In the past we were giving it our best to make ourselves as available as possible to our customers which — while good for them — caused chaos on our side of things.
We realized that our mistake was due to the fact that we were giving them the impression that they are the only ones we were doing work for, and that we can give their projects all the time in the world. It caused them to act in a more informal manner when requesting work to be done.
Naturally, this was not the case since we balance many different projects for many different clients at all times. They considered us — and treated us — more like their employees, rather than an agency.
Here are a few examples of this behavior, just so you can recognize it, and act to prevent it:
- client stumbling through random thoughts of what we could do during a Skype call,
- client sends long-winded emails with no actionable points or clearly defined next steps,
- radio silence until the project becomes mission-critical, than everything suddenly becomes P0, etc.
Lately we’ve been implementing various setups of preventing this from happening which has in turn enabled us to form several types of collaboration into which we frame the projects coming our way, and it’s how we set up the projects from the start.
These are projects that are more akin to what one would call R&D (research and development), than an agency engagement. We do a lot of speculative work and experimentation.
While we generally don't commit to deadlines on this project setup, all projects have and must meet some kind of time-based expectation a client might have, but we generally prioritize getting deeper into the matter, than meeting a deadline.
It takes experience and patience to be able to work on something long-term and with commitment. There are always a lot more questions than answers. A lot of responsibility.
These projects allow us the rare chance to create design systems and languages, maintain consistency, and control the visual communication within a larger design ecosystem.
We take on these projects mostly to fill the gaps in our schedules. During periods we are fully booked with long-term engagements, we will not accept them.
Essentially, we set up a project this way if the deliverables are more straight-forward. We rely on clients to control the project, and execute on tasks as they come.
Little to no creative freedom, the client is responsible for guiding the design direction, and setting expectations. A lot of deadlines.
They end quickly and allow you to move on to the new hot thing. One can view them almost as a design exercise sometimes, before getting back to “work as usual”.
We're currently in the phase where we're doing our best to enforce a weekly schedule routine, and use it to pace ourselves as well as our clients' requests.
This means projects are assigned weekdays for each person on the team, during which each of us are working on a particular project.
This is how our projects are billed as well as how they are estimated in terms of time available and required to execute them.
Sometimes unfortunately we are faced with exclusive situations where we need to take care of something that can’t be planned for. Maybe there is an emergency on a project we worked on before, and unplanned deadline, or a project is lingering on when it should have been over.
These situations should be handled on a case-by-case basis and you should aim to fit them into your existing schedule as a second priority. If in doubt, consult with Dragan and/or Marija.
Managing projects at Superawesome
Not having a clearly defined design process, its stages or priorities can be a very serious problem as it can hurt the workflow of everyone, and we are not talking about the designers only. Skipping or mixing the stages of the process will almost certainly result in chaos. This is the reason behind the idea of creating a documented design process.
Phase 1: Defining the goals
This is the initial phase in any design project process when we get ourselves familiar with what workload we can expect and plan our schedule accordingly.
This is also the time when we set up overall structure, decide on the scope, talk over the budget, timelines, milestones (if any) and try to get familiar with the client’s needs and wishes.
Phase 2: Backlog and backlog grooming
The clients are asked to formulate the tasks (we refer to them as “work orders”) and send them to us. We go through them daily and make sure that those requests are realistic in terms of time and budget and if they contain all of the necessary information the team needs in order for it to go into production.
Phase 3: Assigning the work orders
Once the work orders are in our backlog, we need to go over them and figure out their priority, and then decide who in our team will be in charge of them.
This is a daily occurrence, and is the responsibility mainly of the account manager, although some discussion with the team is almost certainly required.
Phase 4: Production
This is where we get to work! With all the input from the client and the information collected we are ready to move things into production and do actual work.
Phase 5: Collecting feedback
Once done with the work we send it to our clients for their feedback. In case the client has some changes to make, they provide us with a set of new instructions and we go back to phase 4. Or if the client approves of our design, the work is considered singed off on.
Phase 6: Over and out
People who use the product should be the ones who will provide the feedback and it is crucial to get it asap so that we can get official sign off from the client and optionally hand our work over to another party and move things to the next phase (e.g. back-end development).
Briefs — AKA “work documents”
You should never start working on a project or a task unless you have a written brief. You should ask the client for the brief, and they will hopefully be able to give you one. Once you get one, you will most likely have to massage it into something useful, so ask a lot of questions and edit it into something you can use.
Often a client is not competent enough to write a brief themselves, so you — or the project manager — must do it for them. Ask a lot of questions and put one together.
Once you do, you will have what we call a “work document” and it represents the official brief you are going to work off of. Make sure the client reads, understands, and agrees with this brief. It's something to fall back on if things get out of hand.
A work document can be a Google/Paper document, a Trello or a Pivotal Tracker card, it doesn’t matter as long as it clearly states the problem to be solved, and contains everything you need to start working on the project/task.
Duties of the account manager
The account manager — in our case it's Marija Stevanovic — is responsible for doing certain tasks in order to ensure the project keeps on flowing nicely.
In particular, they are responsible for:
- the final version the project document/brief,
- planning and project schedule,
- preparing work orders and making sure they are ready to be put into production,
- direct communication with the client not concerning deliverables and making sure the client never needs to ask you for project updates,
- being the go-to person for first-hand information for the client,
- sitting in on meetings,
- communicating exchanges between the team and the client,
- incident handling, aka firefighting,
- updating Dragan weekly on the progress and communicating any client requests for him to handle.