Working for the best
What it’s like to work with the most effective UX Agency team in the world
I’m Chris Alvarez, Lead UX Designer for Slice of Lime in Boulder, CO. We were recently awarded the award for “Most Effective Agency Team” by DesignForExperience/UXmag and I figured I’d take a moment to tell you a little about what it’s like to be a part of this (awesome) team.
As someone who started in the agency world, my idea of a client-services company is heavily influenced by the plurality of “services” the agency provides. More is better, right? I mean, if I take an example from any digital agency website, the description goes something like this: “We create… through web design, content creation, media campaigns and more.”
The key phrase here is “And More!”
You can quickly Google a number of agencies and see their vast array of services including (but not limited to): Logo Design, Web(site) Design, E-commerce/Online Store, Social Media Marketing, Promotional Design, Development & Integration, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Paid Media, Digital PR and Web Analytics… and more!
For a while this shotgun-style offering of services felt sustainable, but there is danger in losing focus and diversifying. The first challenge is finding the right people to build out a services team. With a high-number of diverse services it’s hard to find people who can “do it all” so the agency is left to hire people who are either underqualified or are very specialized in one service area. I’ve seen situations in the past where an agency hires a specific role, adds their expertise as a ‘service’ and then removes that service when the specialist leaves.
The second challenge is finding the right clients; the kind of clients who have these very specific needs or could tolerate the upsell.
There was a time (around 2010) where Slice of Lime offered a pretty comprehensive set of services, similar to the digital agencies I’ve described above.
By the time I discovered Slice of Lime, and before I started back in 2012, Slice of Lime had shifted their focus away from the “everything” model, to an offering that was dead simple:
“Create Amazing Experiences”
An “Amazing Experience” is what clients are hiring us for. It’s not powerpoint presentations or e-commerce development. It’s not Brand Development or Online Marketing. It’s something that is simultaneously more comprehensive, simple and approachable.
When we focus on the experience, it means we start with people, not outputs. We empathize with our clients and their customers. We look at the big picture, and from there we decide which of our capabilities make the most sense for the project. Sure, we may explore the branding, put together a Keynote presentation for our research findings, or even code-up a prototype to demonstrate and validate an interaction. We don’t consider them ‘services’ though, but rather a means to an end. The result, the goal, our focus, is an Amazing Experience.
Approach › Services
Another benefit to having an ‘approach’ versus having many services? We can apply our approach outside of digital products. From optimizing in-store customer flows for Qdoba, to internal projects like NÜBI, we are able to take our research-based approach and apply it to a number of real problems.
I’ve had a varied perspective on leadership throughout my career. From seeing the top-down military structure while working for the Air Force, to rubbing against egos in the Advertising world. When I think of what an ideal picture of leadership would be, I believe Andrew Carnegie sums it up quite nicely:
No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it. — Andrew Carnegie
Leadership at Slice of Lime is quite incredible. The main reason is the sheer amount of trust our appointed leaders (our CEO, and our directors) have in the rest of the team. It’s not — and will never be — a top-down commando-unit. Instead, it’s one that allows each of us to be enabled as leaders; enabled to make decisions, to lead others, to affect change in the company and to do good work using whatever tools make sense.
Of course, there are times where decisions have to be made by someone who has the authority to make those decisions. There may be challenges within a project that need a new perspective, or some difficult conversations that need to be had with a client or partner. In either case though, we are all part of the process, and the process is very transparent.
Slice of Lime = people. We’re a small team, but everyone on it is vital to the company’s success and effectiveness. Our hiring process is one that emphasizes getting to know how someone would ‘fit’ with our team — something that’s really important to us because our team is really like a large family. Of course, we have to get a sense for everyone’s capabilities as well, but it’s not as binary as “resume is good, you are hired.”
We all come from different backgrounds, and because of this, we each have a pretty Wide ‘T’ of expertise we can use within our projects. A few of us are more experienced in research and interviews, while others are more experienced with interaction design or interface development (great for prototyping design concepts!).
Sidenote: we are hiring Sr. UX Designers, so if you think you’d be a good fit (or know of someone who would be), hit up our careers page! We’d love to get to know you.
“Cause I gotta have faith…”
I’ve described how the leadership has immense faith in the team, but everyone on the team has a lot of faith in each other. We’ve been able to foster this in a few unique ways:
- Design Stories — Over the course of a few weeks, we each presented our stories to the entire company. These stories were mostly design and career-focused, but described the path we each took to get where we are today. It really helped us understand the way we think, and what motivates us to think about things the way we do. Everyone in the company went through this exercise, and we recorded the presentations for new employees to review.
- “Sliceness” — Every Friday, we spend some time together as a team. It’s not mandatory, or scripted but is always a nice way to wrap up the week. There is usually beer (or margaritas) involved, along with cornhole or something else that’s not work-related. It’s something that gives us time to just chat and enjoy each other’s company.
- Pair Design — We don’t work alone. All of our projects are set up to require collaboration between at least two people on the Slice team; one of which is typically designated as “lead” on the project. There are always points where the design pair is learning how each other works, and how the lead ‘leads,’ but it’s a healthy discovery process and the result is a new appreciation for how the other person works and approaches problems.
(Not so) Hidden Talents
Everyone at Slice has passions outside of work that we share occasionally with each other. A lot of us enjoy illustration and creative processes that are decidedly not digital. While there are plenty of talented people in the world who have hidden passions or hobbies, this is a place where the entire company loves to share and promote them.
Ultra-marathon runners, artists, home-brewers, mountain bikers, Arduino hackers, cellists, snowboarders, hunters, fishers, hikers, nordic skiers, guitarists, gardeners… our talents and interests are something that are shared as a company. It’s something that perhaps isn’t unique to us, but makes us who we are.
