Design Chats

Inside Design: Clearleft

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Nov 2, 2017
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In 2004, Andy Budd wrote a book about CSS that wound up outselling Harry Potter for a week. He was a well known front-end developer who’d already been doing UX for years, but he felt frustrated by the way digital projects were being delivered: all style and no substance.

Wanting to do more—and feeling encouraged by the launch of Adaptive Path—he co-founded Clearleft as one of the first dedicated UX consultancies in the UK.

We sat down with Andy to get his thoughts on running efficient design meetings, keeping everyone on the same page, and the future of agency work.

Tell us about the early days of Clearleft.

They were tough—clients just wanted you to open up Photoshop and make things look pretty. It was an uphill struggle explaining why talking to their customers, building prototypes, and testing our assumptions with real users was a good idea.

But we persisted, and by 2010, UX had established itself in the UK. Rather than having to sell the concept, clients were now starting to seek it out. We’d like to think we played our part in that change, through conferences like UX London and dConstruct, as well as numerous articles, books, and talks on the subject.

We started Clearleft to advance the field of digital design, and that sentiment still drives our actions today.

What’s your team like? How many people, what roles are there, and how are people managed?

We’re 30 strong, broken down into UX, UI, front-end development, and operations teams. Being “original gangsters” in the digital design sense, we believe that UX is a separate discipline from UI, so we favor individual specialists over teams of product unicorns.

Each discipline team is led by a director who looks after the health, happiness, and career progression of their team. So they’ll organize weekly one-on-one meetings, critique sessions, knowledge sharing “brown bags,” and team get-togethers.

“Culture is ultimately expressed in what you do, not what you say.”

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As a company we generally hire senior practitioners with a high degree of autonomy, so this is less about “managing people.” Instead it’s about creating an environment where people can grow as individuals and do the best work of their careers.

As a company we’ll have a quick Monday morning meeting to discuss what everybody’s working on that week, and a more relaxed wind-down gathering at the end of the week. We also have regular social activities, whether that’s a walk in the country, a visit to a relevant museum show, a movie night or a BBQ on the back deck.

On projects we’ll usually assemble a cross-disciplinary team made up of a UX designer, UI designer, and front end developer. The core team will be supported by researchers, content strategists, design strategists, and agile project managers where needed. These days the majority of our work is done alongside existing client teams, so we often find ourselves embedded onsite.

How do you keep everyone on the same page?

We’re fortunate to have a senior and experienced team at Clearleft who all believe in what we’re doing. We’re also still of a size where it’s relatively easy to chat with everybody and generally understand what’s happening within the company.

More broadly, we also have a visible company vision and set of values that everyone understands. We believe culture is ultimately expressed in what you doTwitter Logo, rather than what you say, so we try our best to live them.

Other than that, regular team socials, movie nights, trips to museum exhibitions, meals, and a healthy dose of Slack keeps everybody on the same page.

“We gain the most value out of InVision as a rapid prototyping tool.”

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How do you run meetings? What do you think are the best ways to make sure meetings are efficient and valuable?

Being designers, a lot of our meetings are collaborative and done at the whiteboard with Sharpies and sticky-notes. We’re big fans of design thinking activities and design games, so we try to keep them focused and fun. Everybody has their favorites, whether that’s KJ sorts, empathy maps, or the business model canvas. My go-to activity is usually the Graphic Gameplan, as popularized by David Sibbet of Grove Partners.

When it comes to our own internal workshops, it’s often a case of “the cobbler’s children.” We’re so busy creating great workshop experiences for our clients, we struggle to apply the same rigor to our own meetings.

“Meetings should generate some kind of tangible output or outcome.”

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Fortunately we’ve gotten good at improvising over the years, so we’re usually able to pull something fun out of the hat. Still, I’m keen to limit the typical update meeting, and ensure the majority of our internal sessions are run as workshops and working groups instead. So it’s always better if a meeting generates some kind of tangible output or outcome, rather than communicating information or creating consensus.

How does your team use InVision?

Having experience of the full gamut of design, prototyping, and communication tools out there, it’s clear that you’ve put a lot of love, care, and attention into InVision. As such, along with Sketch, it’s favored by our design team and we use the reviewing and feedback features—though we tend to communicate design in person where possible.

