Why you need an independent implementation partner

There is a way to make your next redesign a success: Add a few key voices and mix.

Mind Mapping Landscape

Earlier in my career, I was a “Senior Consultant” at a small digital agency. I was brought in to run website redesigns or special online projects for some of the country’s largest nonprofits. Our company handled everything from strategy to implementation and, in some cases, maintenance as well. This is a fairly common practice – the one stop shop that takes care of everything digital on a nonprofit’s behalf.

But there was a problem. The approach to web development that full-service digital agencies take is broken.

Wait, what? Yup, you heard that right. If you are using a full-service digital agency to provide strategy and implementation, you’re probably doing your organization a disservice and putting your project at risk.

Your project will be more successful when people with different perspectives actively participate in the process.

It’s likely counter to everything you’ve heard – that the pain of having multiple vendors all jockeying to be the smartest in the room and “own” the relationship is a disaster in the making. We’ve all heard it or experienced it. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let me quickly cover why independent teams are necessary.

It comes down to one core concept: Your project will be more successful when people with different perspectives actively participate in the process.

In concept, agencies get this.  It’s why they involve a variety of client stakeholders in the redesign process – because stakeholders from different parts of a nonprofit (including its target audiences) identify different problems and opportunities. Yet amazingly, agencies rarely involve stakeholders from their own teams (e.g., design, development, etc.) in meetings until the exact time they believe the person’s skill is needed. “Wireframes are done, bring in the designer!” They typically do this in the name of keeping costs down. Ironically, it doesn’t actually keep costs down, it merely transfers the costs downstream to the point of implementation, when improvements and course corrections are most expensive.

Common mistakes and how to avoid them

Assuming you have good implementers (we know a few!), you can avoid these common mistakes by involving them early and often in the process:

The “Perfect Design” trap

Designs are provided that look perfect in Photoshop (or InDesign, etc.) and in no way reflect the reality of a multi-device world with variable, imperfect content. As it turns out, in the real world, you may not be able to enforce that 12-character restriction called for by the design. Wireframes and designs rarely reflect real-world content situations nor take into account the effort to maintain those design and content decisions over time. This usually doesn’t become apparent until QA or – worse yet – after site launch. This results in a lot of finger pointing and dissatisfaction at launch (or months after launch) when everyone should be celebrating.

Much of this can be avoided early in the process if technical strategists and implementers are involved, because they are tuned to “perfect design” shortcuts, which they can flag and recommend possible solutions in alignment with the given strategy for the page.

Approval pressure

This is the sibling of the perfect design. We’ve found that agency consultants often feel internal pressure to move the project forward in as few hours as possible (especially during a fixed bid project). Consultants also frequently feel pressure to always have an answer when talking to the client.  Words like “best practices” are thrown around a little too loosely to move the deliverable more quickly to the point of approval.  This results in glossed over blindspots and shortcuts in wireframing and design which drastically increase the likelihood of cost overruns, expectation misalignment, and difficulty in maintaining the content over time.

That’s where a third party technical strategist and implementation partner becomes really really valuable.  In these cases, technical strategists act as a buffer and client advocate to make sure what’s being presented is grounded in reality of what is possible from content maintenance, technical feasibility, and budget perspectives.

Features that break the budget

Who doesn’t love a great idea? We certainly do.  But we also love to know up front whether it’s a feature worth the expense, before development begins, not in the middle of implementation. We assume you do too.

Technical strategists are around to help ensure what gets approved is doable within the project’s budget.

The Benefits

Having an independent implementation partner isn’t just about avoiding mistakes. There are some important benefits as well:

  1. Your wireframes, designs, and content strategy will be better, more comprehensive, and more thoroughly thought through. A team with more varied perspectives will identify more problems and solutions up front, when they’re less expensive and disruptive to implement.
  2. Better expectation setting and communication. Your organization will have a much better understanding of what you are getting (or not getting) when each element is thoroughly examined in purpose and function.
  3. Unbiased feedback. Independent implementers won’t have an emotional stake in the design or have the same pressure to get it approved. This ensures more comprehensive review of key project deliverables.
  4. Preparation for solutions.  They will be able to bounce implementation ideas off the UX specialist or designer to ensure that it fits with the intended user experience.

How to make it work

So that all makes sense, but how do you actually make this work? Glad you asked.

Check egos at the door

Set the expectation during kick-off that the project’s success is the highest priority for everyone involved and that critical thinking and review is part of the process and expected throughout the process.  In short, check egos at the door.

Allow vendors to communicate directly with each other

This is a critical. By allowing your vendors to collaborate without a chaperone, it allows them to work together to find problems and get in alignment on approach before your team is presented with the next thing to review.  This has a few important benefits.

  • Most importantly, issues are flagged and solved before you see it rather than while you’re seeing it. Important questions always come up as it relates to how any given wireframe, design, or feature will work in practice.  Helping agencies address more of them before the client sees it is in everyone’s interest. The result is that your consultants (and your implementers) will be better prepared and their solution more solid before you even see it.  We help make them look even better!
  • More generally, you have more brains working on solving the project’s biggest problems.  This was critical to the success Capellic and partner, Echo&Co, had when rebuilding ASPCA Professional’s website last year. Our teams approached web development in slightly different ways, which opened up new ways to solve key usability problems.
  • Your review calls will go more smoothly because more questions will have been answered and issues anticipated and dealt with.  Our experience is that the technical implementers then play a key supportive role during the call.

How do you ensure vendor communication is good? Make sure that they know and that you expect that the vendors to communicate directly with each other throughout the duration of the project; that you want the implementers to review wireframes, sitemaps, and designs before they’re shown to you, the client, so they can iron out usability questions and issues before you see it. It really no different than having someone else proofread work.

Make sure your agency of record is involved during implementation.

Just like the implementers being involved upfront, make sure your strategists and creatives are available to the implementers during the build to answer questions related to UX, admin functionality, brand enforcement.

Think it can work for your team? Why or why not? Let us know below.

What do you think?