Demystifying the Interactive Process [Part II:Discovery]

The first step we begin with in the Interactive version of the SDLC is called ‘Discovery’. This is the stage where the agency and the client both learn quite a bit about each other and about what the other thinks about the project under discusssion. Both sides literally discover what it is that’s going to happen in the next few months as they work together to bring the Client’s project to life online.

Discovery for Clients

One of the main reasons to begin with a Discovery phase is because many clients begin with less than a perfect understanding of what they actually need within the Interactive space, let alone all of the many things which are possible. In the typical scenarios I’ve seen, the Client readily admits that they’re looking to the agency to provide the expertise in a proactive manner. I’ve been told directly by my clients that “Responsive customer service isn’t good enough for us; we need you to be aggressively proactive. You’re the experts. Advise us.”

This is actually quite laudable, and to be encouraged. A statement like that lets the agency know that they are on the hook, as it were, for more than just doing what they are told. It acknowledges the advisory role that a good agency will play, even as they educate their clients one project at a time. Eventually, experienced clients will begin to even out that knowledge playing field, but educated and experienced clients are the ideal kind of clients within the Interactive arena, because of the bonds of trust which hopefully have grown to help them get to that level. It cuts down on the time needed for explanations when both Client and Agency can speak each others’ languages.

What Clients Should Expect

In the Discovery phase, you should be talking to some kind of a guru from the beginning. Chances are, if you’re working with a larger agency, that the guru will have the job title of “Interactive Strategist”, or “Account Director”. Two different roles, but both normally in possession of the kind of specialized experience necessary to help listen to the rough ideas that the Client has for the project, and who will suggest in turn possible solutions aimed at delivering the kind of project that Clients actually need.

During the Discovery process, a Client should have at least one interview, face to face preferred, with their Strategist. The Strategist should be asking questions designed to give them a clear idea of what the actual goals of the Client are. When the Client has options, the Strategist should be delivering some Case Studies of how other people are actually using the kinds of options being presented. When the Client is responding to industry competiton, the Strategist should provide Competitive Analyses, documents which provide detailed breakdowns of what interactive tactics and strategies your competition is employing, as well as how well or poorly it’s working for them.

A Good Strategist

A good Strategist will not only plan for the immediate project, but they will set some benchmarks and a general strategic plan which will ideally go beyond the end of the current project to propose some over-arching longer-term goals that the current project will provide the initial direction and foundation for. With all things Interactive, having a plan and knowing what you’re aiming for are very important.

If nothing else, ask your Strategist to help you define some Success Benchmarks as part of the current project Discovery documentation. What that means is that the Strategist should be using their communication time with you as a Client to help figure out precise numbers or goals which you as the Client would consider to be signs of a successful outcome from the interactive project. It can be quantitative (generate a 10% increase in unique visitors to the site), or qualitative (update the User Interface of the project to be more user-friendly), but before you even begin to build, you need to have your “proof of Success” plotted out. As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, the Victorious plan to succeed before ever beginning to take action. The losers begin to act, and THEN plan for victory. The same applies here.

Discovery from an Agency Perspective

Whether or not the Agency actually has the staff to retain a full-time Interactive Strategist/interactive marketing specialist of any kind, Discovery is still a crucial point in the process. For freelancers or small Interactive shops, the Discovery process can be mostly informal, but I will take great pains to underline the importance of setting up clear Success Benchmarks if you do nothing else. Even without a formal Strategic Plan, you need those Success Benchmarks. Often times, the first project that any Client will work through will result in a rude awakening to the fact that the Client is working with a set of Assumptions which are not grounded in realistic expectations. The creative doesn’t look the way they imagined, or there are lots of little extras they realize they want only after the job is almost complete. By having a concrete, Client-signed set of Success Benchmarks, you remove the guesswork. And more importantly, you provide an opportunity to help intercept and correct mistaken assumptions.

Remember, Clients not only want you to be aggressively proactive, during the Discovery phase they need you to be aggressively proactive. You can’t just dupe the Client into signing off on what you know will be bad Success Benchmarks, and then hide behind the documentation. During the Discovery process, you need to present options to the Client, but you need to do so in a way which will add to their understanding, not circumvent it.

