difference between your work time and your home time. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you have time to do the dishes, clean the house and take out the trash. Conversely don’t participate in avoidance techniques like doing the chores, making snacks or watching TV. As well as putting on the pounds, you’ll end up spending twice as much time working as you really need to.

One of the benefits of being a freelancer is being your own boss, so make sure you’re both strict and fair. Feel free to be flexible with your hours, but if you email a client at 10pm, don’t be surprised if they phone or email you outside regular office hours as well. If you find your attention fading, rather than sitting in front of the computer take a walk or go down the gym for an hour. When you come back you’ll be refreshed and much more productive.

Build your reputation

One of the best ways of becoming a successful freelancer is to become the person people want to do business with. That way, rather than searching for new clients, they will come to you. To do this you need to build a solid reputation. You can do this by doing great work and turning past clients into new sources for referrals. You can also build your reputation by sharing your experiences and knowledge through writing articles, blogging and speaking at local events. By building your reputation as an expert, people will be happy using your services and recommending you to others. Blogging is a particularly good way of doing this and is something I highly recommend. When looking for a new freelancer I’ll get a much better sense of their interests and abilities though their blog than I’d ever get from reading a resume. It’s a great marketing tool, so if you don’t have a blog, you should set one up straight away.

So those were my “7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer”. Feel free to chip in with your own suggestions. Next week: “What Hex Value is your Parachute” and “Developers are From Mars, Clients are From Uranus” :-)

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Office 2.0 | October 14, 2006

It feels like we moved in yesterday, but the six month lease on our office is now up and it’s time to move on. Brighton is a great place to live, but there is a distinct lack of good office space available. I put a shout out on our local mailing list for a “designery” office and was surprised by the reaction I got. It seems that “designer” office space has become associated with the worst excesses of the dotcom bubble and is something many people look down on.

I can understand this to an extent as agencies did go slightly mad at the turn of the millennium and start installing roof top sushi bars and astroturf putting greens in their offices. However I do feel that a creative working environment is crucial to the happiness of your team and ultimately the success of your company.

Clearleft may be a fledgling agency, but we have plans to grow. We are currently turning down more work than we can handle and are in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose our projects. We are about to appoint our first full time employee and have two more roles to fill in the coming months. As such we’re looking for a creative space that we can grow into.

Like most agencies we spend a lot of time at work–probably too much if we’re honest. Because of this we want to find a place we look forward to going every morning and somewhere we enjoy hanging out. Being a social bunch we also want somewhere that our friends and colleagues can enjoy, be that popping round for a coffee during the day or meeting up for drinks after work.

A nice environment is really important for the productivity, creativity and happiness of your team. As well as wanting to spend time there yourself, you want the people around you to enjoy their time at work. A creative office is also important for attracting the right kind of people to work for your company. Somewhere people can imagine working and having fun.

We looked at a lot of offices in Brighton but were generally disappointed. They were either overpriced battery farms–cramming as many people into as small a space as possible–or rundown ex-council buildings. We found a couple of possibilities including a lovely sea front property overlooking the pier. However in the end we managed to stumble on the perfect place almost by chance.

Located in “Brighton’s trendy North Laine” area, the Argus Lofts are one of the coolest re-developments in Brighton. A converted Grade II listed building, the lofts were once the printworks for the local newspaper. Redesigned by Conran & Partners in 2003, the lofts are now a collection of designer apartments and workspaces.

We are hoping to move into a space managed by the creative charity Lighthouse. Lighthouse are completely re-fitting the area so it’s currently a bit of a building site. However assuming all the legal stuff goes ahead, we should be able to move in sometime next month.

Here are a few pics we took the other day to give you a feel for the space.

Being a creative charity, Lighthouse have gone to great pains to make the offices a pleasant place to be. This includes designer touches such as a reception that doubles as a showcase gallery, and a glass bridge over the downstairs atrium. It also includes things like a secure indoor bike storage area and regular recycling collections. Being a training charity, it also means that we’ll have access to a state of the art training facilities, so expect lots more public courses from Clearleft in the future.

Once everything is official, we’ll have to think about fitting the office out. The temptation would be to put all the desks around the outside of the walls, but this won’t maximise the space in the centre of the room. I’d prefer to have one or two “blocks” of desks so everybody can sit together in a more community oriented space. We also plan to have a small meeting area as well as a chill out area where we can get away from our desks and relax for a bit if we want to.

