Crushed Red Peppers
UX case study
Table of Contents
- Checking out the competition
- Understanding the users
- Red Caffeine’s process
- Future planning
Agencies of all sizes constantly work on numerous client projects and as more people become involved, it can be challenging to accomplish jobs without project management software. The primary purpose of the software is to help managers plan, execute, and control all aspects of the process.
Red Caffeine is a marketing agency that used strategy, branding, and technology to fuel meaningful impact for mid-market and enterprise organizations. Their mission was to build a project management platform for collaboration and productivity for their agency. In 2017, they launched Crushed Red Pepper (CRP), a beta project management tool for in-house production with a future goal of creating a monetized model in a software as a service (SaaS) strategy for similar-sized agencies. However, this tool had to work for Red Caffeine first before it joins a competitive landscape.
CRP Dashboard (Pre-research design)
CRP Resource Allocation
At kick-off, we met with the key stakeholders of the company for a Q&A session to fully understand the scope and requirements for the project:
- Kathy Steele (Founder & CEO)
- Emre Biberoglu (CTO)
- Jimmy Merritello (Strategy & Digital Lead)
- Amy Anderson (Director of Client Services)
- Kayla Portillo (Account Manager)
Kathy was the company visionary overseeing growth, strategic partnerships, and employee engagement. She was recognized nationally and locally for entrepreneurial excellence, creative direction, and business acumen. Kathy wanted to improve both efficiency and sanity of CRP so that they could move from disruptive collaborations (emails, IM, Google Drive, Trello, etc.) to intentional meetups (everything in one spot). She wanted to solve the issues around CRP experienced by teams across production, account management, and admin/sales, and they needed more intuitive features and functionality for the tool to work more effectively.
“We did a pretty lengthy product review of a lot of the tools that were on the marketplace and we couldn’t find anything that was solving all our problems”– Kathy, CEO
We wanted to set more realistic expectations for the client and our team. We suggested narrowing the scope to the resource allocation aspect of the tool that impacted account managers with revenue projections as well as tracking billable hours to improve the overall productivity of the agency.
“It’s not clear how we’re supposed to be using certain tools, and there are certain processes that some people believe in and some people don’t. So, it’s just really confusing what to do and the best way of doing things. There are no established best practices really.”– Lauren, AM
During our first interaction with the client, we came to know that CRP was built by their in-house development team without conducting any prior research or usability tests. The fast growth of the agency left them without a scaling plan. Users had their own preferred methods for completing tasks due to the lack of standardization, there was no centralized system where valuable data was shared with others, which impacted productivity and budget forecasting. Our initial assumption was Red Caffeine needed to implement company-wide standards which could provide a process and flow for CRP users, and our research would help us validate/invalidate this hypothesis.
Checking out the competition
Our team was given access to CRP to understand various functionalities and areas for improvement. Our first impression was that the platform had confusing information architecture and user interface. We spent hours looking at various components of the platform and wrote down areas for improvement. We decided to look at some of the competitors in the market to find out how they provided users with heaps of benefits including task management, team collaboration, resource allocation, and an intuitive dashboard.
Meet the players
During the competitive analysis, we found out that the market was saturated with various project management tools. All these tools provided managers with comprehensive resource analysis, which included both operational and strategic activities at any stage in the project work lifecycle. We decided to focus on the following three companies as they offered the most useful features for the project overview and resource activities:
Asana was a task and project management app for teams to communicate and collaborate efficiently and effectively with one another. The user was able to leverage this platform to create projects and then tasks within the projects. Asana eliminated most of the challenges teams faced when trying to keep their teams together through email notifications which CRP was lacking. Each member could simply log in and see how a project was doing, without necessarily attending meetings. Another advanced feature that definitely deserved attention was the smart inbox. Instead of unwanted messages, the employee would receive only important project updates and convert them into actionable tasks the very same moment.
Monday was a simple but intuitive tool that enabled users to manage work, meet deadlines, and build a culture of transparency. A single board allowed users to see who was working on what task, which instantly provided information on current status and consequently empowered users to achieve their goals.
