Do it once. Do it right.

Pitfalls of the ship & iterate mentality that can fail your work, team, and product.

Almost four years ago I started my first product design job at Virb. I was fresh out of a web agency position and enthralled with the idea of product design and agile software development. I was ready for a fresh start, and I had memorized all the mantras. If I was proud of something I’d waited too long to ship it. The beauty of the web was how malleable and it was—how easily things could be improved and changed and iterated on. Regardless of what was communicated to me, I knew what product designers were expected to do: ship things, fast, and then iterate on them to make them better.

Four years later, after moving from design to direction and now product management, I look back on those years with awe and regret. Awe that I was able to design and build so much in so short a period of time, keeping pace with competitors almost 25x our size, and regret that I didn’t realize the longer-term impact of some of my decisions.

Turning in my membership

The other day, while talking to Andy, our lead engineer, about an upcoming feature rollout, I typed into Slack, “Do it once. Do it right.” And I looked at that line in the chat room with wide eyes—did I really just say that? Do I have to give my product designer membership card back? Is Jeffrey Zeldman in a dentist chair feeling strangely and inexplicably disappointed right now?

I had written the words, and after a few days of reflection I can honestly say they represent how I (and my team) now approach our work at Virb. Now at this point I could wax on about theoretical pros and cons and discuss iterative development in a vacuum, but that’s been done enough times. Instead, I wanted to share how we got here—how my thinking failed me, what the results were, and what we’re doing to fix it.

Iteration as an excuse

During the late stages of product testing, I get a challenge from my Product Manager, Rubin. He brings up a great point, a use-case I hadn’t thought of. Do I scrap the launch to go back and evaluate things or press on with this much-needed feature?

This situation happened more than I would have liked, and usually I would tell myself “That’s ok, we’ll launch it as is, and I can deal with this new wrinkle as an iteration.” Occasionally I’d have the time to “fix it in post,” but features would launch without every use-case or user scenario being fully thought out, tested, and accounted for. Sometimes we’d realize there wasn’t an issue, and sometimes we’d have to scramble to toss up hot-fixes that dealt with issues we’d inadvertently launched. Was it catastrophic? No. Lazy? Most definitely.

Iteration is not an excuse to ignore issues, however late they may present themselves in your product cycle. Take the time to examine a launch from every angle, otherwise you end up shipping half-baked ideas that need more thought put into them.

Iteration that never happens

The idea of shipping and iterating is sound in theory. Most times, my iteration stage simply never happened, becoming something more like “Ship it and forget it.” Usually another task presented itself as a higher priority—I did just launch a functioning feature after all. With a team of six people, babysitting a functioning feature to gather insights on its use or effectiveness seemed like a luxury I didn’t have. Instead I’d move to the next thing on the list, like a good list-maker who loves to check things off, and come back to iterate only if the need trumped what was next on our roadmap.

Iteration needs to be built into your product timelines. Don’t jump from one task right into another. Take the time to analyze the effectiveness of a feature before assuming it’s complete. And then you can check that task off the list (and it will feel really good, I promise).

Iteration without long-term planning

The idea of iterating led me to produce things that did exactly what they needed to do when I meant to ship them. Now that might not sound terrible, but over the course of years it leads to a codebase, UI, and general product thats more like—shoutout to Jay-Z and Yeezus—hacks on hacks on hacks. What we did was add technical debt with everything we launched, morphing features and processes from their original purpose, or finding that we didn’t build things in a way we could easily iterate on without a full re-write. Building an MVP is a great idea, but after four years of iteration on a minimally viable product sometimes you have sections of your product and codebase more worthy of being pulled off life support completely.

Have a long term plan for how your feature and product can be developed in stages, with each one being a fully functioning whole. Planning for future iterations allows you to build all the scaffolding for future features into the foundation of your product. This will save you from having to pay back tons of technical debt, rewriting key components or revisiting UIs down the road.

Iteration itself is a magical thing. It’s a tool that allows us to take ideas, sculpt them, and hone them as we grow as designers and developers. Our products mature along with us. But used improperly as an excuse, without being given due time, omitting a long-term plan, it can lead to sloppy launches, half-baked implementations, and a product that has Fort-Knox-sized technical debt. These are all the things I’m doing today to help make Virb the best product it can possibly be, and it feels good to do things once, and do them right.

