Managing design. How do we do it?

Joel Hughes of the Business of Web Design chats to Jo Lankester, our Head of Design about her role and how design is helping to grow the agency.

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The interview is an extract from this podcast.


Tell me what you do

Basically I make make sure we are maintaining high standards for design output across the agency, and I promote the agency’s design capabilities externally.  On a daily basis I split my time between production, supporting the design team and the firm’s growth strategy. 

Is financial awareness important in your role?

Definitely.  Our firm has to be profitable, so a big part of my role is to ensure we’re working efficiently and effectively. 

What are the main services your firm offers?

We design and develop web and mobile apps. We have four multi-discipline teams: 

  • Front end, web tech, Javascript frameworks,
  • Back end frameworks,
  • CMS using Drupal and Perch (for smaller sites), and
  • Mobile for IOS and Android apps. 

Have you made a conscious change in direction?

Yes. As we’ve grown we’ve looked at the directions we want to head and are focusing our attention on those four areas. 

How much has the company grown?

Our team has nearly doubled in size in the last 18 months. This is pretty rapid growth and we’ve learnt a lot, especially when recruiting. 

For example, it is really important to find people who fit into our company culture because, as we’ve grown we’ve worked hard to keep that.  Everyone here is incredibly passionate about what they do.  It’s what makes us White October. 

I know it feels right when I come out of an interview really buzzing and want to work with that person.  Design work is particularly hard to test at the interview stage, so you get a feeling about someone when you’re talking to them and when you see them interact with others. 

What makes a good company culture?

Enabling people to advance in their careers, empowering people to be the best they can be.  We  work hard to do that. Everyone gets on well here and clients get a buzz when they come to the office.  Our working environment is pretty flexible and we find that people really want to be here and do a great job. 

What type of projects do you work on?

Our clients range from startups to big names like Foyles. When we decide whether to work with someone there are things we look for in a project and a client. 

We like to work with people who are trying to solve difficult problems.  We look for clients who are innovative and energised, who have the same buzz as when you walk into our office.  We ask for a lot of time from our clients so it’s important that we get on and trust each other. 

Have your clients heard about agile before?

Yes most people have heard about it.  We’ve been working hard on improving our agile process, putting a lot of effort into following that through and explaining it to clients. 

Clients have to be engaged with the project and team or it won’t work. 

Tell me more about the process – how do you cost projects 

There three stages to a project: 

  • Discovery – we set the strategy and understanding of the project’s scope.  Here we run story mapping workshops with the client to understand the how the the products fit and set priorities. 
  • Runway – preparing to gear up for Sprint.  Here we do just enough to get the development under way.  We do UX work like personas, user flows and site maps. We run sketching workshops, spot problems and, rather than work in silos, we get everyone in one room to see how to solve them. 
  • Sprint – our developers and designers work together to complete the features. 

How do you get an idea of a project’s scale at the outset?

In the Discovery phase we put a good estimate on the time and materials needed.  In Sprint we move onto price per point.  A point has a fixed cost then each feature is estimated in story points.  The client will assign their budget in terms of points.  So they will have a budget of say 40 points, and can then set priorities, swap stories around and make decisions. 

How do you allocate points across the project phases?

Only the Sprint phase uses points as a currency – Discovery and Runway are billed by the hour. During Discovery we estimate the known stories in points, at a distance without detail, and in a User Story Mapping workshop we’ll prioritise those stories into releases. Then we’ll use this to set points budgets for each release. 

Once the story is booked into Sprint we take the risk of delivery: if we take longer to build a feature, we carry the cost. 

Price per point creates a currency for the client to spend across their project.  They can go for a two point story or two one point stories.  Likewise when we get the client’s feedback we can add or remove points to create a better product.  It’s far easier to understand and work with. 

What processes are in place in terms of running the business?

Day to day we have meetings with project managers, account managers, etc to check progress and flag issues, making sure everyone is aware of what’s going on. 

The web design team is held together by guild meetings where we look at strategy, achievements, problem solving, etc.  We have sessions called Fresh Eyes when the whole team gets together, reviews a piece of work and we all discuss.  The designer doesn’t talk, but gets feedback from the team. The value is that this shows the designer what happens when a user goes to a site they have designed. 

How do you plan for the future?

As a management team we’re working on a strategic plan for White October with a 10 to 20  year goal.  We then have more details about our three, two and one-year goals and then quarterly. The whole company is aware of and aligned with our strategy. 

Where will White October be in five years?

We don’t want to grow the Oxford office beyond 35 as we don’t want to lose this culture.  We’re looking at new offices in the UK and possibly abroad, which is very exciting for all of us. 

What makes your life easier?

Dave (Fletcher) is an incredibly exciting person to work with – driven, inspiring and supportive.  I get a lot of support from the whole team – this is my first management role and they’re amazing.


The Business of Web Design site

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