Research in development: The importance of the research round in creative technical work

Onespacemedia’s Thomas Rumbold talks about the importance of the research and development round when delivering creative technical work.

Creative and technical works exist in degrees of complexity. For example, building the internals of the Mars Rover’s communications system is obviously infinitely more complicated than building a website for a local bakery. But regardless of the technical gulf, both take preparation and expertise. Delivering good technical work takes proactive and thorough analysis of current technology stacks. It takes immersion in one of the world’s most fast-moving industries - by smart people who are interested in pushing forward the adoption of new technology. Passion, interest and involvement in the industry allows digital companies to not only soak up knowledge directly, but also to absorb it through a process of ‘osmosis’, too. We often learn and use knowledge that we barely know we have, purely as a result of being active within our communities.

So companies pay other companies to deliver software and creative work for them for the same reason that I pay my barber to cut my hair. Track record, and expertise. In short:

  • I cannot cut my hair myself. I have zero track record of delivering successful haircuts.
  • Throwing caution to the wind and doing it myself would be a lengthy, unpleasant and unmitigated personal disaster.
  • I would deliver a low quality, untimely job that neither I nor anybody else liked.
  • It would result in having to pay a professional the same or more to fix it anyway.

Admittedly, the barber illustration is not ideal. Hair grows back - but damage to a business’s reputation is very, very difficult to claw back from.

I’m lucky enough to work at an agency that are heavy on making sure the team has the full picture of a job before actually sitting down and producing it. That’s for a number of reasons. First, it’s horrible to build or design without a specification, and without knowing why those decisions have been made. Without context, design and development is confusing and ham-fisted - and it really doesn’t need to be that way. Second, opening the design or the build round without having answered all of the necessary questions slows down the pace of the project and opens it up to ambiguity and holes. In summary, it takes more time, to deliver a worse result, for a higher cost - because the team don’t have all of the information that they need to do a competitive job.

We combat that as best as we can, as early on as possible. Typically, written into all of our projects is what we call the ‘research and discovery’ round. This is a hugely valuable section of the project’s time for our teams. Ironically enough, it’s sometimes a difficult sell to clients - particularly if they’re only in charge of a lean budget. It’s usually because the result of the round is mostly intangible. It doesn’t culminate in a logo, or a build, or any significant technology. It usually concludes in a technical specification, a functional specification and any related documentation. These things, mostly, are for us. All of them are then signed off internally and externally, making sure that both client and team expectations are kept completely in sync. While this isn’t the exciting stuff that clients think about when they pay the first invoice, it’s crucial to making sure that the production phases are served adequately. This is what our creative staff need so that they can deliver on-spec, on-time and on-budget.

In addition, it also results in the following:

  • A team that have had direct involvement with their client, who understand their position within their market, and know what the business case is for the new work. It gives the team an understanding of the client’s product, culture, timelines and their needs.
  • An opportunity for team members to question ambiguities. For example, if there is an opportunity to tell the client that they don’t need to spend 30 days and £18,000 designing and building a custom support platform because they can just plug into ZenDesk instead, we’re all about it. It ties in with our collaborative, transparent approach and it offers an opportunity to evaluate and improve on initial ideas.
  • Finally, it makes an engaged project team that have had access to all of the right information since the project’s inception. Having team members that have been privy to the same project history means that there aren’t members that are behind the curve because they haven’t been involved where they should have been.

All of this means that on the other side of the research and development round, we’re ready to go. We’re geared up, motivated and armed with the knowledge that allows us to make educated, rational decisions during production. Time is our most valuable commodity and we’re keen on accounting for it properly - and research-driven production empowers us to do that.


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