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Cognition

A Tale of Two Launches

We’ve launched two projects with NYIT and Philly.com in two weeks and it’s got me feeling reflective. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of a launch, especially when I’m so very pleased with the results, but a faithful launch isn’t always certain.

There is a Steve Jobs quote about parenting that I love. He equated having kids to having “your heart running around outside your body.” In a small way, the work we create and its fate in our clients’ hands, feels emotionally analogous.

We’re creating experiences for/with our clients who ultimately own and extend the work long after our collaboration ends. This means that we can only train and prepare our clients for successful governance. We can’t impose or guarantee it. We don’t own these experiences. Even in cases where we build the work ourselves, eventually it changes or evolves dramatically, or gets redesigned again in time. We can only watch as our work fades.

It’s a complicated thing to invest so fully in the quality of your work, to have that white-knuckled grip on quality and execution, and then relinquish control and watch your baby grow up. We’re process junkies at Happy Cog, and I think part of that impulse stems from knowing you can only control your work. You can’t always control the final or long term outcomes. You better learn to celebrate the process.

In cases where our clients implement our design work, we relinquish some of that control even earlier. We deliver a design system, a pattern library, style and content guides, and then support/watch our partners’ build. We do what we can to support a successful launch, faithful to our contribution and our shared vision, but we certainly cross our fingers and hope a little bit too.

In our two recent launches, the sites were built and launched in very different ways. Here’s some insight into two distinct processes.

Two Plans

In our work with NYIT, we collaborated on a more waterfall approach. We led research, information architecture, content strategy, graphic design, and front-end development. We packaged and delivered everything we created, as well as supporting documentation. We took a step back as NYIT’s team built out the work in ExpressionEngine. We remained involved answering questions and consulting, but the implementation was in their hands. After months of building the site, the NYIT team flipped the switch and launched the new experience last week. There was one NYIT site on Wednesday, and a whole new site on Thursday.

In our work on Philly.com we decided early on, with our SuperFriendly collaborators, in partnership with our Philly.com stakeholders, that we’d launch in waves. Philly.com’s business model is propped up by advertising dollars tied to their existing site. Like an e-commerce client, they were reluctant to work toward one big switch flipping moment, and gamble everything on one sweeping wholesale change. Again we led research, information architecture, content strategy, graphic design, and front-end development, but we delivered this work in releases, instead of everything at once. We worked on article pages, then section fronts, then the homepage, and the Philly.com internal team built out each level in their CMS Clickability in subsequent releases.

Two Outcomes

In the case of NYIT, because we remained engaged throughout, there were few surprises about how adherent they remained to our system thinking. We answered questions, offered suggestions, and nudged the boat as needed to remain in the middle of the shipping lane. In their case the bulk of important client approvals occurred early in the project as a host of university stakeholders validated the work. In a higher education environment, consensus building and change management are often the most important skills a client services partner brings to the table early and often. NYIT’s content is evergreen in many areas. When we defined how our system informed a page, those determinations were locked in amber. Once that initial system thinking was accomplished, the project was able to slide into a faster cadence where our teams executed the approved vision.

A benefit in our iterative approach to Philly.com was offering the client dev team a lot more flexibility in terms of implementation. Rather than sign off on a overall execution and then dig in for the build, the Philly.com team built and launched the site in pieces, in a limited beta. This allowed their team to work through issues that might impact ad placement and subsequent ad revenue, without having to rip the bandaid off all at once. This approach also, as it turns out, provided them some much needed flexibility as Philly.com went through substantial internal organizational changes while the redesign took shape. As the landscape shifted in a variety of ways at Philly.com, the implementation effort was able to be parsed and spaced out in waves to accommodate delays and changes that impacted momentum.

Philly.com’s content is substantially more fluid than NYIT’s, so the design is much more day-to-day reliant on the system driving it. There is hardly a corner of the Philly.com site that won’t change daily or hourly as new stories are posted. As a result, fluency with the rigor imposed and the opportunities presented within our design system is a skill the Philly.com team will strengthen in time. Some days in the early going may be better than others, but our approach and flexible system will see them to sunnier shores. The immediate results are extremely gratifying, but if you keep an eye on the site, you’ll see further revisions and refinement take hold as time passes.

In both cases our team is truly pleased with the results. The faithful adaptation, and logical extension, of our work is very rewarding. However, it’s the flexibility of our process, our passion for optimizing and customizing our approach, tailoring as needed to the client and the project while still imposing our expertise, that gave us the chance to reach the promised land. We’re celebrating the process.

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