Harvest Forecast was a tool to manage agency projects and individuals’ schedules to ensure that people were not severely under or overbooked. The app made it easy to see how many hours of work were being assigned to each individual. It easily retrieved data to make future decisions on project estimates and also helped assess individual strengths and weaknesses.
We decided to split these competitor apps among team members to experiment with the different features to fully understand how they functioned in an agency-style setting. We created dummy projects and resources to check the effectiveness of these tools. After testing we came to the conclusion that these apps were extremely flexible and gave a method to collaborate on projects by timelines and outstanding work. They helped determine the budget (planned versus actual) so the work could be aligned accordingly. These tools also helped with monitoring the stages of projects and provided insights into whether tasks would complete on time. The tools assisted in making the right decisions as all project details were in one designated place.
After analyzing these competitors, we found areas of improvements where we could elevate CRP’s existing dashboard to provide account managers with a concise view of their existing projects. We also found inspiration where the resource page could provide more valuable data to the users which could save valuable time during task allocation.
Understanding the users
Red Caffeine provided us with five users with a diverse range of experience working in account and project management.
- Amy Anderson (Director of Client Services)
- Lisa Behning (Account Manager)
- Michelle Phelps (Account Manager)
- Lauren Risetter (Account Manager)
- Kayla Portillo (Account Manager)
Our team decided to do a contextual inquiry to observe users’ frustrations and pain points within the platform in their natural environment. We made a day trip to Red Caffeine’s office and noticed that it was an open workspace layout. The account managers lacked any privacy in their cubicle and it was a tough task to conduct a contextual inquiry without disturbing the staff around. Our team decided to conduct the sessions in one of the meeting rooms where the user could fully express themselves without disturbing their surroundings and also show us their CRP process.
While developing the interview questions, we wanted to learn the following to fully understand the agency culture and the user process in completing different tasks:
- Understand how they accomplished their tasks on a daily basis
- Learn how they communicated with other teams
- Understand the company’s structure and hierarchy
- Learn about their collaboration process with different teams
- Understand their goals and frustrations while using CRP
- Learn about the decision-making process for implementing any new features in CRP
After conducting these interviews, I gained some valuable insight about account managers’ workflows which included:
- Assessment of new projects
- Creating budgets
- Resource allocation analysis
- Client approval process
- Opening tasks in CRP
- Communicating with team members
- Tracking overall project health
After gathering data from the interviews, we needed to make sense of all this information by synthesizing it. The affinity diagramming helped us prioritize the data into different categories which helped us with the following insights:
“I never have a holistic view of the resources, what they’re doing for me and for other account managers.”– Kayla
There was a lack of visibility of what everyone was working on. The account managers shared resources with other managers, but there was no clear snapshot of what everyone had on their plate.
“There’s no way to flag if something is running on time or not, so this still causes me to have to IM, email or stop by someone’s desk to check in.”– Lisa
Users couldn’t rely on the resource allocation data on CRP as it was not updated on a regular basis. Users were using google sheets to find the information but it was static in nature and was only updated once a month.
“When we view a report of the project revenue, the numbers often don’t match up to what we initially estimated.”– Amy
There was no weekly timesheet system for the employees, so it was hard to keep track of billable hours in real time which also affected resource allocation.
After synthesizing all the data, we learned that resource allocation was one of the trickier aspects of leading a project. Account managers needed a global overview to be able to prioritize effectively; they needed to understand the major aims of every project they deployed resources to. They also needed to understand that many of those resources were working on multiple projects at once. Therefore, managing how other people used their time at work and deciding what needed to be done first was highly complicated. CRP was ineffective in satisfying the core needs of the users and these valuable insights helped us increase our efficiency and effectiveness in understanding the user’s emotional journey.
More user research
After conducting research with users at Red Caffeine, I was really curious to find out how the account management process worked at other agencies. With the help of our creative director, we were able to find and interview three additional users and one SME outside of Red Caffeine. These users had years of experience and were using similar project management tools which would provide us with valuable data moving forward.
