What design deliverables do you actually need?

Paul Boag

Do you need to hire a web agency to build you a website? Or do you need help creating a pattern library and design framework?

Over the 12 years we have run Headscape the deliverables have been changing as client requirements alter.

In the beginning we delivered entire websites. We still do on some projects. But, increasingly we found ourselves working with organisations that had server side developers in-house. In such situations it made little sense to deliver the server side code. Instead we delivered page templates that the in-house team would integrate into their site.

More recently things have changed yet again. Many of the organisations we work with today don’t just have server side developers. They have entire web teams consisting of designers, front-end coders, copy specialists and so on. These teams are more than capable of delivering entire sites.

Why would an organisation with an entire web team need the help of an outside digital agency like Headscape? The answer is simple — time.

Time is the biggest enemy of internal web teams

Internal web teams are in my experience always under resourced and over worked. This has two consequences.

First, they become bogged down in day to day maintenance. They rarely have the time to evolve the website. Instead they become a service department delivering whatever functionality or content other departments demand. Rarely do they get to step back and look at the bigger picture. They just don’t have the time to optimise either the design or its codebase.

The second consequence of under resourcing internal web teams is that they don’t have the time to learn. The web moves at such a blistering rate and it takes time for web professionals to stay ahead of the curve. They need time to experiment, attend conferences, make mistakes and just sit learning.

This lack of time shows on the website. The design becomes inconsistent because there is no central repository of design styles. The code too becomes messy and hard to manage. This is not a failure of the internal web team, its a failure in management.

Over time the mess becomes noticed and management call in an outside agency to fix things. They ask this agency to build a new site, but is that the answer?

There is not a black and white answer to this. It depends on the organisation. But increasingly we are not delivering a full website or even front end templates.

Saving time and improving sites

Instead we are focusing on the creation of pattern libraries and design frameworks. In other words we are helping create a collection of reusable elements. The existing team can then use these across the site. This enforces consistency and also increases efficiency. Combined with a site wide grid system, building pages now becomes easier. This frees up time for the internal web team to work more strategically on the site.

In some cases we are even able to integrate these elements into the CMS. This means anybody within the organisation can create new pages in much the same way you assemble blocks of lego. This in turn reduces the workload for the internal team.

By reusing these ‘modules’ across the site you can be sure of consistency both in the visual appearance and code. This makes life easier if you ever want to update a module. Change the CSS in one place and every module updates.

It is also important to note that how we deliver these design elements is just as important as what we deliver.

Giving ownership and increasing skills

When producing work for an internal web team, it is vital not to work in isolation. You need to create a single team that includes members from the agency and the organisation. This has become known as codesign and I believe it is the future of the agency/client relationship.

It’s not just that the team have to live with your work, its also that they need a sense of ownership over it. It needs to be as much their design as yours.

It also gives the agency an opportunity to mentor the internal team. Unlike in-house teams, agencies have no choice but to invest in their staff’s education. If they do not they will stop winning work. This means that agency staff are often more up-to-date on the latest techniques. This is not to say that internal teams are less skilled. They just don’t have the same time to learn.

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Also agencies often have the luxury of specialists. This is something many internal teams cannot justify. These specialists can work closely with internal teams and improve their skills.

The result of this approach should be to end up with a more consistent, efficient site. You will also have a team who is more in control and better equipped to do their job.

So next time you go out to tender ask yourself exactly what deliverables you want. Do you really want a new website or are you looking for something more?