SXSW Interactive is all fun and tacos until a panel or set of panels bring to light a new way of doing creative business. NJI Media was well represented at SXSW this year, which allowed our team to branch out into different areas of the conference and absorb information that directly impacts our 5D process—discover/define/design/develop/deploy. To that end, here are the five insights we are bringing to our clients and how we plan on improving our process.
Discover – @jjhubbard
When I was preparing for SXSW, my must-attend panel was on the Dark Arts of Project Estimation hosted by Art & Logic. I was drawn to this panel because the discovery process for creative projects is a dark art. When a client asks, “How much to build a website?” we are left with a lot to unpack. For example, who is your audience and what are your goals? How long do you need the website to last and what are your technical requirements? These are just a few questions that help illuminate the purpose of the discovery phase in a project because each answer will impact the cost and timeline. Most importantly, these answers will add to the original RFP and help both the client and agency better understand the contours of the project.
As a creative agency, we need time to understand the motivations for the project and its scope in order to develop a successful project plan. To me, this was the panel’s critical point. Success involves communicating the value gained by having a plan in place, as this will lower both your client’s overall project time and its budget. Although the process of going through discovery seems commonplace, it was nice to be reminded of the value of having a well-structured project plan for both agencies and clients.
Define – @phillh
After discovering what the scope of the project goals are, it takes time to identify potential paths forward and to choose the best. Too often, defining the solution in agencies is done siloed off from other teams. One of my focuses at SXSW was to see how other organizations manage talent between teams, and how they bring different disciplines together from the outset of projects.
As it turned out, this is not a new problem for agencies, and in the wash we have a great collaborative system here at NJI. At Russ Unger’s talk “What I Learned Leading (UX Designers),” Unger talked in part about how to bring disparate teams together, and how to help make sure everyone knows not only how they can use their skills to help the team, but how they can use cross-functional collaboration as an opportunity to learn more.
“Facilitation is a required skill,” Unger says, and with Definition becoming less and less siloed, it’s incredibly important for team leaders to learn how to facilitate cross-functional workshops, meetings and decisions. With each team member confident in their strengths and role, and with an ubiquitous understanding of the project vision (easier said than done), we can really find the best solutions for our clients’ project goals.
Design – @alexsailer
At NJI Media, we do a little bit of everything when it comes to design, but our team specializes in web & interactive design. We pride ourselves on our ability to stay ahead of the curve and continue to bring new ideas to the table. Part of staying ahead of the curve is continually evaluating the design tools we use. Photoshop is our pixel pushing program of choice, but with new user interface design apps like Sketch and Macaw we are forced to look outside of our Adobe toolbox. Luckily, new approaches to design seemed like a major theme of this year’s conference and I was able to focus my attendance around sessions that offered insight into new tools and workflows for our design team.
With this theme in mind, there was one session that really stuck out to me. Pixel Pretty Damn Perfect by Joel Beukelman. This session was ultimately about not wasting your time creating pixel perfect user interface mock ups and focus more on testing user experiences. I completely agree with that but what he said next was the really interesting part. He designs user interfaces in Keynote!… Come again?
This wasn’t a completely new concept to me but it was surprising to hear such an established designer tout Keynote as his design app of choice. Needless to say I was skeptical but after hearing his reasoning behind why he uses Keynote I was sold (kind of).
He explained that Keynote is not only versatile, but can actually bring about efficiencies to the early stages of the design process. Instead of using a more powerful program like Photoshop, Keynote can be used to design user interfaces but also allow you to wireframe, create high fidelity designs, mockup interactions, create visual specs, simulate animations, and create interactive prototypes all in one place. Sounds pretty powerful for a tool that was built as a competitor to Powerpoint.
As Uncle Ben once said, “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Seriously though, Keynote is great but it’s not for everything. In my opinion, it’s strongest when rapid prototyping applications because usability can be tested so quickly. Interactive mockups can be created quickly in order to validate design assumptions and ultimately create a better user experience. That’s something you could never do with a tool like Photoshop but Keynote still has it’s limitations and we will always have the need for tools like Sketch & Photoshop.
Adding Keynote to our toolbox wasn’t a huge change since we’ve been creating presentations for our clients for some time now but, on the other hand, thinking about Keynote as a user interface design tool will definitely bring about a new way of approaching design problems.
If you’re interested in how you could use Keynote as an interface design tool, take a moment and check out the tutorials found here and fall in love with a simple program that will speed up your design process.
Develop – @derek_timmerman
Similar to Jeff, I absorbed a lot of first-class information from the Dark Arts of Project Estimation. Solid learning resources related to technical planning and management are exceedingly difficult to find, so I jumped at the opportunity to attend this panel. Brett Porter, Chief Engineer of Art & Logic, shared many battle-tested planning tactics that his shop uses, including PERT 3-point estimates and PERT pessimistic-weighted estimations.
Another favorite session of mine was Scaling at Twitter with Drupal & Thrift. This workshop was conducted by Twitter’s Gazebo team, who are responsible for developing all of Twitter’s content portals, including about.twitter.com, business.twitter.com, and engineering.twitter.com. Byron Sorrells of Twitter et al. taught attendees how to integrate Drupal 7 with Apache Thrift, allowing high-traffic sites to exchange less-robust Drupal components for scalable, non-Drupal web services.
For example, a high-traffic Drupal site might write a Thrift implementation that swaps out Drupal Webforms for an off-site form service. Drupal would go about it’s regular business until it needed to process a user form submission, at which point it would hand the form data to your Thrift implementation, which would in turn send the data to a scalable database such as Cassandra or Mongo. Thrift is essentially a translator of sorts, allowing for cross-language, cross-stack data transactions. One can immediately see how useful such implementations are for Twitter, who not only run Drupal 7, but do so at scale and without a hint of slowness.
Deploy – @jjhubbard
When I was working my way through the Cooley LLP event for startups, the most common theme in my conversations was “deploy with your minimal viable product.” From greenhorn entrepreneurs to seasoned venture capital managers, the best thing you can do is test your service or product with your customers and continue testing. This insight was repackaged by Joel Beukelman at the Pixel ‘Pretty Damn’ Perfect panel when he said that you need to “open the kimono” and let your customer take it all in. It’s a scary thought, but you can’t work in an isolated bubble and fight over details your customer may not care about. After everything is tested, deploy. At that point, evolve and adapt the experience to meet the needs of your customers.
At our agency, we find that deployment can be the longest phase of our process because there is always text that needs to be changed, images that need to be swapped, or colors that need to be adjusted. While we do our best to guide the process and help our clients, the best way to learn what adjustments need to be made is by listening to your customers.
It is always fun to look at various metrics after attending a conference like SXSW because you have data like miles walked [an average of 5.8 miles per day] or panels attended  or tacos consumed [redacted] or people you met [72 business cards], but in the end it’s the few insights you pick up from pros in the industry that make your team not only more efficient, but more effective for your clients. We were happy to represent NJI Media and hope you gleaned a few points from our experience. Let us know what we missed or messed up in the comments.