Agile Design

I was first introduced to the concept of Agile Development when Paul Giese, Traction's Director of Technology, had me read an eBook that was put out by 37 Signals.

The basic premise of the book is that there's a smarter way to develop applications. By taking a rapid, iterative approach where a team updates features early and often you wind up with simpler, better applications — in less time. Simpler is key. The argument made by 37 Signals is that most applications (think Microsoft Word or Excel) are bloated with thousands of features that 99% of us never use. Why would a company create a ton of features you wouldn't use? To justify the cost of selling you an upgrade every year.

Simplicity becomes very important for a number of reasons. First, if we have a dedicated team releasing early and often, we have to prioritize what they do next every couple of days. When you have to make choices, suddenly unnecessary features become... well... unnecessary. What you wind up with is an application that just does the things the human beings that are going to use it need it to do. And do them really well.

And this is why zillions of companies from Microsoft and Google to every twodotohdotcom start-up in the universe are using agile development to facilitate innovation.

Sounds great, right?

The problem for agencies has been that "agile" is contrary to how companies and interactive agencies structure things. The way we've done things with interactive projects in the past is:

STEP ONE: client issues RFP
STEP TWO: agency writes proposal or Statement of Work
STEP THREE: agency gets the job and writes a func spec
STEP FOUR: agency does the job
STEP FIVE: the client wants something that is out of scope—we have to write a change order!

Agile Development effectively gets rid of the scope. We have a budget. We have a deadline. We have objectives. We have process. Now, let's create something using our process that meets our budget, our timeline and our objective. What will we create? We'll find out when we get there.

Ironically, the ad agency retainer model works really well here. With an advertising retainer, you're not buying specific deliverables. You're buying a staffing plan — hours of people's time. We estimate hours based on potential needs, but what those hours will buy will shift based on mutually agreed upon priorities.

Lucky for us, Traction is both an ad agency and an interactive agency, so this actually works well for us. We're currently using it with about half of our clients—from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.

But what we're seeing now is the need for more than just agile development, but Agile Design. In one case in particular, our team is currently prototyping a really cool, really top secret immersive digital experience for one of the world's largest financial institutions. The timeline is ridiculously tight. The potential scope is massive. There's a boatload of both graphic and interaction design work and presentation layer coding (Flash, AJAX, HTML) to do. And, the client wants to review it 2 or 3 times a week.

We're using an Agile Design process to make this work. We are creating a feature prioritization matrix and assigning a "must-have," "should have" or "nice to have" label to every component. Digital triage. We will upload work in progress daily, but designating key areas to feedback. Feedback goes into the matrix too. The benefit of presenting often is that course corrections are made early—incredibly important for a project with a large number of stakeholders. A hard-stop design and feature lock date ensures we'll have the time to test the hell out of this puppy and deliver the high quality product our clients expect and deserve (of course, the browsers we'll test it on where prioritized too).

Now that I've written this post, I guess the reality is that this is really a hybrid Agile Design & Development process, but that's not the point. The point is that a lot of guesswork goes into estimates for interactive projects. Why? Because until you've actually designed something, you have no honest idea what it will take to build it. Being agile eliminates the guesswork.

This is great for both agencies and for clients. What's important to each?

Agencies want to produce successful work that helps them grow their business, make a reasonable profit and have a good working relationship. An agile process enables them to create successful work, plan their resources effectively so they can make that profit and establish the kind of frank dialogue that makes for a great working relationship.

Clients want to produce successful work that helps them meet their business objectives, pay a reasonable price and have a good working relationship. An agile process enables them to ensure the work that is produced is focused on successfully meeting their objectives, is fairly priced and is managed with the kind of frank dialogue that makes for a great working relationship.

If anyone has any experience working with this kind of process in an agency environment, please post comments. I'd love to hear about it.


Traction wins 2008 San Francisco Award

Traction has been selected for the 2008 San Francisco Award in the Advertising Agencies category by the U.S. Local Business Association (USLBA). There's a press release about it here. Thanks, USLBA!


