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Applied Creativity – How we cracked the agency product design process

Written by: Andrew Shanley

Published on: May 27, 2016

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What does an agency look like in a world that is increasingly being run by software? What does it look like when a customer’s foremost impression of a brand is simply the experience they have using that brand? Would it be a mix of IT, marketing, consultancy and creativity? It certainly wouldn’t look like a traditional, commoditised, services agency.

This is what is ushering in the next wave of product-driven agencies. Part-technology, part-design, part-analytics, part-business, yet the real value is in the whole – not the sum of its parts. Building products is the antithesis of being commissioned for projects. One thrives on iterative value and seeks questions more so than answers; the other is just about “getting it done”. But, building products is far easier said than done. It requires a careful balance of sophistication, structure, flexibility and highly-attuned people. And, it’s always changing. So, to be clear: building products and a product-driven creative environment is hard. Really, really hard. In the spirit of openness, this how we have approached cracking that very issue.

Introducing Applied Creativity

Rather than envisaging an inflexible, rigid set of processes that can’t and shouldn’t ever be deviated from, instead we looked to create a product design framework created purposefully to help guide both mindset and process. We needed something  fuelled by the people who utilise it – and not the other way around. We call it “Applied Creativity”. Applied Creativity, the Beyond Methodology: Explore, Ideate, Create, Validate.

At a conceptual level, Applied Creativity is the use of data to uncover business and user needs across the entire journey, identifying where brand and users intersect. We call these moments of opportune interactions touchpoints. Once these needs are researched and identified, we find out where value can be added at each of these touchpoints, as well as what sources of friction should be removed. Sometimes this involves rethinking the entire experience all together!

We do this through a refined technique of ideation. This clears the way for a hyper-tailored design process where the focus is on creating new and improved products and services.

By shifting traditional agency methodologies, extra autonomy and ownership is given to the teams who drive Applied Creativity. We frequently find that this propels us onwards from a product vision and towards product value.

Applied Creativity is structured around three key pillars: Framework, Product thinking teams and Beyond People.

The framework

There are four components in the Applied Creativity framework: Explore, Ideate, Create and Validate.

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Explore

Kicking things off, the first component, Explore, is where we seek to understand the true nature of the problem at hand. The reasoning for this is simple: without accurate diagnosis, we’re unable to — with a high degree of confidence — prescribe a feasible solution to something.

To do this we use a toolkit of research methods to evaluate customer, business, market and technology factors that will not only help us clearly define the problem, but provide us with the groundwork to create a timeless and inimitable product vision.

Ideate

The second component is Ideate. Here, we hold a series of collaborative ideation sessions and workshops that unlock the brainpower of key users and stakeholders.

These sessions are used to formulate a wide funnel of conceptual and highly transformational ideas. Ultimately, these initial theories are narrowed down to one core concept, one that forms a stable foundation for creating and/or evolving the product. This paves the way for an actionable, go-to-market product roadmap, rich with feasible features, applicable channels and milestones.

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Create

Once a roadmap is established, we move on to the third component, Create. Here we progress our ideas from the conceptual to the tangible.

This is achieved through an evolving series of product fidelities from initial information architecture, content hierarchies and wireframes, to full-blown visual designs and interactive builds. This component of the framework nears its completion once a version of the product is ready to be validated. The format of these versions range from whitewall-drawn journeys and designs, digital prototypes carefully crafted using an app such as Sketch, to an actual release – code and all – i.e. a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) or a subsequent build; v1.1, v2.0, and so forth.

Validate

This brings us to our fourth component of Applied Creativity where we Validate what’s being created. We ask ourselves the big questions such as “is it fulfilling our pre-defined business objectives?” and “is it making sense and adding ongoing value for the user?”.

Here we measure how users fair against pre-established KPIs. We analyze the results before taking these learnings and applying them to the subsequent iteration of the product. This layer of Applied Creativity manifests itself in many forms from verbal, qualitative feedback provided during end-user testing, to digging deep into user behaviors and journeys collected via web analytics, to using live A/B and multivariate data from an actual product release.

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Having data that shows that we’re hitting the goals and KPIs expected of us, then complementing it with qualitative appraisals from the people actually using the end-product, doesn’t just provide us and our clients with definite proof that Applied Creativity is effective, it also offers distinct inputs and critical direction for the next iteration of the product.

Beyond product teams

Having the model of Applied Creativity exist in isolation, however, is not enough. It is up to teams of specialised and highly curious individuals to fuel Applied Creativity in the most efficient way possible, so that each and every product we’re designing is set up for immediate and ongoing success.

Beyond Product Teams

Key to this success is the convergence of people into closely-knit and collaborative product teams, where we all share, discuss and problem-solve from the outset. The real value here is in the whole; by viewing the product vision through our own individual but specialised lenses – whether technology, design, content, analytics or business – we’re able to pull together towards the project’s true north.

By thinking and functioning in this way, we’ve been able to avoid constant and costly backtracking due to misalignments that traditionally may occur at a later stage. With this set up and the Applied Creativity framework, we find that we are “hitting” Validation earlier and more frequently. Often these savings (time, budget, resources) are reinvested back into the solution meaning snappier releases and an overall higher-quality end-product for our clients’ end users.

Beyond people

While bringing in the right individuals can be difficult enough, getting the right talent to work cohesively together as one team is even more so. To create an environment that nurtures such sustainable high-performing team dynamics, we of course need the right people!

To answer this, we’ve invested heavily in fantastically talented and T-shaped individuals who embody and display key traits which marry up to our values:

  • Demonstrating an Entrepreneurial Spirit by having the discipline and drive to make things happen
  • Asking each and all of us to Be Inspirational by driving consistency and excellence in our performance
  • Supporting each other through collaboration and respect for one another
  • And, ensuring we Never stop learning by demonstrating an attitude that seeks to constantly improve

The proof

There’s no better feeling than being able to showcase how the products we deliver, through Applied Creativity, bring real and evidential value to the goals of our clients and the needs of users and customers.

Through Applied Creativity we’ve been able to:

  • Create a platform to help retail sales associates increase product sales for one of the world’s largest tech companies. Within the first four weeks after launching the MVP as a beta, we found gross unit sales increased by nearly 200% in participating stores compared to the control variable (non-participating stores).
  • Redesign the internal search solution for one of the world’s most familiar banks. Following launch, 80% of employees stated that their search experience has improved.
  • Relaunch one of the world’s leading advertising technology brands. On launch we saw a 371% increase in engagement of active users i.e. visitors enjoyed engaging with thought-leadership content – a key KPI. Time on site also more than doubled!
  • Successfully launch the website of one of the world’s most disruptive brands. In the process of which we increased unique page views to 1.9 million per month.

What’s next?

As a company at the forefront of the product-agency movement, operating in an ever-changing digital world, we are constantly striving to improve what we do and how we do it – just as our values imply.

In fact, by refraining from resting on our laurels, Voltaire’s oft-quoted adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good” becomes particularly thematic here.

Therefore, and in true product thinking terms, Applied Creativity will never be a “final” methodology – yes, it was once Beyond’s MVP and today we’re a few releases down the road. We will continue to look to one another for new and exciting ways to further adapt it to the ongoing and changing demands of the market, our clients and, most importantly, their users.