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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Geoff Wilson and Amanda Stockwell on Agile Agencies and UX

Geoff Wilson and Amanda Stockwell on Agile Agencies and UX


2. Geoff, you are the founder of 352, it’s a digital product development agency and Amanda you’re the VP of User Experience. Is that correct?

Amanda: That is correct.

Craig: Tell us a little bit, firstly, about 352 and what they do and why you are here at the conference.

Geoff: Sure. We build website software and apps for clients. We do a lot of work for big companies like Auto Trader and Microsoft and Wells Fargo and also we work with some start-up companies and help get start-ups off the ground. We think Lean, we think Agile, we think MVP, we think user feedback, we think iteration and we think user experience. So, those are all things that we bake into whatever work we are doing.

Craig: Amanda, you had a talk here at the conference around user experience.

Amanda: It is actually tomorrow morning. So, bright and early. Don’t go to the party too late!


3. What are you talking about here at the conference?

Amanda: The topic I am speaking on is “User Experience Research is not just for the UX Team”. So they are sort of the ongoing battle of how do I find time and money in the Agile process to make sure that I get research in. So, it’s tips to get started for people who do not have much experience with research – choosing the right methodology for the type of question that you are trying to answer and then some tips to get stuff in quickly and under budget and within sort of the framework of Agile, because that is an ongoing struggle. We have been talking about it for a while, but it is still a question. It is still something that people are solving.


4. For a lot of our viewers who obviously aren’t at the Conference, what are some of the key tips that you will be sharing?

Amanda: A lot of it is sort of the framework of what research is and what the different types are. So, I spend a good first half of it talking about that and then I sort of say “You just have to find time to do it”. There is a lot of low cost tools, there a lot of very fast tools and there is also some ways that you can get feedback like you can go to a coffee shop and buy people coffee. My personal favorite is that I bake banana bread and find people who want snacks. That doesn’t always work, but basically the goal is to get people motivated to just go ahead and try research, rather than being scared of it or thinking it has to be this perfect, polished thing. Some research and some information, some data is better than nothing.

Craig: So really just going out and talking to people.

Amanda: Basically, yes. Just do it. I stole Nike’s slogan.

Craig: Geoff, you are doing a lot of interesting stuff around creating small teams through something I think you called the “Barely Manage” system. Tell us a little bit about that.

Geoff: Through most of our growth as an agency, we were Waterfall. When a new project came in, we had a traffic manager who was in charge of scheduling who would take what resources were available and put them on the new project, kind of forming an ad-hoc team. But those resources would also have responsibilities on several other projects. Everyone was juggling their time and what I found is that’s a very difficult way to scale a company. As you get larger, all of your people are working with a bunch of different people, on a bunch of different projects. They have a bunch of different communication points and they end up not being as invested in the end-result of whatever product is created. They feel like they are a little bit of an assembly line, a little bit of a silo and they lose morale as well, their own feeling of really being invested. It takes their self-worth down as part of the company. So, about three years ago, we went all in on Agile, but even more than Agile, building cross-functional teams within our organizations. We figured that in order to get bigger, we needed to get smaller. What that meant for us was that we took all of our designers, developers, project managers, marketers, everyone within the company and we broke them into several, small, cross-functional teams and we empowered these teams to operate as really their own independent small boutique agency within our larger company. So each team has its own client, each team has its own budget, its own set of delivery for that client, they implement Agile, we use the Scrum methodology, we stay very, very true to Scrum and run that. People say it could be challenging to run Scrum within client projects, but we have found that if you do a really great job educating your client from the very beginning what the process is going to be like and ask for their investment and then if you involve your client in the process every step of the way, have them in planning sessions obviously, but have them in daily stand-ups and even include them in retrospectives. Treat your client as if they are a part of the team and if you are able to achieve that level of involvement with your client, they will adapt to the process really nicely. So, for us, it has just been absolutely tremendous, a very, very positive thing for us to move to that environment.


5. I guess for someone in UX who are sometimes often ither the forgotten people of a team or sometimes actually perhaps a role we do not have as many of, that they need to be spread. How does that work for user experience?

Amanda: That is definitely something that we have iterated on. We have tried lots of different things. I think we are probably still iterating, but we have a couple of different things that we do. We have some sort of engagements that are UX specific, that do not have necessarily full-cross functional development teams, but we have cross-functional UX teams. So, it is that same process, that same methodology of different types of skillsets working together on a full project. Then we will also fully bake in a UX person, depending on the project what kind of UX person we need. We will fully bake them into the cross-functional team. So, we have development teams that also have a full-time UX person because every team operates differently and has their own client, each team is a little bit different. So, we have to play with that, with the UX and every project is a little bit different. But we’ve really hit a good stride and we are seeing that we are having really good results.


