Running website projects under lockdown

Our approach to building websites and intranets under Covid-19 restrictions

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John Newton
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Websites are always evolving. We build new websites and software tools and are constantly improving existing ones in response to changing needs and new opportunities. How are Covid lockdown restrictions affecting our work?

Moving meetings online

We use Zoom as it’s straightforward to use and is suitable for all clients as not everyone has Teams or uses other alternatives like Slack or Skype. We’re finding Zoom enables us to quickly get discussions underway and is a generally reliable and effective tool. Arguably, more effective in some ways than meeting face-to-face - although less fun!

We tend to just use the video feature and have used screen sharing in only limited ways. I thought we’d use it a lot more for whiteboarding and having shared visual spaces but surprisingly it’s been more effective at helping us to listen and exchange ideas with clients than to work up new designs or edit documents.

My preferred method during a Zoom meeting is to take occasional short notes while we talk and then write them up in full immediately afterwards on our project management system. This is really useful when we are designing a screen or building a data model. The project management system means our clients get space to review and comment on the work in progress and this gives us all a really good shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. We might follow up with another Zoom but by and large we usually reach agreement using comments or perhaps through a quick conventional voice call.

Visual design presentation

While we obviously produce all website designs as digital files, we’ve found over many years that face-to-face presentations are a great way of working through them. We always print out our designs, usually on A3 paper. This is because several people can’t easily share a screen and a formal presentation using some form of screen projection can be cumbersome, stilted and to my mind alienating. People like to handle designs and feel free to scrawl on them.

We’ve now presented several online only designs and I think with a good shared understanding, this can work well. Do I miss meeting in person to discuss the designs? Yes, I do and I think the purely online presentation can set the parameters for change in ways that are restrictive. So while I’m growing convinced that it can be t least as effective to build user journeys, wireframes and even advanced data models without meeting up, I still believe we’d aim to return to a face-to-face format to develop visual designs.

Implications for budgets

We’re definitely seeing budgets going further. Apart from the savings on travel time, the immediacy of working together online means no one walks away with notes or paper-based sketches. I’ve always found using physical whiteboards or flip-charts to be a highly collaborative and effective way of co-designing. While we can no longer do this, I’m not sure I would go back to that way of working. Introductory meetings to establish good working relationships are important and I think can be useful in building teams. But the time compression we’re seeing from working online means we can do more iterations during design (both visual and data) and I believe this is leading to better solutions. Budgets are definitely going further.

Office and home working

We’re working from home mostly but due to certain technical and security requirements we’re also going into the office. We’re also respecting shielding so we’re not meeting up. While this has had implications in terms of comradeship and socialising, it hasn’t affected our work. I don’t think we’re any less productive, indeed we may be more focused. We use Slack and are pretty much in constant communication. I think most research is showing the productivity gains of working from home. I imagine an ideal balance will be a day or so at home with the rest of the week at work.

Getting back to the new normal

Once everyone can feel safe, I anticipate we’ll reintroduce face-to-face meetings but in a more limited way. I’m not sure that we’ll ever run workshops on the scale we’ve done in the past. I think we’d rather save our clients time and money and I’m convinced - quite against expectations - that less face-to-face contact time can produce better net outcomes for certain tasks. I’d like to reformulate out workflow so we can get together with new clients to have an initial team building meeting. Then I think I’d give the clients the choice as to when to meet during the development phase, but perhaps suggest a meeting during the early visual design step. Of course, we’ve run projects entirely online with clients from all over the world. I always make a point of making contact even when the time-zones are painful as I don’t think 100% asynchronous communication is advisable. Lockdown though has taught me that it’s possible to change long established behaviours and see improvements borne out of necessity.

Photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash