This is a story of the evolution of a tool, and of a practice. But it’s also the story of an evolution of a company — ours and yours. I’m going to try to tell it as simply and as honestly as I can, and I hope what you hear in it is a celebration of the nature of growth, not a pat on one’s own back.
Back in the old days, this was a common sight on the web. It said, things are happening! We’re working on it! Come back soon!
Often, what “we’re working on it” meant was working on a copy of it on a computer somewhere. A copy; the entire site — its pages, images, files and words — on a directory on someone’s machine. You can imagine all the difficulties created by keeping a website in one, physical place. You could only crowd so many people around a screen in those days — remember, they were pretty darn small back then — so collaborating on the design and development part meant making copies of the copy and being very careful to divvy up the work so that nobody stepped on each other’s toes. And while that sounds pretty tricky, the real challenge was figuring out how to plan that work without, well, just doing the work itself.
So you know what we did? We printed black-and-white sketches of website pages out and hung them on the wall. And we crowded around them art school critique style and tried our best to imagine what it would be like to use the website they represented. And we argued about it. A lot.
You can imagine, then, what a revelation website prototyping was. Instead of creating static, paper wireframes, we built interactive wireframes — things you could actually use that, just like a website, lived on the web and were accessible to everyone working on the project at the same time. We went from printing out a sketch of the site before we built it to, essentially, building the website before we built it.
This was sometime in 2000. There were no online collaboration tools. No Google Docs, no UxPin, Protoshare, or InVision. There were hardly any non-enterprise content management systems out there. Drupal was first created in 2001. Both Blogger and WordPress were not released until 2003! So the fact that we had a prototyping tool that worked like a CMS (and we had our own CMS, but that’s a different article) was a major differentiator. So we leaned heavily on it, and it paved the way for us as a little web development company that could.
The more doors our prototyping tool and process opened for us, the more necessary it became to our process. It made projects more efficient and designs more accurate. It made teams better at collaborating and happier with the results.
Knowing Our Role
All of that provided, of course, that we were the ones doing the prototyping. At the time, information architecture, information design, and usability expertise — for the web, in particular — were hard to come by. It was normal for us to be the only people in the room aware of, interested in, and able to discuss those kinds of things. So naturally, we were best suited to create the prototype while gathering feedback from our partners and clients. Now, while it was certainly the case that our expertise uniquely qualified us to be the prototypers, it was also the case that we had other good reasons to want to own that process.
First and foremost, it was a shield. The prototype protected us, the developers, from committing to build something that we either shouldn’t or couldn’t build. So long as we controlled the prototype, we controlled the spec, and, really, the entire project. It also enabled us to control the design. On the one hand, controlling the prototype saved us from major functionality gotchas, which were really the biggest areas of scope creep to be avoided. But on the other, it saved us from a more common, subtle scope creep that came by way of aggregate design decisions — specifically about the form the website and its functionality would take. If we wanted to prevent an inordinate number of custom navigation styles or an unnecessary variety in page layouts, the prototype was our best defense.
And frankly, we had no problem gaining and keeping that control because no one else had the technology to do it themselves.
Eventually, though, they did. In the mid-2000s, other companies began creating website prototyping tools, and awareness of them grew. But this happened slowly. Even if some of our agency partners had designers on their team who had played around with some of those tools, we still had mastery over the process and its discrete disciplines that was pretty tough to match. And, because we were always going to be the developer, we still needed that shield. So we were still the prototypers.
But the technology got better, and so did everyone else. Prototyping tools became more common, as did prototyping as a discipline. Many of our agency partners were routinely using prototyping tools on projects they did without us, and through that experience, they became more and more adept at applying their design skills to interaction design problems. They began to grow their own interaction design teams, hiring for information architecture, user experience, usability, and front and back end development expertise. And yet, when we worked with them on a project, they gracefully stepped aside to let us do most of the production. That just seemed like the way it had to be. After all, we were a web development company.
New Work, New Roles
Suddenly, our unique ability as a firm came into sharper focus.
But were we, really? By this point, the reason those agencies wanted to work with us was because we still offered them expertise they didn’t have. And obviously, that expertise wasn’t really web design and development anymore. While they’d been building their interaction design chops, we had shifted our perspective and began to focus much more on digital marketing. In addition to building the site, we were offering content strategy, CRM, and marketing automation services, as well as consulting around a variety of topics including process, staffing, information architecture, and interaction design. We weren’t letting go of all of our prior experience, but we were expanding it to include those things that were still on the cutting edge, specifically when it came to digital marketing. We had really become a digital marketing company.
Once we realized that, we realized we didn’t have to be the developers. If one of our agency partners wanted to do it, then that didn’t have to be a barrier to working with us. And once we realized that, we also realized that we didn’t need the prototype shield anymore.
Suddenly, our unique ability as a firm came into sharper focus. What we are best at is empowering an agency to generate ideal new business opportunities through creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on their bottom line.
With that focus, we can lean in to our expertise in things like content strategy, CRM, marketing automation, and the like, as well as our long-standing, deep expertise in information architecture, design, usability, and development, but not in a way that obstructs our partners from utilizing their strengths, which have grown to include designing and building great websites. So, when they can offer those skills and would prefer to, we now gracefully step aside and — while they build the prototype and website — offer our assistance in the form of information architecture and design consulting. When they can’t build the prototype or website, we do. It seems so simple. But this is a collaboration that needed time to mature and blossom.
We’ve been able to speak with many agencies who once assumed there wasn’t a way for us to work together because what they needed from us came with a whole bunch of things they didn’t need. But that’s not true anymore. Now, we can collaborate on a solution to their digital marketing problems that make the best use of what all of us have to offer. It’s amazing to think that such a profound realization came by way of gradually lowering a shield and letting go of something that had made us feel safe for so long. But the safety we felt from possessing the right tool is nothing compared to the empowerment we and our clients feel from collaborating on the right fit.
If you’ve reached the end of this story and it feels like a door that was once closed has now been opened, we’d love to speak with you.