Adjusting Client Expectations From the Start

Frequently, this is where the Client’s reach will exceed their grasp. They may be able to recognize the bells and whistles of greatness that they would really like to see in their finished project, but this is also the first of many areas where it is the Interactive Strategist’s duty to begin to introduce reality into the dreaming. Part of the Discovery services that you offer to your Client is not only as a way of enriching their dreams, but also as a phase where you begin to aggressively and proactively set their expectations to be grounded in the harsh reality that the Interactive Producer will be quick in forcing them to face when the next phase, Definition, gets underway.

Or, as I like to put it, before you can prep the Client for a successful launch, you have to get their visions on the ground, first.

How Long Does This Take, Anyway?

Discovery is one of those curious phases… it’s not technically required for every project. There are projects where the focus is mostly execution, not strategic planning. However, Success Benchmarks are essential for every build. Discovery, then, will last anywhere from a few hours spent drawing up and getting Clients to approve their Success Benchmarks, to months of planning sessions. It really depends on how knowledgeable and experienced the Client is, and how aware of the Interactive SDLC they are.

For that reason alone, it’s always best for Clients to come to the table asking how long Discovery will take, and more importantly, how much the Agency thinks it will cost.

Cost?

Yes, cost. During Discovery, the Agency is providing you with access to an Expert. Experts are not cheap. In fact, on most Interactive Teams, the Strategist is one of the highest billing specialists you’ll deal with. In professional agencies, expect the bill to run upwards of $275/hour of their time, and Strategists as a rule don’t like to rush. They are entrusted with developing an overall strategy for how the Client will make money off of the internet, and that’s not something you would WANT to rush. Nor is it something you would want to linger over, either.

Discovery is the first pain point for many Clients because this is where a good agency will make certain that the Client’s illusions are swiftly deflated. This is where the cold hard reality begins to set in… the hype that you heard in the 90’s about the web being fast, and cheap? Not the case any more. Nowadays, just like everything else, you get what you pay for.

Discovery is also the phase where the costs should theoretically go down the more knowledgeable and experienced that the *Client* is, because Clients can and often do come to the table with the Discovery phase already taken care of in-house, or by another specialist that the Client hires directly. This can backfire sometimes, but in general, the more the Client understands the Interactive process and how to maximize their use of the Interactive medium, the less time that the Agency has to spend informing and adjusting Client expectations, and the more time that the Interactive Strategist can just ‘plan the work’. If there’s already an overaching Strategy Plan in place, then subsequent projects within the same Strategy can effectively minimize the time and money spent in the Discovery process.

That never means you should completely do away with Discovery. As much as the more tactically-minded clients would balk, you ALWAYS want to see an Interactive Strategist putting an hour or two toward your project. As an Agency, you always want clearly defined Success Benchmarks to be working against. As a Client, you always want someone who knows your account and has the overall plans for your interactive development clearly in mind from the beginning, to avoid duplication of efforts or working at cross-purposes to your established Interactive goals.

The End of Discovery

At the end of the Discovery process both sides will gather everything that was learned in the Discovery phase and they will boil it all down into several documents. Once you’ve begun generating the kind of documentation for the project that will actually define all of the elements of the project, you are moving from the Discovery Phase to the Definition Phase.  We’ll look closer at Definition in tomorrow’s post, but for now keep in mind that perhaps the single most important document to be generated out of the Discovery and Definition phases is the Scope of Work. Chances are there’s already a Scope of Work of some kind in place to cover the Discovery and Definition part of the project (because how else will you know exactly what you’re paying money to the Strategist for or how long the process will go on without a SOW?) in which case the Definition phase will often produce an Adjusted SOW, or perhaps a Project Plan based off of the SOW and what was decided upon in Discovery. Even if your Agency doesn’t separate out Discovery from Definition, when you start talking about things like Sitemaps, Project Plans, and [adjusted] Scopes of Work, you’re moving on from Discovery and into the Definition phase.

Discovery is one of the most fundamentally important phases in the Interactive SDLC. Without it, the initial Risk level for the project jumps by 50%, at least.  Even if you don’t have a formal Strategist, or a formal Discovery phase, do NOT consent to the beginning of ANY Interactive project until and unless both Client and Agency agree upon and sign off on specific, results-oriented Success Benchmarks. Just don’t even begin until you both agree how everyone is going to determine whether the project was a ‘Success’ or not.

