Ensuring Quality from Your Team

In the second of his 2-part series on quality, Simon Meek puts forward some suggestions and ideas for building a great web team that's focused on quality and great design.

Ensuring Quality from Your Team

In a recent article, I talked about why it is that the quality of your work matters. I tried to frame this in business terms because my initial reaction of "of course it's important, have you no pride?!" felt much too emotional. I wanted to get to grips with why anyone apart from me should actually care. In this followup article, I want to offer some suggestions for those working in or managing teams as to how to achieve that quality.

Let me start by saying that being so focused on quality is by no means the easy option. It takes a lot of attention to detail and the occasional admission of failure to get there, but the results should speak for themselves. For both teams and businesses I believe that this is the right way to go.

What follows then, is my take on how to ensure quality from your team. I would add that I am by no means a business process consultant. These are just my observations from having worked within teams both excellent and utterly dysfunctional!

Adopt a circular workflow

No, this doesn't mean sitting in a circle chanting (though feel free to try that if it helps). What I mean by this is that instead of your team's workflow being a linear process, we should be looking to keep everyone involved every step of the way.

In practice, a linear workflow might have information architects handing off to designers who then hand off to coders, who may then put the site live. At each stage the people involved will forget about it after they've handed it over. I think this is a recipe for disaster. Sites evolve as they're built, with new requirements coming in, and new ideas being floated. If all members of the team aren't talking about these things as they come up, only one person is dealing with the issues.

Circular workflow diagram
A circular workflow can help catch errors, and generate new ideas.

I advocate sites being built in small teams, with each stage in the process being fed back down the line for feedback, comments and ideas. In this way, everyone can contribute at every stage and coders can comment on a site architecture, or a designer on the final build. This process of round-robin checking means that fewer issues get missed, and new ideas are fed in constantly.

Of course, you do need to have someone whose job it is to make sure that all this checking and new ideas don't impact delivery, but with careful management it should be possible to accrue the benefits of the process without slowing things down.

Everyone needs to be on board

For the process to be effective, everyone on the team needs to be "on message". This may require something of a culture-shift within your organisation, since traditionally, roles are very prescriptive. It's not the coder's job to worry about the branding impact of something being out of alignment, for instance. Nor is it the information architect's job to fret about how the site actually works behind the scenes.

Every aspect of a site's design and build has an effect on every other aspect.

The truth is though that every aspect of a site's design and build has an effect on every other aspect. If a headline is out by five pixels, that feels shoddy, and impacts on the work of the designer and copywriter. If the design isn't backing up the message proposed by marketing, then it's not as effective. If a popup menu doesn't "feel" right under the mouse then the user will have a frustrating experience, however pretty it is.

To avoid this, everyone has to be on board with the idea that nothing shoddy will be allowed to pass. If everyone's thinking like that, then there are multiple opportunities in the chain to pick up any issues.

Education, education, education

To achieve this shift in thinking within your team, you'll likely need to invest in some education. It's unreasonable to expect coders to suddenly start thinking with a designer's eye, or your marketing team to make concessions to the technical possibilities of site behaviour, without some fairly major rewiring.

Screenshot of misaligned page elements
Everyone on the team, not just the designer, should be able to tell that these text elements look scrappy because they don't line up.

I believe most of these changes can be achieved internally, without resorting to expensive courses run by outsiders. Set up regular meetings where each member of the team explains in general terms what they do, how they achieve it, what the challenges are, and what they're doing right now. That way, all members of the team gain insight into everyone else's world.

This is especially important for project managers, who tend to be quite divorced from the processes of actually building a site. In turn, the production team have quite a tight view of the project, and can benefit from the overview of a good project manager, who can give them insight into the commercial imperatives of the project.

In wider terms, design thinking is imperative to all projects. When I say that, I'm not talking about the narrow definition of graphic design, but the wider approach that many firms are now adopting by putting the design process at the heart of their business.

Take a look at this inspiring video from the UK's Design Council:

Get management buy-in

The truth is that unless you have a very self-motivated team, you're going to need the support of management. Without that, there's little imperative for change to occur. If you're lucky, management will understand the business imperatives of doing great work and will be happy to promote the strategy from the top-down. But if you're not, there's not a lot you can do about it short of a long-term game plan building change from the grassroots.

Management should be putting quality at the heart of their business.

Management should be putting quality at the heart of their business. It makes business sense to produce great products, but this viewpoint is still something of a rarity, often with only lip service paid to the concept. It's quite a hard line to take, but I would argue that if management within a web agency don't genuinely want to adopt a quality-driven agenda, then they're wrong, and in totally the wrong job.

At the management level, quality can be conveyed to clients by the service and advice they receive. Only management are in the position to give a public face to your own internal processes, and clients will thank them for it and be inspired in turn.

Give people the power to stop sites going live

The ultimate disaster is when something sub-par goes "live" to the web, where your work is open to scrutiny from the wider community. If you've got it wrong, and you let buggy, unfinished work go live then the community—and in turn the client—will let you know all about it.

At the very least, it should be one person's job to stop sites that still need work from going live. That person should be the one with the highest standards and the one least scared to say "no, this is not up to scratch".

The idea that the site will not go live unless the "quality police" say so can be quite motivating!

I'd argue though that any member of the team should have the power to stop sites going live if they believe there are problems. That may sound like a recipe for disaster, but I believe that people will use the power responsibly once they know they're being listened to.

This should of course be the last resort. No-one wants to miss deadlines, and if the team are on board with the idea of quality then you should never get to this stage. In the early stages of change though, the idea that the site will not go live unless the "quality police" say so can be quite motivating!

Conclusion

Adopting the ideas above will result in responsibility for quality being spread across the production team and management. It may seem that the relentless pursuit of quality will cost time and therefore money, but in reality, once everyone's on board, problems get caught early since people are thinking better and checking their own work (and that of others) to a higher standard.

But bear in mind that it's not about detail at any cost. Being a professional is about adopting these processes which lead to quality, whilst still delivering work on time and on budget which meets the client's expectations. There's no point in delivering great work after its needed or at double the original budget.

Lastly, it's worth remembering that change is hard on everyone. Try not to be too hard-line about it, since people will simply switch off and be defensive if they feel they're being criticised. Gently does it!

I'd love to get your take on this and the last article, so please feel free to challenge (or even agree with) the ideas herein in the comments below!

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Responses to this article

1 response:

14-Dec-10 16:26
I think that having a circular work flow is a great idea as it allows your staff to provide input on the project and continue to improve it. It probably doesn't hurt if your staff have some training in the work of their co-workers also, that way everyone has an overview of what a good site entails.

[Edited by joeleitz on 14-Dec-10 16:26]

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