Co-locating with our clients

What I’ve learned working off-site in my clients office

By Christopher Ellis (Digital Product Designer)

We carry system cards in our backpacks

With complex product design, the team at Mentally Friendly co-locate and work with our clients. Here’s my take on what works, what doesn’t and what we could do in the future.

When I mention to other designers that I have been working off-site for the past 3 days they usually respond with “oh that sucks” or “why do you even have to do that.”

I think in many business professions, asking questions and being open about your ignorance of the problem is frowned upon — I mean they hired us right? Should we not know all the answers?

I have a confession to make
We don’t…yet

“I know nothing about your product, I know nothing about your company or your staff, how your back-end works or even if you have decent snacks in your staff kitchen”

There I said it!

But I know for a fact that if we work together I will know everything about your product, I will know your companies culture, processes, staff — what shows they binge watch whilst hungover and I might even add some choc-chip cookies in your pantry so I don’t have a sugar crash at 2pm.

No more “US VS THEM”

Removing the US vs THEM mentality is one of the key reasons why co-locating is so beneficial to product design.

When you involve the client in problem solving along the way they feel a part of the process, They get to feel the buzz of excitement when a hard issue was cracked — hi fives all round!

Compare that to if their only involvement is simply signing something off at the end … or even worse not signing it off at all.

They also gain more buy into the project. This product may be everything you’re working on now, but they already have 3 separate projects with 3 separate budgets and 3 sets of issues, do you really want to be the 4th?

Having all stakeholders in the same room removes mis-communication

Facilitator not simply production

You’re a product team, not worker ants on the assembly line.

When you co-locate with the client, showing your face a lot more than a simple presentation once a month you become a person, not “one of the designers from the XYZ agency”.

I have found that, with in-depth co-working, clients look to you a lot more to facilitate problem solving, and by doing this they empower you to do your job more. They see you solving problems day in and day out, they give you more to solve not less and you are given more autonomy to do your job more effectively.

Benefit from their knowledge

It has become apparent through various projects that there is always a knowledge gap on products and services.

The client works day in and day out on one aspect of the business for, sometimes years. You on the other hand have had a week to be on-boarded to the project and as fast as you can learn there is nothing better than seeing it with your own eyes.

You should go in willing to learn from their experience, listen more than talk and you both will walk away with more knowledge and a feeling of accomplishment each day.

Spend the time to see how things work in your client’s office. You will learn the in-office politics quickly and learn how to navigate situations that you would otherwise be ignorant of.

By being there, in person you not only learn the intimate details of the business, you depict a personal investment in the project on a similar level as the client.

To them you may be seen as “another agency” with multiple clients and they are simply a line-item in the agencies income. Being on site and in their world more often removes this assumption.

You can iterate and eliminate issues through co-design

Removing communication barriers

One of the biggest problems with working with clients with multiple internal stakeholders is lack of communication. Not all businesses run stand-ups, have slack channels and have check-ins across disciplines.

By working at your studio when you are trying to solve a complex issue — you are handcuffing yourself to the communication barriers that the business may have had for years.

One question may return with 3 different answers and you are now more confused than before.

Compare that with being on-site. You can put together an action list for the meeting on cards, hustle the appropriate people into the same room and work through the issue with everyone at the same retention level.

This goes back to the previous point of being a facilitator — It was your team that facilitated this and solved an issue in a more agile and collaborative way. It didn’t take an email thread 25 responses deep over a week, it happened in 20 minutes.

Transparent problem solving leads to hi fives

Creating the product together

Your studio is not the team… it’s half of the team.

The client is the other half and both independent will never be able to launch a product as well as if you worked together.

By being on-site, solving problems together on a day-to-day basis, you are reinforcing the team approach through actions rather than an empty slide on the powerpoint used to win the work.

We haven’t got it perfect yet, we are still learning and continually evolving our process. Perhaps an elaborate process is not what’s called for. Simply being in the room and going on the journey together is what solves most of the issues that come from working in isolation.


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