Sure We Can Do That In Two Weeks

This is a request we get a lot as designers. I say “we” because I’m sure it’s not just a situation unique to me or my clients. Information architects, graphic designers, even the developers we work with are challenged by clients to start and finish projects in two weeks. We are tasked with whipping cross-channel identity systems out of thin air; conjuring wireframes for social networking sites (and their relevant social media strategies) overnight; and porting thousands of pages of content into a content management system (CMS) in the blink of an eye. “Which CMS?” We ask, blithely waiting for the predictable reply, “What do you recommend?”

During the pause between this request and our answer—perceptible only to another user experience consultant—a million snarky replies skitter across our creative hemispheres. In that micro-second, we shuffle the deck of possible responses. Here’s a random sampling:

  • What now?
  • Is that Earth weeks or Martian weeks?
  • Who do you think I am, the Harry Houdini of Web design?
  • What’s it worth to you?
  • You’re the fourth client that has asked me that this week. [Sigh]

After the moment has passed, we take a deep breath and say, “We’ll see what we can do.” We say we will work it out, or some variation of that message, every time we get asked this question even though we know it’s an absurd, preposterous, and unreasonable request. Why do we say okay when we know it’s impossible? (And yes, it is impossible; keep reading.) Because we know something our clients don’t know. We know THEY can’t do the project in two weeks.

When we say we will see what we can do, what we really mean is, “Two weeks from when?” Two weeks after they finish haggling over the contract. Two weeks after they wrestle the eps logo from their previous design company. Two weeks after they realize their in-house guy doesn’t know how to draw wireframes. Two weeks after they approve designs; select a CMS; and tell us how to access their hosting platform. Or the clincher, the all-time go-to reason why we know it can’t be done, two weeks after they finish writing the content.

For the record, we don’t agree to a ludicrous timeline with the intention to deceive. We are not the contractors from The Money Pit (the classic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long from 1986, back when Tom Hanks was funny). Despite my continuous and very boring comparisons to physical real estate, the online space in which we work requires more attention from our clients than remodeling a house. If we were working in your home, you would be prepared to move out or to eat out for two weeks or two months while we work. But if you’re talking to us, you probably have a Web site or application that needs to keep running while we work. Your site is critical to your business. We can’t just hang a green sign in the window that says, “Under construction. Check back in a few weeks”.

How Do We Know?
I know you’re bursting to ask this question. How do we know? We just do. We’ve seen it happen a hundred times with a hundred different clients. Any designer you ask can tell you a story about that client that wanted his project done in two weeks and couldn’t meet his own deadlines. Okay, I admit, I get a little smug about it. I’m certain I’m not the only one. But here’s the catch. If we think the client or the project is a good fit, we’re willing to coach them through the process, no matter how painful it may be for all parties involved. I’m also getting a little sidetracked. That was the answer to the question why do we do the work.

Here’s the real answer to the question, How do we know. Because we’ve tried it ourselves and failed (sort of). Recently, my company, Black Pepper, Inc., went through an identity overhaul and Web site redesign. My partners, Heather and Paddy, and I were invited to pitch our services to a big new client. To get prepared, we decided it was time to do all the things we’ve put off for the last two…three…oh, the number doesn’t matter…years. We spent too long acting like the cobbler whose children wore no shoes. It was time to put our money where our mouth was, or to walk the talk, or some other nonsense cliché.

We had two weeks between the meeting request and the meeting date to complete the redesign.

We stuck as close to our proven process as time would allow. Paddy put together a brand survey which I, as the business owner, dutifully completed. Answers in hand, Paddy began sketching logos while Heather and I looked at WordPress themes.

Gulp. Yes. I can hear what you are thinking. WordPress themes? How could they? They are a design shop? I know, it sounds crazy to us too. But how else can you get a whole new site design into a content management system, up and running in two weeks? I needed to be able to work on content while we were selecting a design. WordPress requires minimal involvement from our technical partners. There was no down time between design delivery and launch while we were waiting for a working site to come back from the dev team.

That was the sacrifice that we chose to make in order to get the site redesigned in two weeks. There may be other circumstances that would have made it possible for us to custom design it. Perhaps if I had not needed to rewrite the whole site, we could have designed it, coded it, and ported over the existing content. Except not really. There’s no way we would have met our self-imposed deadline and produced something representative of our best work.

Perhaps if we had not needed to keep our business running while we were revamping the site, we would have had the time to dedicate ourselves to this task. But that’s not how our clients’ business works and that’s not how our business works. In the two weeks we spent redesigning the primary marketing channel of our business, we also

  • Pitched, landed, and kicked off a new project
  • Started a competitive site review and concept models for the new client
  • Delivered 15 revised and new screens for a Web-enabled physicians’ office scheduling application
  • Designed two sets of comps for a top-secret client we hope to brag about soon
  • Wrote three proposals
  • Sat through countless meetings
  • Answered numerous emails and phone calls
  • And attempted to live our invariably overscheduled lives

Two weeks was not enough time for us to do it all, for us to follow our own process properly. I had to rewrite the content to purge out-of-date portfolio samples and spotlight our recent and award-winning work. Content is king. We knew that before we started. We sacrificed custom design and development for the sake of getting something up that looks good (i.e., good enough) and works. We sacrificed design for a site that talks about our work. Content that, according to Steve Krug, nobody will read. Hmmm…maybe that wasn’t the best choice. But it was the right choice for us at the time.

It took us days to decide on a logo, because the options Paddy presented were all beautiful and because they all said something unique and different about the business. We acted like “typical clients.” I caught myself saying things like, “I like the pattern on the second one and the color on the first one.” Paddy revised accordingly, and then I decided I didn’t like that color after all. Ugh.

It would have taken several days more to design, select, and revise complete layouts. In reality, I would have cranked out the IA in less than half a day to hand off to design. Design would have rushed to allow our developer the three-five days he needed to get the site coded and to move the content. You get the picture. Those were days we didn’t have.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of the work we did. I love the logo Paddy created. He produced a Web-optimized logo and business cards and a PowerPoint template in less time than it takes most people to order a pizza. (Okay, not really, but he is fast. And his work is as satisfying as a crispy pie smothered in red sauce topped with gooey mozzarella and fresh basil.) And I am happy with how the content turned out (if I do say so myself). We have a solid foundation on which to build.

But the downside is that we don’t have a case study that demonstrates the value of our process. And we missed an opportunity to show off our design skills. So we’ll try, try again in the very near future. In the meantime, if you’re wondering about our experience, check out Black Pepper, Inc. If you’re interested, ask us for references. Our clients can tell you, the process works, if you’re willing to give it more than two weeks.