Next Story — What We Learned In 2015: Part 1
Currently Reading - What We Learned In 2015: Part 1

What We Learned In 2015: Part 1

15 simple tips for getting your new design agency off the ground

We’re not a huge fan of yearly retrospectives here at The Scenery. At best they catch people up and at worst they come off as a fluffy self-serving pat on the back. This is not one of those.

In 2015 we started a business from scratch. We could list off the clients we’ve worked with and goals we achieved, but I’d rather talk about the interesting stuff — what we learned. If you’re looking to strike off on your own (or recently have) we have some handy tips that we learned the hard way over the last year. Hopefully they can help as you embark on your own business adventure.

1. Lawyers and accountants are worth every single penny.

Our biggest expenses this year were legal and accounting services. Too often new businesses ignore legal issues and try to keep accounting and bookkeeping in-house. Don’t. Before starting a company find a good lawyer and review your last two employment contracts for things you didn’t notice (like non-solicits!) and see what your liabilities are. Find an accountant that understands service agencies (and better yet digital products) and do everything possible to make them your best friend. These two people will become your most trusted and helpful business allies — they’re worth the expense.

2. Don’t start alone.

When I told our lawyer I wanted an equal partnership he thought I was crazy. He still might, but after eight months I wouldn’t have it any other way. The burden and stress of starting a business is too much for one person. You can go through it alone, sure, but is it healthy? Having done it recently I would say no. Not a chance. Now, you may choose to structure your business partnership differently based on your situation and goals. But the value of having people you can count on to help build and mold your business can’t be understated. I can’t imagine going through 2015 without the help and support of my business partners — we are truly more than the sum of our parts.

3. Managing clients and new business is a real (full-time) job.

A lot of designers go wrong by taking on too much of the client and/or management roles. This is how you become an accidental businessman. If you ever see a designer-owner post about “not feeling connected to the work anymore” it’s because they didn’t realize this single, simple lesson along the way. Do the work or get the work, and choose early-on which you want to do.

4. It’s ok to say no…when you can.

One of my amazing friends (and mentors), Rob Harr, told me at the beginning of this adventure that you have to pay for your freedom to say no. He was 100% right. At the beginning you need to maintain your cash flow. You need to make payroll. You need to lay the foundation for a successful business, and that runs counter to being picky in your clients or work. Once you have a solid base of contracts and money in the bank you can start to say no to things that don’t fit your strategic goals or company vision. It may take weeks, months, or years — for us it took, well, until a week ago. And it feels great.

5. The best employees are the ones you know how to manage.

This is my favorite lesson so far, because it’s about people — and I was lucky enough to learn it before we grew too large. If you think an employee isn’t working out, ask yourself honestly if you’re managing them in the right way. Every person on your team is different and will bring different experiences, personalities, and interaction styles to the group. Embrace that. Find the best way to manage and structure work for each individual person to maximize their happiness and efficiency, realizing that it might be very different from your own preferences.

Hey…wait…I thought there were 15.

There are, but I wanted to keep things nice and digestible. We’re all busy people. Tips 6–10 will be up next Tuesday, so in the meantime check out some of our other guides and follow along on Twitter. Here’s to a great 2016!

Ryan & The Scenery

Next Story — The New Rules for Product Branding
Currently Reading - The New Rules for Product Branding

The New Rules for Product Branding

Creating lasting product brands by embracing the core characteristics of today’s digital businesses

We have a problem with branding.

Our industry is young. And moving rapidly. We’re quickly developing new ways of coping with business problems that are unique to 2015. But when it comes to branding, we seem to be stuck in the 1980s. We’re branding digital companies with digital products like brick and mortar stores with actual products, or, even worse, not branding them at all. Companies are making style guides that read like the US tax code, while some are just fine letting their branding embody the Wild West while they figure everything out.
What we know is this: businesses with digital products have challenges unlike any other. They have new and constantly evolving brand applications, new touchpoints, rapidly expanding markets (and workforces to boot), new ways of delivering content, and most importantly, new characteristics that make them utterly unique.
If everything about these businesses is new, why are we still approaching their brand — their core message — like we would have three decades ago? And why can’t we develop a brand that anticipates the needs of these businesses and grows with them? And do it in a time befitting an actual product launch?

We desperately want order and consistency — it’s the core essence of branding. The reality, though, is that digital products don’t have that sort of permanence.