Trust me. It’s the most important step for the Discovery phase as a whole. Ignore the Success Benchmarks, and you’re already setting yourself up for failure, because at that point, the Client is free to declare ‘failure’ on anything, for any reason whatsoever. And on the other hand, the Interactive Agency can declare ‘success’ on anything, for any reason whatsoever. If you want to avoid lengthy post mortems and arguments over who said what when to who and just exactly what context it was used in… then take the time to establish your Success Benchmarks for all stakeholders.

Next up, Definition!

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Demystifying Interactive Process [Part I:Introduction]

When you want to build something that will live in the Interactive space (internet, web, mobile media, web 2.0, social networking, etc.) there’s a set of basic steps you need to follow in order to complete the project. Those steps have been culled from what’s called the SDLC, or Software[Systems] Development Life Cycle, a pattern which has been used in software and network systems development for years prior to the adoption of the same basic principles within the arena of commercial Interactive projects.

There are many variations available out there and in many cases the actual steps of the process will be determined entirely by the specific needs of the kinds of projects you’re building, but in general you can render down the SDLC as it applies to the Interactive space by considering a model called “The 5D’s”, even though it’s got two M’s in the very end.

The 5D’s Interactive Process

The phases of the so-called 5D process break down as follows:

  1. Discovery (exploring want vs. need, could vs. should)
  2. Definition (setting expectations through uber-specific documentation)
  3. Design (planning the architecture of information, experience, AND traditional visual Creative)
  4. Development (putting the plans to work, coding the behaviors)
  5. Deployment (getting it from Development environment to Live)
  6. Measurement (tracking metrics and analyzing them against success benchmarks)
  7. Maintenance (updating, upgrading, and minor edits to existing functionality and content)

Note well that there are actually 7 steps, and more than just the letter ‘D’ used to describe them. But it started with just the 5D’s, and got Measurement and Maintenance thrown in as logical followup steps to acknowledge the fact that interactive projects require more effort beyond ‘Deployment/Launch/Go Live’ to consider the project successfully completed. [Props where props are due, the two additional ‘M’ steps were added on the recommendation of the inimitable Elisa Carson, a very wise and savvy Interactive Producer I had the pleasure of working with at a past job.]

In the series of articles I have planned, I’ll be looking into the 5D process day by day and outlining some of the basic items which need to happen at each stage, as well as what kinds of professionals will be involved in the team as each phase happens.

A Resource for All Clients and Interactive Professionals

There’s a certain class of Interactive Professionals who are employed in specifically designed Interactive shops which eat, live, and breathe the 5D’s or some other house-grown variation on the SDLC. This won’t be of any use to those privileged few, the proud, the lucky… but what about the rest of the world who may or may not be involved in Interactive builds for very much of their job duties? What about the poor administrative assistant who ends up doing all the coordination work to help her too-busy-to-learn boss keep the new website project going? Suddenly “Web Master” duties are getting farmed out to already overworked corporate professionals. And what about small businesses operating outside of the ‘professional Interactive space’ who want to utilize the internet to help them make money, but are frankly put off by the Technobabble that usually accompanies such endeavors?

This series of posts is aimed intentionally at a broad audience. As such, we’ll be looking at this from a high level of general steps. Each house, each developer, each studio, and certainly every Interactive Producer has their own specific process which has developed to help them build the things they build for the clients they work with. But I dare say that the overall phases of the process outlined here should be present in more or less this order for every Interactive job that gets developed. It streamlines things, it manages expectations, and it includes all of the “best practices” of the overall industry.

Follow along as we go over the basics for the next week or so here at Internet Kerfluffle, and hopefully this will help get everyone using the same words, with the same expectations, for the same steps.

Special Case: Those Familiar With Print Process

As a former graphic designer with over a decade of experience in the Creative and Production realms for ‘traditional media’ (e.g. Print, or ‘offline’ media), my first exposure to Interactive was working as an Interactive Producer in an otherwise-completely Print-based agency. The results were disastrous as expectations went kerplewie and project budgets immediately either ran overboard big-time, or else clients were unhappy with their results, 9 times out of 10. It was that experience that led me to find my training in grad school for a Masters of Interactive Communications from Quinnipiac University (detailed on Graduate Interactive Communications, my grad school blog for those who want to poke around a bit into my experiences there).