When it comes to the client work we do, there is a large variety of project types, industries, company sizes, and team dynamics we are challenged with understanding. Wrangling all these variables happens before we actually engage with our clients; we start with a few conversations but eventually work our way up to what we call a “planning session” — our way of making sure our client’s goals are well understood. This all happens before we build our proposal.
I’ve worked for a few companies in the past who don’t care to put as much time into this initial step, and the projects don’t end up quite as smooth from the outset. It’s something we believe in though. It’s also been a great way for us to get a feel for different personalities and who on our team may be the best fit for the type of project.
Ever since I started working with Slice of Lime in 2012, I’ve seen the types of clients we work with evolve as fast as we do. We used to do a lot of work for early startups — we still do — but a lot of our clients lately have been large organizations, a few of which have their own internal UX teams. We consistently hear from our clients that we “push” them to work more like we do as a client-service company. I attribute this mostly to our lean approach where we become a very close partner with the client team. They learn a lot from us for sure, but we also learn a lot from them.
Some of the more recent projects have taken us to robotics labs, natural foods expos, and art toy design spaces. We’ve traveled the US and talked with our client’s customers in their homes, their offices and even in the operating room before observing them perform brain surgery. We do all of this because building empathy for our clients and their customers is important. We get to know everyone we work with on our client’s team and insist on having access to the people who best reflect the end-user of their product. We work very hard in the early stages of our work to build trust between us and our clients so we are able to go in to these somewhat sensitive environments.
Culture is one of those funny corporate words. It’s usually paired up with terms like “mission statement” or “vision.” That’s an easy association to make, but it’s not how we think of culture here at Slice. For us, culture is definitely about the people. Everybody brings a bit of culture to the company, and that’s why we tend to hire people with our culture in mind.
As a Colorado company, it’s easy to say we like to get outside, but it’s true.
We sometimes take early-morning group hikes (Mt. Sanitas is a good one), or walks along the Boulder Creek. We’ve hit up local mountain bike trails together and have tried our best to get through a disc-golf course under-par (we’re still working on this one).
It doesn’t always have to be an hour-long adventure either. Almost every day we make it a point to get up out of our chairs and out of the office on something we call “Walk-A-Block.” It takes 10–15 minutes or so, and is a great way to break up the day and keep everyone’s minds and bodies feeling fresh. Sometimes the Walk-A-Block turns out to be “walk-a-block-in-a-blizzard” or “throw-a-frisbee-and-try-not-to-injure-a-world-class-athlete” but the idea is the same.
Everyone in our office eventually contributes in some way to the office decor. Our floor-to-ceiling whiteboard walls are perhaps the most well-known windows into the way we all think. Years ago, when I worked for a very traditional ad agency, I used to despise the term “creative.” Not because it was an expected characteristic of every hire, but because it was more commonly used as a noun, e.g. “Did you get the creative I sent you?” or “we need a few more ‘creatives’ on the team.”
At Slice of Lime, creativity is just something that’s in all of us. Creative in our business-thinking, problem-solving, socializing, leadership, and our unique hobbies as they spill over into life at the office.
With the diversity in clients, generous benefits and easy access to the outdoors, there is plenty to “keep us going” but one core motivator is the sincere appreciation we show each other on a regular basis.
It’s a pretty regular thing for us to cheer on the work we all do as a team, but we also tend to regularly recognize individuals — for winning a race, creating kick-ass art, hosting an event, having a baby, etc.
These uplifting exchanges take the form of emails, compliments posted to the wall in our monthly retrospectives, and usually a few (literal) pats on the back. There’s also a company-wide Google Hangout that makes it easy to say a few kinds words and insert a favorite GIF.
Another, more formal way to show appreciation is through something we call “The Green Hand” a.k.a. “The Slice High-Five” or just “The Hand.” It started sometime in 2014 (I think) and is basically a large, green, porcelain hand. Every month the person with the hand, passes it to someone else who’s been awesome*.
That’s it! There is really no other criteria. The person passing the hand typically gives a short speech on why the other person deserves it and passes it to them along with any adornments they affixed to it in the past month. The company also chips in and provides the honoree a Wishlist item of their choosing.
*“Awesome” typically means being super helpful, doing great client work, learning quickly as a new hire or simply just being an all-around nice person. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the Green Hand.
It’s actually not uncommon to hear companies talk about how transparent they are. However, this is usually in the form of public-facing transparency — financials, projects, employee demographics, etc. Transparency for us is a core element of who we are. We are transparent with our clients in that we basically become one team. We are transparent with our work in that we share our work and demo the various stages of our projects to everyone else in the company.
We’re also incredibly transparent with our finances and goals; every quarter our CEO Kevin Menzie puts together a simple Keynote that describes our revenue and profit, our successes and failures, our experiments and experiences. It’s great to look back and see how we’ve progressed, but we also look forward… to the future.
If I were to attribute my excitement about Slice of Lime to one thing, it’s the vision for the future. Considering how much we’ve matured in the past few years, and how much we’ve been able to focus and refine what we do, I can say confidently that we are ready for what’s next.
We are constantly experimenting with emerging technology, and have recently decided to focus in on where technology — specifically in the connected world — intersects with people. Our future success is always going to be a result around designing experiences for people. As technology changes, and the world becomes more connected, people will still be people.
We are looking to spend even more time mentoring, teaching, and collaborating with curious minds to make our world a better place. We’ll be sharing what we learn along the way and will continue to push ourselves to do better and with more purpose.
I’m looking forward to what’s next; it’s an exciting time to be a designer.