The answer is actually rather simple: permanence. Branding is meant to answer questions, to make decisions. Branding is meant to be an exercise that defines the core essence of business and extrapolates those values and messages in a myriad of ways. It’s meant to be a constant. Permanent. We desperately want order and consistency — it’s the core essence of branding. The reality, though, is that digital products don’t have that sort of permanence. Not that we don’t want it to, or design under the pretense that it does. A digital product should always be moving though, changing, adapting to its delivery mediums and applications and market and competition. And that sort of change requires a new type of branding that assumes the only real constant: change.
On the technical side of a product this change is inevitable, welcome, and (hopefully) planned for. The iterative nature of a product’s codebase and technical stack allow it to achieve maximum efficiency and roll with the punches, adjusting to strains on the platform and quickly changing course when necessary. A product’s brand should do exactly the same thing.

The Iterative Nature of Branding

Branding has always been seen as a destination, when it is in fact a journey — a journey that will last as long as your company exists. Where a lot of products go wrong with their brand is seeing it as something that either does or doesn’t exist. “We need a full set of brand standards” or “we don’t have the money for a real brand exercise.” Business owners usually see the proposition of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or a few hundred. In reality both of these approaches will fail your product.

Business owners usually see the proposition of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or a few hundred. In reality both of these approaches will fail your product.

Develop a rigorous brand standards too soon, and you’re likely to overreach in terms of time and budget. Most traditional brand standards projects last multiple months and cost an amount of money befitting that time (meaning a lot). Spending a large amount of time and money doing a head-to-toe brand standards can seem like a good investment, but actually pulls from the two most valuable assets of a product. This decision is especially egregious when it becomes a blocker for product launch — taking key time in market away as well.

On the other side it may seem like a good idea to leave a branding exercise for later on, until the product has matured. This usually leads a business owner to institute a stopgap measure, whether it’s just a simple logo job or a trip to 99designs. Sadly this route also fails as it ignores the need for some aspect of cohesive branding from the inception of a product. A simple logo made in a vacuum isn’t going to cut it.
So what is a product to do? The answer is simply to iterate. Start small. Grow. Bob and weave. Do as much as you need when you need it and allow your talented designers to do what they do best. But how exactly does that work? What does that look like in a real company? Here’s some tangible ways you can implement a more iterative brand strategy for your product:

Don’t Try To Define It All

While doing a branding exercise there is often a temptation (if not a clear directive) to define everything you possibly can. To even create situations that don’t exist. Here’s how your brand would look painted on a 13-story New York City office building. Here’s how your brand looks on custom diecut wetnaps. In order to embrace an iterative approach to your brand, you have to realize that it’s of little to no value to over-define your brand or spend time applying it to fictitious situations. You have a very real set of needs as a product, and it behooves you to address the ones that are (or will soon be) right in front of you.

You have a very real set of needs as a product, and it behooves you to address the ones that are (or will soon be) right in front of you.

When looking at branding exercises, choose ones that will be of the most value and have the most impact in the short term. These usually come by means of the core of any brand: logos, color palettes, typography, core messaging, and imagery. These will most likely combine in a myraid of ways to inform secondary brand touchpoints: corporate collateral, social campaigns, website design, app interfaces, and more.
By defining the things you need, you’ll help inform the things you think you need. You won’t waste precious time with things you won’t use, and you’ll have an easier time extending your brand to the things you do.

Choose Your Battles (Brand Variables)

Once you realize you don’t have to over-exert yourself defining the next 25 years of your brand’s existence you can focus on the items at hand. But how do you think ahead to the future while tackling what you have now? The easiest way is to define your brand variables. In every brand there are aspects that will evolve and change — colors, logos, messaging, tone, typography. What you need to do at the onset is look at the breadth of your brand and decide the places where you want that growth to occur.

In every brand there are aspects that will evolve…What you need to do at the onset is look at the breadth of your brand and decide the places where you want that growth to occur.

For instance, you could define a robust color palette, but decide that your specific UI style can vary with time. That way when a new operating system comes out, you don’t have to rebrand to fit it. You can decide that your mark will be a source of brand uniformity, but you don’t mind using varying colors based on the specific application and context of a project.
If that seems crazy, it helps to look to an entire industry that designers seem to love but ignore when it comes to branding lessons: fashion. Fashion brands are some of the most interesting brands that exist, and unlike most industries, fashion is based largely on constant change. With specific products and trends rapidly morphing throughout the year, and most larger brands managing targeted sub-brands as well, it’s interesting to look at the things that remain constant in companies’ brand language. The things that corporate brands usually hinge on — color, typography, imagery — are almost totally irrelevant. Instead fashion brands focus more on primary marks and messaging. Those become the constants of their brands, allowing for maximum freedom across their product offering from season to season.
Regardless of how you want to implement your brand, it will change. And looking ahead to specific areas where you want to change will allow you to include the requisite amount of flexibility in your core brand exercises.