6. One thing that organizations when they strive for this cross-functional type nature and particularly when you have got resources like UX or it might be database design as where there is a limited resource, how do you deal with that pooling system where perhaps you might have a number of teams but not enough of those resources?

Geoff: You can have some people on the sideline who join teams to help out, you know, specialist type of roles as you said. So, you are going to see that sometimes with UX, although for the most part, when someone from UX comes on, they dedicate, but you are going to see that with roles like you might have a specialized database architect, as you mentioned. DevOps is a role where that might happen. Maybe even let’s say a copywriter, if you are doing consumer-facing work. So what we do is we have some of these specialist roles kind of within their own department, but when we have a project, and this is the key thing for me, when we have a project that requires that role, we are going to have that role go onto a project team, we try to have that role go on and fully dedicate with that project team for a period of time. I would rather have, for example, a copywriter or a database architect come onto a project, but then be 100% present with that project team for maybe a few sprints and then maybe, at that point, the set up work is done, they can leave the project team. But I would rather have that, than just have them coming in a for few hours here, a few hours there, a few hours here, a few hours there, because that is when you get back into that kind of disruptive juggling of mini-projects at a time, not really being part of the team, not really there for the team when the team needs them and not really part of all the teams communications


7. You mentioned these are little projects or they are working on a particular client. What happens when that client goes away and something new comes in? Does the same team move on or do you reform a team, based on the client needs?

Geoff: That is a great question. That is something unique that we do. We are a big believer in keeping these teams permanently together and having these teams move from project to project together. A lot of agencies, a lot of software companies will break their teams up at the end of a project and then will form new teams for new projects. We think that is a bad practice in a lot of cases. The reason why is because these teams establish velocity and that velocity, it is well proven that as a team stays together, sprint after sprint after sprint, their velocity is increasing. It is because they are becoming more used to be working together, they are becoming more efficient, they understand how to jump into something. So we really like that team that is going to go from project to project together. Another aspect of it as well is when you have team members who stay together, they establish their own communication patterns with each other, they establish their own value sets and they really begin to identify with each other as a team, just as a sports team would, a football team that is going from season to season together, as a group. Having that continuity we think is really good.


8. I assume from a customer perspective, the customer experience, which is really part of the whole UX experience, do you see a difference now in the way that those teams are operating?

Amanda: Certainly. I would say that the quality of work that we are doing has improved since we have been really been able to focus on having fully dedicated teams. As Geoff mentioned, their efficiencies not just in terms of getting more work done, but in getting the work done better, people understand their team mates better. We have also been empowering all of the teams to really be cross-functional and so maybe there is not a full-time copy writer, or a full time whatever on projects. One of the other benefits of having one of those people becoming a full part of the team, is that the rest of the team gets to learn, at least the value, if not the tactics of a role. So, we have really seen across the board quality improve from customer experience, user experience, even the experience of our clients and then working together. I think everyone is happier now.


9. Geoff, obviously things like the engagement and the quality of good things, but you have seen some pretty interesting metrics, I understand, both from inside the business as well as to your customers. Is that correct?

Geoff: Yes. Since we moved to this way of working, we have seen our revenue more than double. I mean probably approaching now tripling from where it was a few years ago and I attribute a lot of that growth to the fact that we are working this way. Our client satisfaction has gone up tremendously. In fact, about 80% of our work now comes from our existing client base who are coming back to do more and more projects and more and more sprints with us. So that has been a large reason for our revenue growth and I attribute that to our process. Another really interesting thing that has happened is that our employee turnover has dropped by more than 75% and that, in my opinion, is attributable to the fact that employees really love working in an Agile environment. They really love working on teams and they build a loyalty to the members of their team and to the work that they are doing when you let them work in that type of environment.


10. One thing I often hear from people who run agencies or perhaps do a lot of client-type work suggest that Agile is a very hard sell because people want to know a cost upfront. How do you deal with that question in this way of working?