While I was studying full time on nights and weekends in the professionally-based MS program all about understanding the business of the Internet, I moved to another job with another historically print-based marketing and promotions agency, where I would frequently get into shouting matches with my coworkers on the Account side because of the impossible things they were expecting as a matter of course. The experience took some getting used to, but by the time that layoffs came for the entire department  I had learned some very important things about the difference between the Print process that all of the agencies in Connecticut and their clients were used to, and the Interactive process.

I can boil down the main difference as follows.

  • In the world of Print, there is great flexibility in the process of developing materials. Once the materials are launched, however, the results are fixed and cannot be changed, only re-done from the beginning at great expense.
  • In the world of Interactive, there really is NO flexibility in the process of developing the project. Yet once the project is launched, you have a lot of flexibility over minor changes and updates.

Before my colleagues jump on me, let me explain what I mean by ‘NO flexibility in the [Interactive] process’.  Obviously, when looked at entirely by itself, there’s always going to be some measure of flexibility to any process. But when you compare it to Print, you can begin to get a better sense for what I mean.

Print Emphasizes Form, Interactive Emphasizes Function

In the world of Print, you have a date by which the materials need to be in the market, and you have your printer telling you how long they need the files in advance of that date in order to make it to market.  There is no question in Print what the final product does. It displays, wherever it is put with whatever gimmick it’s got to make the target audience look at it, and consider doing what it tells you to do. (Drink more Ovaltine™!) Up until the date that the Printer needs those final files, and sometimes even a bit after that, the Client and the Creatives and the entire project team can change every single thing about that project — what it’s going to look like, which products will be featured, what the headlines say, where the Call to Action message is, what color the background will be, etc.

Once it’s printed, though, those particular posters, or newspaper ads, or billboards, etc…. they exist. They’re done. You can throw them away and print new ones, but you can’t really change what you’ve already done. You have to start over again with different files and print whole new different posters.

Thus, PRINT = Flexible Process, Fixed Result.

In the world of Interactive, things are quite a bit different. Opposite, really. In order to determine the date that you’re going to be able to get Interactive projects into the marketplace (e.g. Launch/Go Live date) you need to count -forward-, not backward. And what you are counting forward from is nothing less than a completely detailed and 100% specific definition of EXACTLY what it is that you will be building in the interactive space, and more importantly, what it’s going to have to be able to do. You can change the process, but EVERY decision you postpone until ‘later’ in the process creates higher and higher risk that the entire project will derail, run late, or become VERY expensive, VERY quickly (and needlessly).

The reason for the difference is that in Print, the end result is a Thing that gets provided by someone else. That Thing already exists. Everyone knows what it does. It provides a surface to hold the Creative being Printed. In Interactive, you are building a miniature piece of software. If all you want is something to hold the Creative being Printed, then you’re in luck because those are the easiest kinds to build. But once you want to actually take advantage of the bells and whistles, the interactivity and responsive behaviors that online information software like web sites have to offer, well then you’re going to have to be very specific extremely early on in the process.

Unlike the world of Print, in Interactive there’s no such thing as successfully starting a project without knowing exactly what you’re going to end up with when the project is done.  In reality, in the world of Interactive, what you are ‘launching’ is not the message, it’s the medium itself. Once a web site is up and functioning as planned, you can go back into the exact same project and update things… so long as it doesn’t “break” the functionality or the overall organization built into the site when it was developed. You have a lot more control over the basic parts of the project even after launch. But before you can even begin to work, you really need to know exactly what it is you’re going to do for the end product.

Therefore, INTERACTIVE = Fixed Process, Flexible Results.

What That Means For You

In a nutshell? It means that for any Interactive Project, the more specific you can be about things the earlier in the process, the more likely it is your project will be successful (which is defined by all Interactive Producers as ‘on Scope, on time, on [budget] target’. The more that you leave things open (and woe to you if you Interactive agency allows you to leave things open for long beyond the Discovery phase) the more likely it is that you will run into endless Change of Scope updates, budgetary overruns, and timing delays.

If you or the boss you work for is thinking, “We need to launch Project X in six months, we can just start the Agency working now and we’ll finalize plans in the next month or so,” that is a huge red flag of danger. If you want to save the day for the entire project, right then and there say the following:

“Let’s check with the agency and see if we have room in the schedule for a 2-month Discovery phase.”

Really, it’s that simple to avert disaster. To see why, check out Part II where we’ll discuss what a ‘Discovery’ phase is, and why they will save time and money in the long run.