Let Your Designers Design

One of the best parts of embracing the iterative nature of product branding is that it lets your core designers shine. When I hired my first designer at Virb, Justin, it was interesting (and refreshing) to see how his unique approach to our brand affected the work we both produced. Luckily, our brand was a work in progress, and it was all the better for it. Sadly, this isn’t the case with a lot of product brands.
Nothing makes me more frustrated than seeing some of the most talented people I know working within the strictest brand standards. Designers are unique and bring a unique skillset and point-of-view to any company they work for. Your brand should assume that — and anticipate it. By allowing your designers to use thier talents to benefit your brand you’ll create brand advocates instead of brand robots. You’ll also allow newer employees to help inform and even challenge the status-quo of a brand, keeping it from reaching a point of stagnancy.

Designers are unique and bring a unique skillset and point-of-view to any company they work for. Your brand should assume that — and anticipate it.

One company that seems to do this incredibly well is Mailchimp. They have a talented and diverse set of designers, and everything they produce feels so warm and personal. Nothing is the work of a robot implementing a tome of boring standards. They’re a company that celebrates the varied and unique ways that their brand can be implemented, and it makes all of their collective work shine even brighter.
Your designers are a core part of your team and are central to the success of your product. Develop a brand that allows each one to maximize their abilities for the greater good of the team without constricting their skills.

Centralize Brand Assets

One of the products of iterative branding is versions. Versions aren’t necessarily bad, but they are when not managed properly. Sending a marketing officer into a jungle of brand assets — v1’s, v2’s, finals, or worse — is not the situation you want to put your coworkers in. Iterative branding requires those managing the brand to create and manage centralized locations of assets. This gives everyone referencing your brand the confidence that they’re using the correct and most up-to-date version. It also lessens the chance of someone getting ahold of something that’s either in-progress or deprecated.
Here’s 3 quick ways to make this work:

  1. Keep final brand assets in a central and accessible location. Have you heard of Dropbox? It’s a great place to store files in a centralized location for everyone. Just mind your folder sizes. Also, keep working files and archived assets out of the way — only the recent and current assets you want people using should be accessible.
  2. Move to comprehensive UI style guides. Digital products create a mess of files unlike anything I have ever seen. They also become irrelevant and out of date faster. By moving to a centralized guide for UI elements you can eliminate contextual files (homepage.sketch, marketingpages.sketch) and keep your design files from getting out of hand.
  3. Implement a code based style guide for all web-based products and marketing sites. The absolute best way to keep things unified among web-based touch points is to have a web-based style guide. These guides are incredibly easy to manage (and update!) and give designers and developers alike access to a constantly updated brand application.

You might not be able to implement all of these right away, but any of them will help alleviate the issues that arise during a more iterative approach to your branding.

Iteration Is a Balance

Your product is a living breathing thing unlike any other business. Branding it as such requires a new way of thinking that eschews the traditional longwinded branding exercises of the past, but realizes that branding is more than just a $300 logo. There’s a balance in between those two extremes that exists, and your business will be better if you can find it. To help, embrace your brand and develop it iteratively, just like the product it’s charged with representing.

Originally published as a Scenery Guide

Next Story — The Next Agency
Currently Reading - The Next Agency

The Next Agency

Why we started The Scenery — a new type of agency, created for the needs of today’s digital products.

“There has been always a lack of vision in most digital agencies because all they offered was their craft and expertise of execution. It’s like painting a car, but not building it.”

He’s right. Today’s digital agencies are just shiny new versions of the early 2000’s ad agency, which were just a new version of the 1990’s ad agency. They got into “New Media” and started making Flash micro-sites. They transitioned from magazine ad buys to Social Media Marketing. They stopped designing brochures and started making websites on Wordpress and Drupal. I know because I did it for the first 6 years of my career, and it was incredibly exciting at the time.

Trading Clients for Customers

While I was working at my first agency the industry slowly began to shift and my friends started getting jobs at places like Big Cartel, Apple, and Squarespace. So I shifted with it. In 2010, I joined the team at Virb and got into everyone’s current obsession: product. Over the next 4 years, the team I creative directed and managed built a really nice car, in Schneider’s words.