BBQ Smackdown II: The Rib-off

That's right. Last Friday was the second BBQ Smackdown at Traction. This time, there were three contestants: Russell "Crispy" Quinan, Ben "The Kid" Wilkinson and yours truly. Of course, I walked away with the trophy. And of course, Crispy has sought a legal injunction (translation = public sore losing). Personally, I would never stoop so low as to dispute the wisdom of a fairly judged contest that had found me to be the lesser man, but I'm not Crispy. 

However, I've pasted his email to our council below for you to be the judge of the judging.

For your review and consideration:

They say that a Barbecue competition is the great equalizer among men. Unlike team sports, the barbeque master works alone, with no one to blame when staring defeat in the face. Like the puppet master who so elegantly manipulates string to give the doll life, the great barbequer makes flame and meat sear together into an almost mystical level of flavor and texture perfection. This is not a subject to be taken lightly, or to be manipulated for one’s own personal gain. The steaks are very high.

A “smackdown” was to occur on Friday evening, November 7th. What happened was far more sinister indeed. What happened was either an extreme travesty of justice, or perhaps, a plot far more intricate and dastardly, hatched on the day of Adam Kleinberg’s last Smackdown loss.

I submit to our General Council the facts of the evening in the hopes that any sane and or reasonable man or woman would agree that the following is clearly some sort of cleverly devised conspiracy perpetrated by Adam Kleinberg himself:

1. Mr. Kleinberg used agency “status meeting” time to pre pitch his barbecue recipe and story to the staff.

I think we can all agree that equal time must be given to all participants to pitch their wares. Not only did Mr. Kleinberg tell the entire staff about his barbeque prowess and menu, but he did so while standing atop our crow’s nest, some 10 feet above the heads of the audience—portraying himself as a deity. I can safely say that neither Mr. Wilkinson, nor Mr Quinan had the same opportunity to stack the perceptual deck in their favor.

2. Timing was unfairly manipulated by Mr. Kleinberg

Mr. Kleinberg knowingly captured an obvious advantage by continually changing the time of the barbeque. The invitation clearly says 3:00 PM. When asked when the meat should be coming off the grill, Mr. Kleinberg continually said in “20 minutes.” Apparently 20 minutes means 2 hours and 30 minutes because I believe the competition started approximately 5:30 PM. Both Mr. Wilkinson and Quinan had to actually turn their grills off and wait for Mr. Kleinberg. I should add that both Mr Wilkinson and Mr. Quinan were there and ready to begin on time while Mr Kleinberg was still hastily preparing.

3. A “scream off “ determines the winner in a BBQ competition?

Would a scream off break the tie between two fine artists? Would Salvador Dali hold a scream off against Van Gough? I think not. To select the winner of a barbeque competition, I would suggest a more appropriate tiebreaker to elevate the audience’s perception of the art form that is barbeque.

4. If a scream off is indeed fair (although I say NAY!) But if it is, how many people had left and were not there to cast their scream? Ballets were handed out in an orderly fashion, but screaming is anything but. Can Mr. Fanning actually measure the “loudness” of a screaming room of meat eaters? It is clear to me that his arm “meter” was broken and unable to deliver consistent and accurate measurement of decibels. Was every screamer even a valid screamer? This direction is fraught with peril.

It is clear to me that this entire competition was a cleverly manipulated farce; with malice of forethought I might add, by Mr. Kleinberg, who enlisted the help of the Master of Ceremonies himself, Mr. Theodore Fanning (if that is his real name?). I submit to our General Council that the two of them we’re planning on splitting all the winnings and beginning a new life in some other region where they could continually hatch these schemes on unwitting participants. They must be stopped.

I think the entire competition’s results are suspect and the only logical course of action is to hold the trophy in a safe and secure location until Mr Kleinberg and Mr Quinan can find some other respectful tie breaker that takes into account the art of flame and meat and not the screaming of a drunken audience.