Invited to speak at this year’s HCID Open Day on the theme “design at work”, I took the opportunity to share our processes and tools for internal communication – and how we continually improve.
The HCID Open Day is a popular annual event at City University London. It’s organised by their Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design (HCID) and Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice. Alongside designers from TfL, Thomson-Reuters and more, I was invited to talk about user experience, HCI, and interaction design.
The goal was to share knowledge, experience and best practices for designing within a business environment. At Cyber-Duck, we’re always refining our process and tools to increase communication, both internally and externally (with clients). As you can imagine, it's a vital part of our daily workflow. So, I decided to explain what works for us – and what hasn’t. Here’s a breakdown of what I covered, from our collaborative process to the tools that help us.
Before any project begins, we have an internal kick-off meeting. Bringing account managers, designers, developers and marketers together, we discuss the brief, deliverables and roles of each team member. It’s a great opportunity to consider any issues that could arise, so we can consider how to tackle them early on. This meeting gets everyone on the same page from the outset, and avoids having to brief a team member halfway through.
During each stage of the project, communication between our departments is paramount. From start to finish, everyone is involved to varying degrees. I like to call this “informed design”.
For example, during the strategy phase, designers sit down with developers and marketers to review the work being produced. Through this, we get valuable feedback and even inspiration to improve our designs. This also gives our developers time to research how they can build a feature and increase performance, well before they need to start coding.
The level of involvement detailed above continues throughout the rest of the project. During development, designers review progress daily and give feedback as things come together. It’s easier this way for us to catch issues early on, before they reach QA, as this could affect other parts of the project.
One practical benefit of this approach is making sure our designs look and function in the browser as we anticipated in Photoshop. We can catch inconsistencies as they arise and talk through amendments in the moment rather than having to backtrack at the end of each stage. This also helps keep timelines on track.
The way we work didn’t happen overnight. It’s been an ongoing process since our agency began just over 10 years ago. It’s still being improved and always will be, because we need to stay on top of our rapidly evolving industry.
Like everyone else, we’ve had successes and failures. It’s important to embrace failure. We’re more knowledgeable having tried something even if it didn’t work. We always review what went wrong and why, then use this to find a more suitable solution or improve the existing one.
For example, we initially tried to use Trello for weekly time management and task assignment. It wasn’t effective for us in that way so we moved to Harvest Forecast as a solution while keeping Trello for high-level planning (more on that below).
Kick-off meetings set the tone for each project and prevent miscommunication.
Designers and developers review each other's work often to ensure no issue goes unnoticed.
The way we work didn’t happen overnight. It’s been an ongoing process since our agency began just over 10 years ago.
Timeline management used to be a massive pain point for us. For a while, the most effective method was to create table-based Word documents, detailing the deadlines by department (and deliverable) throughout production. These were updated manually and shared with clients by email.
I don’t think I need to explain how frustrating it was to amend the due dates on 18 deliverables when the agreed timeline shifted by a week. We tried to create our own software to solve this issue – check out the blog post on Flight Plan – but after an initial concept, we decided to dedicate our research and development time elsewhere.
We found our solution with a service called Team Gantt. This web-based application allows everyone involved to see the project timeline. It uses a Gantt chart layout that makes it easy to split up project phases and detail the tasks for each. Rescheduling is made simple, by selecting the deliverables and dragging them along to the new date agreed. Our team receives automatic notifications, and there’s even a history log so we can see each change (and who made it) from beginning to end. This is really valuable for our process, as we’re ISO-accredited and we need to keep version logs for all documents.
Trello is a project management tool that allows us to organise boards of tasks and ideas into lists and cards, categorising and assigning them along the way. We use Trello to maintain Agile sprints and the tasks in each. Every Cyber-Duck department also has a Trello board, so we can see the tasks scheduled for current (and upcoming) weeks and take a look at long-term plans. There are other use cases, too, like our procurement board where requests and orders for office items are managed.
We use Harvest Forecast to plan an overview of our daily tasks and block out the hours we have assigned to them. Before Forecast, we relied on a weekly email that was manually typed by managers and linked to Trello cards. It’s now really easy to get a big picture of the week ahead and we have visibility over everyone else’s tasks – useful when you need to know the status of something you’re relying on. It’s also really easy to add, remove, shorten or extend tasks to account for surprises throughout the week.
When I began writing my talk in April, we were using HipChat – and we’d been relying solely on Skype for instant messaging, until about a year ago. This really highlights the constant evolution of our communication tools. In the past few months, we’ve ditched the old apps and migrated the whole company over to Slack. This has effectively replaced all internal emails and cleared up our inboxes.
Slack has transformed our daily communication and brought the company closer together. We use dedicated channels for each project to discuss tasks and issues. This allows the whole team to drop in and out of the conversation as necessary, yet keep our fingers on the pulse. We take advantage of the powerful integrations offered, like commit messages, server errors and support tickets. This means the teams are quickly alerted about any urgent notifications, and can discuss a quick solution in-line for our projects.
We’re always open to trying new processes and tools that will help us free up time for what we do best – great work. Each idea listed offers unique value to our ever-changing workflow, whether it’s assisting with organisation, scheduling, or communication.
We use Team Gantt to manage timelines for client projects with ease and transparency.
Cyber-Duck's branded Slack theme in action.