Geoff: That is very fair. Thankfully, it is getting easier. When we first moved to Agile , which as I said was tabout hree years ago, maybe a little bit more than three years ago at this point, it was a very tough sell because a lot of people had not heard of Agile and we were trying to explain to clients “From us, you’ll get just a no-commitment to scope. We are going to tell you time and budget and a loose idea of what we hope to accomplish from a goal perspective”. Other companies who were used to waterfall were saying “OK. here is the 14-page document of what we are going to get done” For a client who doesn’t understand, it is a little bit harder to fight against that. Now, what I did tell clients in those scenarios was “Look, you had this idea in your mind of what you want and you got this quote from this other company, talking to their sales person or somebody within that company. But this 14-page document represents your ideas and that person’s ideas. In our organization, I am not going to give that to you because what I believe is that your ideas, while you have a good idea of where you want to go with this and whatever conversation you and I are having, it is not going to be as good as how that idea is going to form once you get the opportunity to work with my entire team that has done this type of project before. So it would actually be very limiting and inhibiting of us to agree to a 14-page scope document today. Let’s instead engage, get the project started, get you working with our really talented team and then the ideas will really start to flow and where the project will end up is going to be a little bit different, most likely, than where you think it is going to be today. But it is going to be in a much, much better place” So that is how I try to sell it. Today it’s a little bit easier than it used to be because, thankfully, there has been a big growth in the awareness of Agile over the last few years and hopefully that will continue.

Craig: One of the other things you are talking about and I will refer to your T-shirt, Amanda, is Tell us a little bit about that particular product.

Geoff: Yes. So we do an internal hackathon. Great advertising!. We do an internal hackathon at 352 every year. We shut our agency down for a week and allow people to work on internal products. Out of last year’s Hackathon, one of our product teams said “We want to build an online way for people to do planning poker.” There was a site that did exist at that allowed you to do it, but it was pretty outdated, the user interface was bad, it did not have a lot of features. Our team said they could do better. So we did and then we ended up, the gentleman Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software, who owns planning poker, saw the work that we did, liked it and asked if we would want to take over the domain name and make this the new version of We were really, really excited about that opportunity. So that is where we are today. So, if you tried planning poker in the past, but you have not tried it recently, the new site has launched within about the last two months ago, go to It is totally free to play, it is the absolute best way to do your planning poker sessions, even if your team is co-located in the same room and you are using your cards, there is still a lot of advantages to using the website over using your cards because it can bring in stories from your backlog program, it can keep a historical record of what people have been pointing. It has all kinds of nice bells and whistles to it. Q16: One of the things about the original was that it was the facility if you had a distributed team or could not get people in the same room at the same time, perhaps even if they were co-located. I assume that functionality is the key part to why you would want to use this. 890

Geoff: Yes, sure. was tremendous for distributed teams and it’s fully responsive now, the new version. It works on mobile really well, tablet, laptop, desktop. So, that functionality has only gotten better. But, you know, as I said, there is enough bells and whistles in it now where I believe that for a collocated team – there is a lot of compelling reasons for them to use it as well. But certainly, for a distributed team it’s a no brainer.


11. There is a lot of talk about UX here at the conference, Amanda. Any new trends or things that you are looking out for moving forward?

Amanda: Oh, goodness! That is the everlasting question in UX, what’s next? I think that what is next is actually just that we are going to continue to do those same things, but get better at them. Within the UX space we have been talking a lot about watches and mobile devices and touch screens and glasses and all these new devices, but it is really the same work just applied in different context. So, the one thing that I love about UX is that it never stays the same for very long, but I get to rely on experience from my past. So I think the new thing in UX is really the same stuff applied in a new context. So, whether that turns out to be “How do we best design a driverless car?” or “How do we best design not just a watch, but something that gets implanted in my skin?” – I do not know how I feel about that one yet! But I think it is really the same type of work, the same basic principles, but continually applied to whatever new technologies are going on. The other side of that is using design work to do some things that seem invisible. So, for instance, one of the best things about Uber, the reason that people say they love it is because they actually do not have to pay, they do not actually have to do anything. So, using technology and design to actually just take out the experience, so there is no experience which makes it better. So, looking for opportunities to simplify things by removing an interface or removing an interaction.


12. Geoff, any trends that you are seeing at the conference or looking forward to, that peek your interest?

Geoff: It is interesting to see how Agile is spreading beyond software development. We brought it into the agency world and there are other agencies doing it, but even in the agency world it is still not that common, but you are seeing it grow. But there were interesting discussions at the conference about how Agile is moving into marketing and Agile is moving into sales and other areas of operations of companies. It is exciting to see the basic principles of Agile, if you read the Agile Manifesto, your basic principles are principles that can really be applied in a lot of different scenarios. I think that thinking Agile, thinking Lean, thinking minimum viable result of whatever you are trying to create, I think that line of thinking can help all kinds of different facets of businesses.


13. If people want to know more about 352 or about, where do they go and find more information?

Geoff: 352 is online at and is so pretty easy to get to that one. We would welcome people to visit our sites and learn a little more about us and certainly get in touch if they have any questions or they would love to know more.

Craig: Excellent. Thank you for taking the time today.

Amanda: Thank you. We really appreciate it.

Dec 22, 2015