Agile Web Design in an Agency: The PHX Renews Project – Intro

Chase Roberts posted this in
Inside Rocket Media
on March 28th, 2014

Doing something new is hard. It’s scary.

Sharing it with the world is even harder and scarier.

This blog series will publicly document the process we go through as we redesign PHX Renews website. It will bear our successes and failures. And it’s sure to have our share of failures.

You see, we decided to use an agile and lean process with this project. And this is the first project where we’ve done this. So there’s sure to be many bumps along the way. Yet, it’s been difficult for us to find other agencies sharing their agile process, so we feel it’s important to share.

After all, we’ve learned so much from others like Dan Mall on Reading is Fundamental and Brad Frost and company on their TechCrunch and EW redesigns, that it seems criminal to not at least try to help others in our community.

We’re not saying we have it figured out (far from it). But hopefully sharing what we’re doing can help someone else out there in some way. Plus, we have selfish reasons (writing about our process helps us sort through what worked and what didn’t.)

A brief history of our process

A lot has been changing at Rocket Media recently, both internally and externally. And one of the most significant changes has really been a discussion about our current website process.

Our website redesign process was not unlike most digital agencies. We moved through a series of stages:

  1. Discovery – We made sure what we were creating had some value to the client’s target audience and we made sure we were on the same page as our client.
  2. Design – After we defined what we were building, the project moved to the design phase. This phase has been in constant flux since the introduction of responsive websites, but still involved a lot of static wireframes and Photoshop documents.
  3. Development – Once the client felt good about their design, we moved the project into the development phase. Design was more or less done at this point and the designer could move on to other projects.
  4. QA and Launch – Once built, content was added and the website was tested for quality before we eventually launched it.

Of course, this is somewhat simplified, but you get the idea. Like I said, not unlike other design agencies.

Yet, it felt like something was broken.

The problems surface

We currently have a website development team of 3 developers, 2 designers & 2 content strategists, so we’re not huge. Last fall we got a bunch of new website projects, which was awesome. But that also meant we had up to 7 website projects running simultaneously. That felt like a lot.

We were left jumping from project to project, sometimes touching every project in the same week.

It made sense in our heads – work on as many projects as possible so you can complete as many as possible. But in reality, it slowed us down. Our project timeframes seemed to get longer and longer and our communication with each other worse and worse.

Many of our meetings about a project were spent recalling what we had discussed and decided upon weeks before. Or we decided on a direction, but then didn’t work on that project for a week. So by the time we got to it, we had forgotten our decisions.

And the same thing happened with our clients. We found ourselves having the same conversations every time we showed them a deliverable. I mean, if we can’t remember our choices and we’re working on it consistently, how can we expect them to?

When we sat down and talked about it, we realized this isn’t something new. These are struggles we’ve always had – they had just been made worse by the increased workload. So what was the answer?

A glimmer of hope

It’s amazing how things come together at the right times. I had met with Rebecca from Forty (another local agency) to talk about something unrelated. Yet we got on the topic of process (and how we all hate our project management systems). She brought up how they had been moving more and more toward being agile and had just recently fully and officially embraced it.

This piqued my interest. I had heard about agile and lean methodologies and how they can help solve problems with waterfall processes from Jonathan Kahn at Confab but hadn’t done further research.

As Rebecca described the benefits, they seemed to perfectly align with many of the problems we were facing. So after lunch, I tweeted to Jonathan asking him where I should start. His answer: Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf.

The books

As a writer, it’s probably no surprise that I love reading. I read Lean UX that night. It sounded great. It sounded awesome. I was pumped up.

But how would it work in an agency setting. Gothelf does a great job of describing how it would look inside of a company. It was less clear how it would look with multiple clients.

And we couldn’t be the only one with this question, right? So I looked for more information. Here’s a sampling of what I found:

  • Get Agile!: Scrum for UX, Design & Development – Written by another agency, this book was the most detailed and has served as our handbook.
  • Agile Experience Design – We have used the exercise in Chapter 8 to help scope our projects. We break down the website into audience goals and the tasks they need to accomplish the goals.
  • The Agile Agency – Great overview of different agile methods and how they can be applied to an agency. We used this as our book club book to help everyone get on the same page and speaking the same language.

Aligning the team & selecting a project

As I hinted at above, we have a book club at Rocket Media. Since changing workflows isn’t something you can do in isolation, we decided to read a book on agile together to make sure everyone was on the same page and understood the new terminology (jargon) that was sure to infiltrate our office.

The design and development team, along with a few others, also all read Get Agile! With all this knowledge, we now only needed a project to try it on.

A common theme among everything we read was “start with a small team and small project”. So that’s what we did.

PHX Renews is an initiative started by the Phoenix Mayor Stanton to transform the empty lots around the city into more useful community spaces. We’ve worked with the team behind PHX Renews before on Keep Phoenix Beautiful and we know they’re easy going and trust our advice.

In addition, they didn’t have much of an existing website, which allowed us to basically start from scratch. And they were on a tight deadline that our traditional process probably wouldn’t have been able to hit. It was the perfect storm.

To be continued…

Now that we had a project in mind, we were ready to start. In the next article, we’ll talk about our planning meeting and how we approached the first phase (sprint 1).

Chase Roberts

Web Copywriter

Yes, ladies, that southern drawl is authentic. Chase hails from a small town in Alabama. He loves sweet tea and all the bacon. But, in between consumption of these favorite treats, he plans and writes the copy for Rocket Media’s clients.