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  • May 10, 2012

On-Site Anthropology

At Happy Cog, we try to use the latest web technologies to bring our virtual teams (and families) together. But sometimes, a virtual meetup just won’t do—most Decorative Illustration notably, the kickoff meeting to start a new client project. Few things can impact a project’s success like the team building that takes place during the workshop sessions, lunches, and post-meeting drinks of a client on-site visit—after all, raising a virtual toast isn’t nearly as satisfying as clinking two glasses together.

When the client hosts an on-site visit, it’s their way of throwing a party. You know what it’s like to play host: After all the planning and anticipation (and stuffing dirty clothes under the bed), you get to let loose, enjoy a few brews, and show off your pad. It’s then that parts of your personality come through: your cooking skills, your stacks of vinyl, or your collection of Phillies bobbleheads —the real you. In this same way, clients often show their true colors during these on-site meetings—by virtue of their being on their turf, talking about their life’s work, and getting to kick back a bit while still on the clock. When they open up a bit, it’s best to observe, listen, and secretly study them like an anthropologist. Here are a few tactics:

Ask for a Tour

As they take you around the campus, office, or grounds, listen attentively and make note of those elements that they seem most excited about. Key storytelling elements or project objectives might reveal themselves during that short tour. Who knew your client had experience in ornithology?

Let Them Steal the Show

Your first order of business at the kick-off meeting is demonstrating that your point of contact made the right choice in hiring you. You were selected due to your UX, design, and development chops—but more to the point, the client determined that you can help them solve problems that they can’t solve themselves. During the kick-off meeting, of course you’ll want to demonstrate your competency in all stages of the project, but staying reserved and allowing your point of contact to step forth and drive the meeting will allow them to exhibit their managerial competency to their own bosses—and that will only help your cause.

It Takes a Village

To really understand a brand, sometimes you have to witness its impact on its target demographic. For a lot of locale-focused businesses, region and community play a big part in the company’s values and personality. Take advantage of the opportunity to witness this first-hand and incorporate it into their online presence. Milwaukee and San Diego franchises of the same pizza company, for instance, may connect with their communities in very different ways.

Examine the Team Dynamic

The kickoff meeting is your first real glimpse into the makeup of the client team and how they interact with each other. Observe who they defer to when they are stuck or trying to communicate an idea (written or verbal). Look for the decision makers. You may find a hidden gem in the team who will be an asset on the project.

Everybody on the Dance Floor

Sometimes you gotta see ‘em sweat. And at a kickoff meeting, the beads start to form when the 8-ups come out and we start describing the design studio exercise. “I can’t draw,” they’ll whisper. “I have some emails to get out,” they’ll say. But, once they get through the first round or two of sketches, they’ll be working together and enjoying it. As Joe Rinaldi always says, “Design studio is as much a client services exercise as it is a UX one.”

One of the great joys of working at Happy Cog is being exposed to an array of subjects—education, tourism, Fortune 500s—with each new project presenting its own set of challenges. But no matter the scale, all projects benefit greatly by starting off with a personal connection between you and your client contacts. I’ve found that the most immersive projects have yielded the best finished products; and on a more personal level, they’ve provided enriching experiences that have transcended work. Just this past year, we’ve boogied down in Austin, TX, attended class in Portland OR, robbed a bank in Toronto, ON, and helped carve the Iraivan Temple in Kauai, HI.

And I can tell you from experience that Skype can’t do a Kauai double rainbow justice.

What are some of your most memorable client on-sites? Where have you gone?

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