I’ve been looking around for office design inspiration and came up with post entitled 10 seeeeeriously cool workplaces. Joel Spolsky also has a nice article on the bionic office. However I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on the subject. Do you know of any great articles or resources on setting up the perfect office? Maybe you’ve worked somewhere really nice and have some thoughts or recommendations of your own.

Over to you.

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3 Things You Wish Clients Knew About the Web | June 27, 2006

What three things do you wish your clients knew about the web?

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Creative pitches are toxic | June 13, 2006

In a recent survey of design agencies, the BDI calculated that unpaid creative pitches cost UK agencies an average of £38,000 per year. This may sound reasonable for a large agency with plenty of resources, especially if they are going after large projects. However over half of the design agencies in the UK employ less than five people, and £38,000 is a lot of money for a small agency.

I’ve long held the belief that creative pitches are toxic, and unpaid creative pitches doubly so. This view is upheld by a number of professional design associations that actively ban their members from engaging in unpaid creative. Creative pitches are bad for the client, bad for the designer and bad for the industry as a whole, and I’m going to explain why.

The concept of creative pitches came primarily from the print and advertising worlds. To gain a competitive edge, design agencies would offer to show clients sample ideas, hoping to wow them with their creative skills. This initial outlay made lots of sense when dealing with above the line advertising campaigns that could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make, and the initial outlay was small by comparison. This also made sense when commissioning graphic art such as illustration, as it was possible to interpret the client’s wishes from an initial meeting or creative brief.

Sadly, as this process became more and more common, it began to be seen as an accepted part of commissioning creative work. Rather than helping some design agencies distinguish themselves from the competition, pitches began to devolve into beauty competitions. And it wasn’t confined to above the line campaigns either. As the process started to filter down, even the smallest piece of design work was subject to the creative pitch.

I said at the start that creative pitches were bad for the client, and here is why. Design is much more than just creating beautiful works of graphic art; it’s about solving problems in a creative space. However by relegating design to a mere beauty contest, designs will usually be decided on subjective rather than objective terms. People will often choose a design based on their own personal–and sometimes irrational–preferences, rather than the views of the user or the business goals of the organisation. How many times have agencies seen otherwise great designs rejected because the MD doesn’t like that particular shade of green? Or worse still, how many designs have been chosen because they look “wizzy? and “cutting edge? when they are completely inappropriate for the task at hand?

Creative pitches are intended to give clients an understanding of the creative capacity of an agency, yet this is not a fair or balanced comparison. When you hire a creative agency, they will spend time learning about you, your industry and your business. This allows them to understand the problems at hand and come up with creative solutions. In a pitch situation there is never sufficient time for discovery, so any design suggestions will be ill informed at best.

Good design takes time, understanding and plenty of client feedback. Designs will go through numerous iterations before they are complete, often looking nothing like the initial suggestions. By comparison, designs created for a pitch are usually done in a hurry, by whoever is available at the time. There is little room for iteration and the initial submission is usually the one that will be judged.

If clients insist on a creative pitch, the only way to help ensure consistency is to pay the designers for their time and design skills, otherwise the larger agencies with bigger resources will always have more time to spend on a pitch than smaller, busier agencies. Sadly, paid pitches are a relative anomaly, and the reasons are clear. Clients see pitching as a way of saving money and cutting corners. Why pay one agency to come up with a single design when you can get five agencies to create designs for free and choose your favourite? Similarly, why spend time researching agencies and examining their portfolio, when you can get them to do most of the work for you?

This logic seems to make sense on the surface, but is fatally flawed, as any design agency that engages in creative pitches will simply pad their day rate to account for the time lost on unsuccessful pitches. Sadly, in an attempt to save money, clients are costing the industry hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. That is money coming out of your pocket.

Because creative pitches are usually unpaid, clients are able to request pitches with a minimal personal outlay. This means pitches often happen far too early in the process, before a project has been properly scoped out or checked for feasibility. As such, the BDI survey found out that over 25% of projects are not awarded after a creative pitch. This is big news so I’m going to repeat it again. Over a quarter of creative pitches are never awarded! If creative pitches are such a useful tool for deciding a design partner, why do they so frequently fail? Is it because the designs presented aren’t up to scratch, or is it because the whole process of creative pitches are fatally flawed, providing too many, partially complete designs for the inexperienced client to choose from?

