The Soda Academy
"Clients – as the voice of the business as well as digital experts in their own right – need a better seat at the table, not just as arbiters but also as creators."
"Embracing transparency requires reinventing client engagement."
"For a transparent approach to work, a client must be interested in seeing incomplete thoughts. Some aren’t."

Emily Wengert, Huge

Show Your Underwear: A Case for Transparent Collaboration

Show Your Underwear

It’s a Tuesday and I’m about to do something I’ve never done before: send our clients a photo of a hastily scribbled whiteboard to explain how we’ve been approaching their million-dollar ask.

After a day of debate, we’ve hit a snag. We get on a quick call with three clients, hoping they know something we don’t. Turns out, they do. Ten minutes later the call wraps and everyone feels good about the decision.

In the agency world, there’s a lot of pressure to be right. In the not so distant past, we only felt comfortable bringing clients the final answer that showed off our brilliant thinking. But the problems we face in digital today are exponentially more complex than those we were solving even half a decade ago, and there’s really no chance of getting it right the first time.

The clients – as the voice of the business as well as digital experts in their own right – need a better seat at the table, not just as arbiters but also as creators.

We believe the secret to making that possible is transparency – a “show our underwear” mindset that supports collaboration and produces the best products. Let’s shed the agency aversion to sharing mistakes and take the opposite approach: expose the wrong ideas, bad assumptions and delays in schedule, right alongside the good ideas, smart assumptions and efficiencies.

Shifting How We Work Together
There’s an old adage in the design community: don’t share with clients anything you don’t like in case they fall in love with it and pick the wrong option. This kind of thinking has to disappear. Embracing transparency requires reinventing client engagement.

That same client who got to see a picture of our whiteboard also attended our (normally internal) product scrums for several days every other week. We’d show all our work, including what we didn’t like, and talked openly about why something was broken, sometimes before we even had a better solution in place. We critiqued our work then critiqued each other’s feedback on the work, including (gasp!) the client’s.

We also used this kind of team model to redesign TED’s website, ted.com. We had frequent, direct access to key decision makers at TED. They worked face-to-face with Huge’s design team multiple times a week, which means they saw successes and failures in real time and collaborated with every team member, from the most junior to the most senior.

There were no formal presentations in these meetings. We printed some work, dragged JPGs into browsers or showed materials directly from our phones. We didn’t even book our “client-friendly” conference rooms. The TED team hung out in the war room, side-by-side with our entire crew.

None of this is an excuse to get sloppy. In fact, this much transparency will quickly expose if there’s a weak link on the team. It makes it impossible to put together a B team – something agencies should never do to begin with.

This kind of approach, which we now use for more than one-third of our clients, allows us to test assumptions and put requirements in context. We see problems sooner and know what the internal pressures our clients might be facing when they sell an idea. It allows them to feel confident in the process, the rationale and the micro decisions that make up the whole.

In essence, it lets us create faster and create better.

Transparency is an acquired taste
When transparency works, it works really well – especially for the most innovative projects, when the decisions are many and the implications big.

Of course, total transparency isn’t feasible with every client. A host of factors can hold us back:

  1. A client must be interested in seeing incomplete thoughts. Some aren’t. They have pressures to succeed and a manager, president, or CEO to please, and that can make for less tolerance for nascent ideas. So we adjust how we communicate and take time to add more polish. The more these clients can picture sharing something with their boss’ boss, the more positive the relationship will be.
  2. Sometimes a client isn’t empowered to make the day-to-day decisions needed for this model to work. For them, the constant invitation to participate becomes stressful instead of exciting. We work closely with these clients to avoid a big reveal, but the partnership still won’t be as intimate.
  3. One of the most unexpected insights from this model is that sometimes having a client next to you every day is not the most efficient way to work – even in the best relationships. Genius is lumpy. Product teams have good days when something takes a big leap forward and bad days when 12 tries doesn’t lead to anything better. Like any good relationship, a little space is a good thing.

In many cases, the benefits of transparency outweigh these qualifications. We need to rethink how we expose the progression of our work to clients. Not a single digital project in the history of the world has ever gone according to plan. Not one. And yet historically, agencies have felt obligated to pretend they can predict the future and then scramble to compensate when perfectly normal surprises come up.

This is where transparency becomes our friend. By openly acknowledging where things stand, we’re building trust. As long as we approach their problem with passion, smart planning, and an open mind to having that plan change, we can all make better things.

Emily Wengert is Group VP of User Experience at Huge in Brooklyn. She believes transparency is bad when it’s a shower curtain.

Illustration provided by US-based designer, John Starr