This week, Fresh Tilled Soil was named one of Boston’s Top Web Design Companies by the B2B research firm Clutch. This might not be surprising for a company that has delivered 700+ projects over 12 years. But there are some less obvious reasons why Fresh Tilled Soil made the Leaders Matrix – it’s probably not what you think.
Web and digital product design needs to deliver great design. That much is obvious. What’s not obvious is how the most successful design companies actually do this. Having a bench of great designers is generally what most people think of when they think of a great design company. That part is true, but what sets these companies apart is their project and product management skills.
Our CEO, Richard Banfield, describes it in this way. “We set out to build a design company but ended up creating a kickass product management company that delivers on promises. That might sound like a simple distinction but it’s everything in the client’s mind. You may have the best design in the world, but if it’s not delivered on time and on budget, it quickly loses its value.”
I’ll describe more about what this means and why it’s important in the context of the Clutch Leaders Matrix.
Invest in understanding the client’s problem(s)
“When you’re solving complex problems you need to invest most of your time understanding the problem.” @rapid7 CEO, Corey Thomas
One of the Clutch criteria for inclusion in the Leaders Matrix is Quality, described as the “quality of services and deliverables.” Fresh Tilled Soil is a design company helping their clients solve challenging problems using design thinking. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily unique in the digital product and web design industry. What is very rare, however, is how our delivery on high-value goals contributes to our clients’ success.
At Fresh Tilled Soil, we spend a lot of time understanding our clients’ problems – a LOT of time. We do this to ensure that both we and our clients are defining the problem well. If we are doing that well, we are also coming up with a really amazing solution. Anything short of that and one may end up building something that’s not useful or relevant for the client in the near-term, or worse, something that will not stand up to the inevitable changes in the client’s context or environment.
We think hard about problems, we sketch our ideas, we run rigorous exercises to encourage creative thinking, and then we pick a few well-considered solutions and create prototypes. It’s a time-tested process that feels really good. But we don’t stop when we’re finished with the thinking. Design, with a capital ‘D’, seeks to solve the entire problem, not just the initial validation.
Design for outcomes, not outputs
Our clients hire us for great design. But they are also hire us to produce an outcome – a solution, a problem solved, an innovation. They are not hiring us for specific design outputs. They are hiring us for the outcomes that those specific outputs will produce. A design company that only produces outputs isn’t making a real impact on their client’s business. And these design outputs can only be great when the outcome is aligned with the client’s larger vision and strategy.
At Fresh Tilled Soil, we are project managing for the outcome, not just the output. Outputs are part of the process, and assets are necessary, but assets left alone without alignment with the vision or integrated into the work of the client team will become somewhat irrelevant. If you only produce non-contextualized outputs, the client will struggle to use them when the client’s context inevitably changes – for example, a change in leadership, market, or ownership. These outputs will likely just waste away on the shelf along with other documents, presentations, and even prototypes that have long since outstripped their utility. If, however, you are aligning your work to the larger goals and vision of the client, these assets will always be relevant and produce the desired outcomes regardless of anything else that changes.
If all you have is a paper or HTML prototype you still haven’t solved the problem. The problem must be connected to a customer validated solution. You’re not done designing until there is a clear link between what you’re solving for, the problem, and what your solution is — the delivered value.
Finally, when a client sees Fresh Tilled Soil as a partner, they give us the opportunity and the knowledge to internalize and invest in their vision. They can then rely on us for strategic advice, design counsel, and planning, with the comfort of knowing that we already understand what they’re trying to achieve and the best way to get there.
Too often, design companies are focused on just delivering outputs. A product management company is focused on delivering outcomes.
Cultivate a trusted advisor relationship
Also among the Clutch criteria is a “Willingness to refer a colleague to the company.” Our clients are our best advertisement, and they regard us as a strategic partner. They work with us for a very long period of time and trust us with sensitive business information and their most complex and critical projects. As we repeat many times at Fresh Tilled Soil, trust solves problems faster than technology. We work hard to cultivate relationships that last beyond one engagement and are looked upon as more than just a vendor relationship.
In a traditional vendor relationship, the client has a problem and approaches a design firm with a solution already in mind. There is an existing list of features and/or requirements and technical constraints, the client team makes itself available for regular reviews and status updates, assets are approved and delivered to the client’s implementation team, and the relationship comes to a close. When the process goes as expected, the client gets the solution they requested.
In a partnership model, we work side-by-side with a client at every step. Their team collaborates with us to refine the business problem, define possible solutions, and vet those solutions with stakeholders and users. Both teams work together to set milestones, sync processes and tools, and define success metrics. A client’s implementation team is part of every design review to vet functionality, to think about how to build each feature, and to recommend alternatives that may be easier to build or support. There are more touch points with more voices at the table, but the end result is a more informed, more considered outcome.
The word “partner” represents an openness, a commitment, and subsequently a style of working together that benefits both sides. When we partner with our clients, both sides become more closely aligned in their visions.
We are fortunate to have earned the trust of top companies across many industries. We’ve established a partnership model that can require a higher time commitment, more frequent communication from everyone involved, and an openness on both sides to expose the inner workings of our processes. The payout, though, is exponential.
Deliver on time and on budget
Of course, every engagement will eventually be evaluated based on the Clutch criteria of “Overall value and conformance to cost estimates.” That is, the ability to meet deadlines and agreed project schedules. We have demonstrated our project management expertise to the point where when you sign an agreement to engage with Fresh Tilled Soil, you also get our project management guarantee to deliver on time and budget. Our contracted timeline and budget does not change. Unless you explicitly ask for changes in the scope or deliverables, we don’t send surprise invoices. No nickel-and-diming and no missed deadlines. Guaranteed.
It’s not only what we promise, it’s what we do.