Even if the project is awarded, there is no guarantee that the playing field will be level. Quite often companies will put projects to tender when they have already made a decision, and are simply showing due process. I have experienced both sides of this equation, having pitched for projects where we knew we’d get the work, as well as projects where the incumbent was always going to win.

I have always believed that creative pitches provide poor value for the client, and makes choosing a design partner harder rather than easier. I also believe unpaid creative pitches are bad for the designers involved and damaging to the industry as a whole. Apart from the large amount of money lost per year, unpaid pitches relegate design to a commodity, and a free commodity at that. People value things they pay for, while they place little stock in things that are free. This is why so many creative pitches go un-awarded.

To ensure that clients continue to see the value of professional design, as an industry we must stand our ground and charge for our services. If a client comes to you with a creative pitch, explain the pitfalls surrounding the process and why you don’t engage in unpaid creative If they are a reasonable client they will understand your reasoning and respect you all the more. If the client insists, politely decline and spend the time more profitably elsewhere.

I was discussing the issue of creative pitches with some colleagues a few weeks ago, and fully expected them to agree with my position. However to my surprise, these industry experts not only accepted creative pitching as a daily part of their life as a designer, they thought it was a good thing. In all honestly I was quite taken aback by this attitude, so thought it was worth putting my thoughts online.

So I ask you fellow designers, what is your view on creative pitches? Are they an inevitable–and some may say necessary–part of the design process, or a costly, archaic and counter-productive by-product of a bygone era?

Over to you.

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Consultant Rant | April 13, 2006

One thing that annoys me about this industry is the flagrant misuse of the term “Consultant”. A consultant is generally somebody who provides professional advice to a client for a fee. So as an accessibility and user experience consultancy, clients will come to us for our advice on improving the accessibility and user experience of their products, and we’ll respond with some form of report or documentation, often backed up with a formal presentation.

One of the benefits of hiring a consultant is that their advice is independent of the internal and external political factors surrounding a project, so is generally seen as more reliable. It’s sad, but clients will often take more notice of an external consultant than their own internal team, who may have been recommending exactly the same solutions for some time. In fact, one of the benefits of employing an independent consultant to back up what your in-house team has been saying all along.

We are often brought in at the start of a project to give companies an overview of the problems and issues they face. We can also be bought in during a project to give unbiased feedback on the performance of other agencies. More often than not we start by providing consultancy services and then get asked to implement our recommendations. The key defining factor is the provision of professional advice, hence the use of the term consultancy.

Unfortunately I see a lot of companies using the term consultancy because it sounds impressive, rather than because they offer a true consultation service. This is even more true of the freelance market where the term “consultant” has simply come to mean “short-term” or “temporary” contract work. It may sound cooler than freelance web designer, but unless you’re offering professional advice rather than design and implementation, I’d avoid calling yourself a “Web Design Consultant”.

It is sort of like calling yourself “President and CEO” of a one man company. It may sound good on paper, but looks less impressive to clients when they find out that you’re also the secretary and office cleaner.

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10 Bad Project Warning Signs | May 31, 2005

One of the great things about being a freelance web designer is the ability to turn down projects. I’ve come across a few projects recently that sounded interesting but made me feel nervous. It wasn’t any one specific thing; rather a series of small little things that set my internal alarm bells ringing. As such I’ve written up a list of bad project warning signs. Individually none of these signs should be deal breakers. However put a few of them together and it may be worth thinking twice about taking on that project.

What are your bad project warning signs? Are there any projects you’ve taken on and wished you hadn’t? Conversely, were there any projects you were nervous about taking on only to find those concerns were unfounded?

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Top Tips For Freelancers | May 19, 2005

If you’re a regular reader of this site you’ll probably know that I left full time work at the end of March to begin a new career as a freelance web consultant. If you’re currently a freelancer or running your own small business, I’d love to hear your top tips.These could be anything from productivity tips, to accountancy tips – tips about finding work to tips about keeping organised and focused. Is there a great bit of software you use or a process that you swear by. Is there something you know now that you wished you’d know when you started? I’m all ears.

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