- Gina Calzaretta (Associate Director of Delivery, Marmalade Agency)
- Nick Andersen (Account Director, Hanson Dodge)
- Kristen Kligis (Project Manager, Zaelab)
- Leah Zalinski (Senior VP of Project Management, Weber Shandwick)
Through our interviews, we found useful information on resource allocation and the tools other agencies used. Some important takeaways we obtained from those interviews were as follows:
- Agencies were using apps like Harvest Forecast, Basecamp, Smartsheet, Flow, Google Sheets and Microsoft Teams for project management
- A perfect tool didn’t completely replace communication but helped facilitate it
- Project snapshot was important for account managers for making critical business decisions
After synthesizing, we found out that some agencies had a resource manager who took a high-level view on people and projects across the company. That person acted as a go-between with the department head and the account manager to help coordinate the allocation of resources. However, in smaller agencies, an account manager would speak informally with a potential resource and sometimes need formal approval from their manager to assign the task. Since Red Caffeine account managers followed a similar process, this validated our decision to focus on technology improvements which would also refine their process. This also invalidated our initial assumption that lack of company-wide standards were the core issues for account managers for not using CRP, as other agencies operated in a similar manner.
Defining the problem
Since we were designing and solving the problem for our client who was also the user, telling a story through a fictional persona would have been unproductive and risky. So we decided not to show any personas in our presentation and focus more on our real users. We created a problem statement that helped us to best articulate what our users currently needed.
As an account manager at Red Caffeine, I need a centralized project management system with set standards to make better resource allocation decisions. This will allow me to plan my projects with accuracy and efficiency, as well as support our internal teams with a clear understanding of project activity.
Our users needed clear data visibility in order to make critical decisions, have a structure for data input and also be informed for any potential issues. We came up with the following design principles based on the needs of our users which also acted as guiding pillars for the next stages of ideation and prototyping.
We presented these findings to Red Caffeine’s CEO and stakeholders. They were pleased with all the data we collected from outside of Red Caffeine as it gave them some valuable insights on how other smaller agencies worked in a similar environment. The research also validated their assumption that their lack of process and standards were not distinctive but normal in other agencies too.
Red Caffeine’s process
We contacted four users at Red Caffeine to fully understand their current process of allocating resources for a client project. This would identify the various pain points in the user journey and help us design different concepts in the next stage.
Users: Amy, Lisa, Lauren & Kayla
We emailed our users with the following scenario and asked them to provide their workflow and the decisions in planning resources for a client project.
You received a new project from an existing client that requires a significant amount of work/time from a graphic designer. As your next step, you’re planning out the best way to accomplish that for your client. Please take a moment to bullet point the steps and decision points that you’d have in accomplishing that goal, from beginning to end. For example:
- What tasks are you tackling?
- What are you evaluating as you perform each task?
- Where do you look to find the information you need?
- Who are you talking to?
- Which tools do you use?
The email response we received from the users was very detailed. Each user showed their decision making and the steps they would take to accomplish the given scenario. We gathered all the data and started with the affinity diagramming to see any patterns and also fully understand their process. After synthesizing, we were able to identify different pain points our users were experiencing. This included going over the following google sheets which were static in nature before opening a task in CRP:
Hot List Google Sheet: It showed when each client project was technically due in the coming weeks, who was handling the tasks and the due date. However, there was no available information regarding how many hours were allocated to the resources, how long it took to complete the tasks and status of project completion. The account managers had no clear picture if the resources had availability to take on their projects. This document was not updated daily, which made the data unreliable.
Allocation Google Sheet: It showed hours assigned per resource for each client project. However, there was no information about deadlines, the current status of the project and expected date of completion. This limited information was not useful to the account managers for making any critical resource decisions.
The users could also log into CRP to find the information, but it was a cumbersome process. They had to click on individual clients, projects and tasks to view which resource was working on what. And some users didn’t enter due dates, which created unreliable project status data. The existing information architecture of the platform was also overwhelming for the user.
If the users did not find reliable data from Google Sheet or CRP, their only option was to personally go to the resource directly to inquire about their availability and then approach their supervisor for guidance. Finally, they had to use the estimator tool on CRP to allocate the job and hours to the available resource in order to start the project.
With all the user research, we began brainstorming different ideas to tackle the issues of resource allocation. I led several team sessions where we sketched divergent concepts on paper to find potential solutions.
After creating three rough concepts, we decided to test them with five users at Red Caffeine.