While I was working at my first agency the industry slowly began to shift and my friends started getting jobs at places like Big Cartel, Apple, and Squarespace. So I shifted with it. In 2010, I joined the team at Virb and got into everyone’s current obsession: product. Over the next 4 years, the team I creative directed and managed built a really nice car, in Schneider’s words.

At the beginning of 2015 something else happened: I started freelancing for multiple startups. After 4 years of product work I had developed a set of design skills that only come from years of working in the not-always-fun day-to-day of a product. The things that you learn from making mistakes and knowing how you’d tackle a problem again next time around. And I realized there were lots of people out there who still needed that sort of help.

On my own I could help with design and UI but it didn’t feel like enough. Product teams are more than just designers, and frankly, the really hard problems are the ones usually solved hand-in-hand with a talented developer. At Virb I solved those problems with my best friends Ryan and Andy. The three of us were largely responsible for designing and building all of Virb’s front facing marketing sites. We also developed the responsive theme platform that powers Virb sites to this day. We had a strange set of shared experiences that worked in tandem and was unique to only a small agile product team.

We got together late one Spring night, shared a bottle of whiskey, and talked about what we always talk about: the Internet. We talked about the traditional agencies we worked at for so many years and how dissatisfied we were. We talked about how badly we wanted to help products we loved.

That is when The Scenery was born.

That is when The Scenery was born.

The digital agency is dead. It doesn’t fit. In its place stands a new agency, the next agency: a product agency. At a product agency we know that by the time you get your two-year brand exercise finished you’ll have a completely new product with 14 new touch points and four more competitors. We know that you need a team that’s small, fast, and integrated — one that will join in your daily standups and ask questions over Slack instead of email. We know how to talk to dev ops and manage the business goals of your marketing team. We know that the best product UX makes customer support a breeze and minimizes your need for a 217 employee call center.

We’re a new type of agency because we know how products tick — not by reading about it on Medium but from actually doing the work. And that’s the agency that products need.

We’re The Scenery and we’re the next agency. How can we help you?

Next Story — Today’s Vagenda
Currently Reading - Today’s Vagenda

Today’s Vagenda

Ready for the day.

6:00 am. Arise. Wrap your cardigan-sheathed hands around a mug of hot cardamom lemon water; squint into the distance from your craftsman veranda. Breathe authentically. Pick off a passing man with your bespoke porch rifle.

6:30 am. Laundry. The heather-gray linen kitchen towels from last night’s festivities need washing. Delicate cycle; honeysuckle gentle wash detergent. Head back upstairs. Roll up your husband’s body inside the flokati rug upon which it rests. Dust surrounding area with small-batch microfiber.

7:30 am. Morning e-mails. Remind the others about this weekend’s dick-burning.

8:15 am. Breakfast: coconut-ginger scones with raw wolf meat. Using the giraffe filter on Snapchat, falsely accuse a man of rape.

9:00 am. Nap.

9:18 am. Yoga while watching latest Real Housewives of New Jersey; question Jacqueline’s motives. Move the rug-swaddled corpse to a dumpster behind Whole Foods. Buy chia seeds in bulk.

11:30 am. Back home. Shower; wash face with homemade semen-cucumber scrub. Triple steam vulva. Check internet. Mob formed yet?

1:30 pm. Doctor’s appointment — ask about ‘pleasure abortions.’ Do they do group packages? Alison’s birthday is coming up.

2:55 pm. Retail therapy; there’s a sale at Michael’s. Purchase 37 mason jars. Text Jenny for her scrotum-infused kombucha recipe. Commit vehicular manocide in the parking lot. Text while driving; tell the internet mob they can stop — you’ve just killed the man you falsely accused of rape.

4:30 pm. Kill a football team.

4:45 pm. Nap.

6:30 pm. Order artisanal pizza. Abduct the delivery guy upon his arrival; make him dance for you while you work on screenplay for an all-female Saving Private Ryan.

7:30 pm. Google cyanide. Ethically harvested version available?

7:45 pm. Nag a man to death at the local bar.

9:25 pm. Deactivate bitch shield.

9:30 pm. Apply lavender oil to temples, crawl into bed. Snuggle under your hemp percale sheets; set your noise machine to “crickets+men crying.” Fall asleep censoring male speech online.

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