In fact, we gain the most value out of InVision as a rapid prototyping tool, as it allows us to throw together quick high-fidelity mockups, often as part of a Google Ventures style design sprint, and then test them on end-users.

“InVision allows us to create quick high-fidelity mockups and then test them on end-users.”

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When working with new clients, we usually start by fitting into their existing process, tools, and cadence. If the client is already using InVision, this bodes well. If they’re not, it’s definitely something we’d consider recommending.

Of all the features, Tours are my favorite.

What’s your take on making a really great client/designer relationship? What needs to happen to keep everyone happy and collaborating?

It’s really not rocket science, but it’s certainly easier said than done. In my experience, you hire people who are better than you are, who fall in love with the problem, care deeply about the craft, and want to deliver the best experience to the end user as possible. You put these people in the same room as the client team, expose them to user needs, set clear objectives, and away you go. With the right amount of time, contact, focus, and will, a small but experienced team can deliver a huge amount of value.

By comparison, many agencies out there hire less experienced people and use heavy-handed project management processes in an attempt to create a low but repeatable level of quality. It’s not unusual to see them significantly underbid to win the work, then spend their time “managing” the client through a slew of project managers and account managers. The goal shifts from delivering business or user value, to delivering a checklist of features in order to get paid. By industrializing the process, all the magic gets stripped out, mistrust and animosity sets in, and you end with something that’s less than the sum of its parts.

“Hire people who are better than you.”

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One of the reasons we set up Clearleft was to provide an alternative to this all-too-common narrative—to focus on true collaboration rather than innovation theatre.  

How has the nature of agency relationships changed?

We’ve spent our whole career advising clients to bring design in house. Advising them that digital had become far too important to outsource to a third party. At first clients thought we were mad—after all, we were basically undermining our own business model.

But over time, more and more companies have realized that what we’ve been saying works, and they’ve started to build their in-house teams. As a result, it’s been quite some time since we delivered a project “over the fence.”

Instead, clients hire companies like Clearleft to work alongside their existing teams, training, coaching, and mentoring as they go. They’re no longer outsourcing delivery to a third party, but instead using the unique skills agencies have to extend, advance, and supercharge internal teams. Rather than making companies reliant on their partners, modern agencies go in with an exit plan in mind. So when they finally leave, the company will be be better, stronger, and more self-reliant as a result.

Related: Andy Budd shares the best advice he’s ever received from a mentor

Because of this, the nature of our projects is incredibly varied—and a lot more fun. Sometimes we’re asked to rescue projects other agencies have started, or unstick internal projects that seem to have lost their way. Other times we’re asked to help invent, validate, and de-risk their next product or service, before helping their internal team put it into production.

Sometimes we’re asked to provide coaching and mentoring to design leaders, helping them with team or culture building, governance and training. And other times we’re approached by executive teams to help them consolidate their digital vision through design thinking, create a rich picture of the future, and help them share that vision with the rest of the company.

As such, we often find ourselves working like a design management team for hire, plugging the gaps in growing teams until they’re able to fill those leadership, strategy, or senior practitioner positions with permanent hires.

How can agencies scale design?

The best consultancies find themselves in the unique position of having worked with companies of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and levels of design maturity. So we’ve seen what works well and what works badly across the spectrum. This puts us in a unique position to help internal design leaders, some of whom may only have worked at a couple of different companies before.

Being external offers us a level of perspective you don’t usually get from internal teams. That’s because our quarterly reports or annual bonuses don’t rest on what we think of your ideas. This freedom allows us to be a lot more critical about existing processes, while offering up suggestions in a relatively safe space.

Related: Irene Au on scaling design at Google and beyond

Lastly, being external provides a buffer from the things that typically slow internal teams down, like standing meetings, or the incessant march of business-as-usual. This means agencies are able to deliver chance at a much faster pace than internal teams, often as much as 3 times faster in my experience. This combination of perspective, experience, and ability to deliver at pace makes a compelling argument for helping organizations scale.

A good example of this would be the creation of design systems and design languages. We’ve been creating modular design languages since 2008, so we’ve delivered dozens over the years. It’s a great way to operationalize design inside growing organizations and help the design team scale.

However, it’s rare for internal teams to have delivered a design system before, so by leaning on our learnings, mistakes, and experiences, we can help internal teams deliver a much better outcome than they would have been able to deliver alone.

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