Working in partnership

Paul Boag

The secret to a successful website is close collaboration between the development team and the site owners. But, how does that work when the development team is an outside contractor?

In season 2 of the podcast I shared my process for recreating the Boagworld website. It was a popular season because people loved to see how somebody else approached the web design process.

Because it was popular I thought I would repeat the exercise, but this time with a real client. I want to document the experience as we do the project, sharing with you the highs and the lows and hopefully giving you a sense of how Headscape approach client work.

Fortunately the team at the University of Strathclyde are willing to allow me to do just that.

The challenge

The University of Strathclyde and Headscape (the web design agency I co-founded) are looking to completely revamp the University website and put in place robust processes, policies and procedures for its long term management. Not only does the University of Strathclyde want a world class website, they also want to draw upon Headscape’s knowledge of best practice to ensure they are equipped to continually develop and improve the site. Unfortunately this presents a problem when looked at within the context of the normal client / supplier relationship.

University of Strathclyde Homepage
The University of Strathclyde are keen to revamp their website and put in place processes for its long term management.

Traditionally a client will produce a specification of what they want built, hand it to a web design agency, who goes away and deliver it. This works fine for smaller brochureware sites that rarely change, but it just wasn’t going to work when the aim is as much to establish working practices as it was to build a website.

Our solution to this challenge was to create a joint development team (made up of staff from Strathclyde and Headscape).

Forming a joint development team

The University of Strathclyde already have a strong web team, with server side developers, content specialists and front end coders. However like any team, it has more strength in some areas than others. We therefore started looking for gaps that could be plugged with Headscape staff.

The one obvious area of weakness is in design and UX skills. The Strathclyde team doesn’t have anybody that can fulfil this role, while it is a primary strength at Headscape.

Strathclyde also lack a lead with a strong background in digital. They have the best project lead I have ever worked with, but there was a weakness in digital experience where we could help.

Finally, although Strathclyde has excellent skills in front end development (HTML,CSS, Javascript) it was felt that adding in some experience from Headscape would encourage new thinking and introduce some knowledge in specific niches.

Our final core team looks something like this…

  • Project Lead (Strathclyde)
  • Digital Lead (Headscape)
  • Front End coders (2 Strathclyde, 1 Headscape)
  • UX Designer (Headscape)
  • Content specialists (Strathclyde)
  • Project manager (Strathclyde)
  • Server side developers (Strathclyde)

But this isn’t the entire team. We also have a number of specialists.

Bring in the specialists

Although our new core team is much stronger, it still does not have all of the skills and knowledge we need. This is an important realisation. Too many web teams resent outside ‘interference’ but the truth is that we need outside expertise.

For us these outside experts fall into two main categories; Skill specialists and Business specialists.

Skill specialist

A skill specialist is somebody who has a specific skill that we require, but do not need everyday. For example in our team we currently have three specialists working with us.

  • An analytics specialist (from Headscape)
  • A specialist in a system called Pegasus (from Strathclyde)
  • An accessibility specialist (from Strathclyde)

These and many others will be brought into the project as need arises. For example our analytics specialist is currently helping us decide which browsers we should support and to what level, while our accessibility specialist is putting together some accessibility guidelines.

Business specialist

A business specialist is somebody who has specific knowledge in the area of the site we are working with. For example, at the moment we are working on delivering content and functionality relating to research. This means we need somebody who has an intimate knowledge of that area.

Unlike skill specialists who act as consultants, we are embedding the business specialist in the core team. They remain apart of the team until we finish with use cases relating to their expertise. They become both client and team member, and are crucial to the success of delivery.

The combination of Headscape staff, the Strathclyde web team and additional experts works well for the immediate project. However, there is also a need to think further ahead.

Long term planning

Ultimately the University of Strathclyde needs to be in a position of running their own website, without the need for Headscape or any other outside contractor. This means that the roles fulfilled by Headscape people needs to be ultimately replaced with Strathclyde staff.

In some cases this is relatively easy. For example, Strathclyde already has front end coders and so Headscape’s involvement is only to introduce new practices. Once that is done, Headscape can take a back seat and allow Strathclyde staff to lead.

In other areas Headscape is only fulfilling a temporary role. For example, although we are providing analytics support, this won’t become a full time permanent position. Either Strathclyde can take on somebody part time to do this work, or continue to outsource (as needed) to Headscape.

However, there are some roles that Headscape fulfil, which will need to be filled by Strathclyde staff. Strathclyde will have to recruit in these areas. This is most notably a digital lead and UX designer.

Once these roles are filled, Headscape will begin to take a step back. However, this will not happen overnight. The transition will have to be gradual in order to hand control over in an orderly manner.

So far this collaborative process has gone extremely well, and the new joint team is working well together and learning from each other. However, collaboration is not limited to the team itself, but also to how the project is run. That I will cover in my next post.