Users: Amy, Lisa, Michelle, Lauren & Kayla
The goal for testing these concepts was to:
- Provide solutions that displayed information at the right level of detail and at the right time for a given task.
- Keep in mind the user journey framework, design principles, and problem statement.
- Facilitate conversation with users.
Concept 1: My Projects
What we tested: During interviews, our users expressed frustration on not having a holistic view of the resources that could impact the budget and deadlines of their ongoing projects. This concept was an overview of client projects where the user was able to track overall project health at a glance, sort projects by categories (e.g. urgency, due date), prioritize work efficiently.
What we learned: Users were skeptical on how this concept would work to accommodate a large number of projects. They also expressed the need for more visibility among different teams.
Concept 2: Availability
What we tested: I designed this concept based on the needs of account managers for an easy way to check resource capacity on a granular level so that they could create accurate project estimates.
What we learned: Users expressed the need to have a more in-depth view of day-to-day hours and also wanted to see more details about the resource’s progress on individual tasks.
Concept 3: Sandbox
What we tested: This concept was based on an idea where the user was able to try out different allocation scenarios while dynamically seeing how it affected the time and budget for a project before committing and notifying those involved.
What we learned: Users found it useful to have a display area where they could see allocated and estimated hours. They also wanted a more in-depth view of the calendar. Some users were not sure about budget display as it involved a lot of other factors which didn’t necessarily involve resources.
The insight and understanding that we gained were directly translatable and applicable to the design. Through testings, we found the users appreciated the simplistic projects overview but also wanted more sorting options for custom search results. Users found it useful to have budget and hours information on the resource page but also expressed that there were other factors which affected the overall project budget not just resources alone. Users also liked the granular view of the resource capacity but they also wanted to see a more in-depth view of the other tasks they were involved in. These rough concepts provided for the identification of problems and the ability to fix them prior to building a prototype. With all the insights we received from our concept testing, we went back to the whiteboard to find a way to converge these important pieces into one final prototype for further testing.
It was challenging to make sense of all the important insights, and we decided to focus on the users’ priorities which included a simplified way of checking resource capacity along with overall project health in a more visual form. Keeping our design principles in mind, we turned to Axure to develop a clickable prototype to test the usability of the product.
We had three main goals for usability testing:
- Understand if the updated dashboard helped the user view the overall health of the client projects and how effective was it.
- Determine if the calendar view of different resources helped the user figure out their current workload.
- Track how users responded to the resource allocation option for assigning a task.
We conducted usability tests with five users at Red Caffeine and gave them three tasks to complete.
Users: Amy, Lisa, Michelle, Lauren & Kayla
Task 1: We asked the user to walk us through how to check the overall health of their projects
Key takeaways: Users liked the idea to view projects in totality as it gave them a better sense if a project was going over and what person or department was spending the majority of the hours. They also liked the macro and the more granular view of the allocated hours within the project as it gave a more holistic picture. Some users were confused by the caution icon and assumed it either meant an approaching completion date or a delay in reaching completion.
Task 2: We tasked the users to find a designer for a project and view the schedule to check availability
Key takeaways: Users liked the calendar list view of the resource availability during their project planning phase. They also appreciated the different sorting options to get more concise results. But some users also wanted more details about the resources to get a clear picture of their workload and preferred a snapshot of resources’ available hours for the whole month.
Users liked checking their resource’s schedule and allocating hours on the same page. But after testing all the users, we came to know that the hours were already getting assigned to the resources using the existing estimation tool on CRP. While creating a budget for the project, the account managers were already assigning tasks and hours to the resources, so the new allocation feature was repetitive and unnecessary.
We received some valuable feedback from testing which validated our assumptions on what information and features to include in our final prototype. We immediately made updates to our prototype before preparing for our final client presentation to show our findings.
Usability test scenario: You want to get an overall pulse-check of the health of all your client projects at once, to see which ones are most urgent or have impending due dates or running low on the estimated hours. Please walk us through your steps.
- Having a filter option on the top page gave the user the flexibility to search for a specific client, resource, and task.
- The new caution icon provided the user with critical notification if the total allocated hours for a project reached over 80%. This helped the user with the most up-to-date allocated hour progress.
