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The Mobile Shift – the end of small studios?

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[TL:DR] With the cultural change in processes (agile vs. waterfall), the need to educate clients and partners, and the imperative of working early in processes, small studios may lack the financial resources and manpower to fund this pioneering phase. Big agencies on the other hand have the resources, contacts, and the standing to establish new processes and cross-finance.

This is the end of the Web as we know it (and I feel fine)

The Web is finally becoming a medium of its own. For years “the web” in the eyes of clients and the advertising industry was merely an add-on to existing channels. CI and business-communication was centered around stationery, brochures, print-advertising and tv/film.
The web had to somehow fit into the mix, but its advantages weren’t played out to their fullest extend. More often than not, websites are “interactive brochures”, where the most interaction is  like  “hey it’s clickable” and moving/sliding/pulsing yeah-whatever visual goodies.

Processes still reflect that old model of definite “paper”:

Client needs “a website”.
Advertising Agency makes screen designs.
Client and agency agree on screen designs.
Agency needs development and sources a Web Studio (can also be inhouse).
The Web Studio codes, based on the screen designs.

Mobile plays in the hands of the core features of the web which were hindered by forcing  “print” ideas into the web experiences (this alone could be an article on its own).
As outlined in several pieces on Mobile, Responsive Design et al, above (overly simplified) process needs to change to face the mobile frontier and it is overly important to focus on content first.
But not only does the process need change, the mindset of how clients are dealing with your offer has to change as well. For example: In order to conform with the social web and the plethora of possible viewing devices, content needs to flow, needs to be sharable, needs to work out of the context of the website:

Whether we’re prepared or not, people are already interacting with our creations on devices that in many cases didn’t exist when we originally built them. This realization led mobile interaction designer Josh Clark to proclaim that we need to think of our content like water that can be poured into a multitude of containers.
A List Apart: For a future friendly web

But, letting go is against corporate spirit. It’s scary from a corporate point of view, and thus yet another obstacle that needs to be overcome by showing the benefits.

All units go: Working draft

By looking at the Evolution of the Web, it quickly becomes clear, that the web and all of its depending technologies has evolved and grown, especially over the last few years. As you can probably all chime in, it has become a decent task to keep up to date – even for just yourself that is.

If you are now running a small studio/agency or whatsoever, this task becomes even bigger. This equation does not yet include the client. So let’s throw in a client – and a few questions  will arise:

How can a small studio

  • Educate their clients (if they have a chance to actually talk to decision-makers and are not hidden away behind Ad- or Marketing-Agencies),
  • Establish a new and not-yet-fully discovered, developed and approved process with clients, agencies and employees, while still keep the mill running,
  • Fund hours and hours of talking and pioneering and researching in the ever-changing maze right now?

This “new” process of iterating and co-developing ideas and visions brings insecurity into the planning and budgeting game, which is an absolute killer for about 90% of our clients who want to know (and rightly so) what they have to pay and what they’ll get and to what ends and benefits. (We’ve even heard clients ask us, if it’s them or us building the website…)

This approach is nothing new with Mobile; Scrum Development and Agile project management principles have been out there for a while now, but are still seen as somewhat exotic.
The benefits of the efforts for Responsive Design or other Mobile-friendly solutions have yet to be proven in a way corporates can understand (yes, following Luke Wroblewski on Twitter is not the worst start).

Q: “Where’s the benefit & what will it cost” A: “Uhm, not sure” = No deal.

As you may guess, small studios cannot operate on a No Deal basis for very long.

Larger units may have the advantage of having a lot of “mills” working, so that they can afford to let one or two of these run on experimental stuff (and staff ;)). These actually run under job titles like “Creative Technologist”. One day this may bring them the ultimate advantage of “being there”, when the mainstream (e.g. clients) have made up their mind about Mobile – and want to hop onto the bandwagon.

Conclusion

It’s not easy being small.

The benefit of having small overheads, fast communications and an overall agile culture should put small studios ahead of the game in an industry that’s rapidly changing, right?
But instead, the Mobile Shift requires teamwork in a scale that small studios often will not be able to deliver. Small studios will not be the communication hub in processes if another studio or agency is involved. Once detached from the communication hub, the small studio’s role will again be in the “do it as you’re told”-corner.

A difficult situation for small studios like ours which are in the business for more than ten years now. Why? Because the client base we established over the years is based on a medium that always had a tech character to it. We are often seen as the “developers”, the mechanics, the people knowing all this “computer stuff”. And that’s because the web has always been a technical beast.

Now with the web evolving and finally getting its place as “the” ultimate communicative medium, it’s very hard to re-shift the client’s perception of our services to a more strategic and design-driven basis and process. Of course we are able to deliver exactly this, since a strategic and design-driven process has always been part of our work, even though, because of a project’s nature, it may have been invisible to the client. For long-term clients this shift might not happen soon, if at all.
With new clients it seems to be easier at first glance. Simply pitch the new process, all will be well. Problem is, small studios often will be recommended by former clients to new clients–and if the perception of the recommending client is again technical and not strategic, the new process may not live up to the expectations of the new client.

At the moment it seems that (big) agencies are much better positioned to survive the Mobile Revolution, since they are in a position to change processes. They are the strategic partners their clients will listen to. For them, shifting to mobile only means to shift their strategies and finding or building units that will bring their ideas to life. Web Studios like us, with a strong background in building the web and living the culture will still be left out of the initial strategic process a lot of times. Which is a pity, since this is exactly where our place should be in order to craft rich and future-friendly experiences.

To manage these challenges and overcome new obstacles, smaller web design firms will need to move more towards the strategic side of things. This might sound easier than said, but this is where the rain will fall in the near future. Get your gears on now and get going.

What do you think are solutions to these new issues and how to best address them?
Which approach works best or works well for you?
How do you “educate” your clients?

Comments are open and very welcome :-)


Many thanks to Oliver and Holger for helping me to shape my initial rant into this article. :-)
Illustration: Tom Arnold

Tom

Author: Tom

@webrocker - Designer, Illustrator, Musician, Tinkerer, Thinker. Geek ~ Fiddlin' with teh webz since 1995. // About me // Blog: http://www.webrocker.de/ // Illustration: http://www.wondertom.de/ // Webdesign: http://www.bnt.de.

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