- A simple view of project hours (allocated, used and remaining) provided users with valuable information.
- We moved away from the progress bar and implemented a circular progress graphic for a better visual representation of project status. This gave the user a quick snapshot of their project health.
- The avatars represented the resources working on the project. Hovering over the avatars gave users the hours snapshot and further clicking provided a more detailed information. The progress bar turned red if a resource went over the allocated hours, which required immediate action by the user.
Check resource capacity
Usability test scenario: You are trying to come up with a proposal/estimate for a client and want to check your resource’s availability for the month. Please show us your steps to find that information.
We converged the Sandbox and Availability concept which improved the overall navigation and browsability
- An up-to-date resource calendar would help account managers smoothly adjust resources if any change in scope appeared.
- A zoomed-in view of resource project activity made it easier to negotiate bookings with other account managers.
- The monthly available hour column helped the user avoid any under and over-utilization.
- The sorting by team and search option was a simple but most appreciated feature.
At the end of the three weeks, we presented all of our final testing results and prototype to our client, and they acknowledged that we were given a difficult task but commended us for being proactive and positive throughout the entire process. While there is still a significant amount of testing and iterating to be done, our final prototype received positive feedback from our users. Our solution was highly dependent on the weekly timesheet system, which was not a mandatory policy at Red Caffeine. This was conveyed in our final meeting where the client expressed their interest to incorporate the change in order to plan, manage and control projects and also our CRP solution to work more effectively.
- More usability testing both inside and outside of Red Caffeine with users in different roles would further improve the usability of this tool and make it more robust.
- Having a weekly timesheet system would help provide information on the total number of billable hours spent on a project and define delaying factors. It would also help forecast resource requirements and allocations along with cost reduction.
- During usability testing of the existing platform, users were given a task to find a designer. They had to click multiple navigation items (people and resources) in order to search for it. Some users were not sure of the difference between “teams” and “people” as it contained similar information. We recommended improving the existing information architecture with card sorting that would create clear paths for the users and make it easy to navigate and improve the overall user experience.
- Better data visualization would further help identify new business opportunities and help stay up to date on critical project decisions as intelligently organized data would be easier to intuitively grasp.
- All data from accounting, human resources, and project management should be integrated into CRP for most up to date information.
- Most of the popular project management tools in the market provided support for multiple types of platforms. CRP should look into a responsive design so that it would work seamlessly on phone, tablet, and computer and enhance productivity.
- Integrating with third-party tools like Dropbox, Google Calendar, Salesforce would add considerable value to CRP and greatly improve the user experience.
We felt these strategy recommendations would make CRP more robust for its existing users and also streamline the process of resource allocation at Red Caffeine. By continuing to develop features like data visualization, fully integrating with third-party apps, and an improved information architecture through usability testing, Red Caffeine can definitely enter the market with a viable product with a monetized model for similar-sized agencies.
Red Caffeine came to us with a complex idea, and we only had three weeks to work on it as a team, so it was vital that we made sure to set expectations at the start and present them with a scope that was in line with our team and goals. Building a good rapport with Red Caffeine helped us to have open, clear communication throughout our entire project. I was cognizant of my own constraints and asking the right questions was essential to my understanding of how to best approach my designs.
“It was such pleasure to work with you on this project. Your enthusiasm was so contagious breathing new life into this incredibly important tool that runs our business. Congratulations on the effort and can’t wait to hear what big things are ahead for all of you!”– Kathy Steele, Founder & CEO (via LinkedIn)
“This team did an awesome job — tough, tough topics and they handled it all and delivered highly applicable insights!” — Jimmy Merritello, Strategy & Digital Lead (via LinkedIn)
“We cannot thank you enough for all of your hard work on our project! The three of you made an incredible team! Your energy, creativity, and insights were so very appreciated. Cannot wait for what’s next!”– Amy Anderson, Director of Client Services (via LinkedIn)
When I started this project, I had limited knowledge of how inadequate resource forecasting and limited resources account for many project failures in an agency. This client project made me realize my passion for strategy and problem-solving and the power of meaningful and impactful design. This was a great experience for my personal growth, and I’m also proud of the work our team was able to accomplish in a short duration.