Viget Labs

Oliver Lindberg chats to CEO Brian Williams, development director Clinton Nixon, design director Tom Osborne and senior strategist Ben Adlard about blogging, IE9 and celebrity codes

.net: How did the agency come about? And why did you set it up in Virginia? It’s not exactly Silicon Valley or New York…
BW: 1999 was a great year to start building web products for startups, and I’d always wanted to work with my brother, so it was easy. Pretty quickly, though, our clients lost funding, along with everyone else, and we were sucking wind. We retooled to target established offline businesses, which gave some much-needed stability and sanity. Now we work with both startups and big brands.

We’re in Falls Church simply because it’s close to where we grew up and started our careers. Now, having put down roots here, we can say that it’s a great place to raise a family and run a business, and just 10 minutes from a big city like Washington, DC. With outposts in Durham, NC, and now Boulder, CO, we have similarly awesome places to visit.

.net: What are the four key areas – or ‘Four Labs’, as you call them – that Viget specialises in?
BW: The Four Labs are user experience, interface design, application development and online marketing. Initially, we focused on design and development, but clients increasingly asked us to help market and measure their sites once we launched them, so we added services. UX grew up naturally at Viget, as I think it has in the industry. We love being able to take a rough idea and make it into a real web product, all under one roof.

.net: What’s your design and development process like? Why do you begin with mood boards?
TO: It all starts with a conversation. We try to establish a level of understanding with goals, and build from there. Starting broadly with sketches, wireframes and mood boards enables us to figure out what does and doesn’t work early on in the process, thus minimising failure points as we close in on a final product.

.net: How much do you involve the client?
TO: It varies depending on the project but, for the most part, our clients are quite involved. It’s kind of like a marriage in that they need us and we need them. We both bring valuable aspects to the table to optimise the success of the work we’re doing.

.net: How do you overcome an extremely tight budget when working with non-profits?
BW: We mostly work hourly, so tight budgets mean limited time. But this can be a positive. It forces us to be creative within a defined schedule. The key is to shape and communicate a clear scope that fits the budget but allows for great work, then to apply a flexible, lean process that keeps the project on track. Crazy-detailed project managers help.

.net: You run five blogs. How important is it for you to get the teams to share thoughts and tips?
BW: Hugely important. Sharing is core to the Viget culture. We’ve always felt that the more we can share what we know or think, the more we’ll learn and think ourselves. We’re honoured to be part of this industry, which feels like a big community, and we’re happy to contribute what we can back to it.

.net: Do the different teams collaborate much?
BW: Tons. It’s constant. Without it, we’d just be a bunch of independent shops. It’s a focus of every project kick-off and retrospective, and it’s why we have adjunct teams in which ‘Vigets’ can work in a different role on certain projects. It’s also why we encourage project-based team seating when possible. The collaboration across different disciplines is what makes Viget so unique.

.net: What do you think about Ryan Carson’s recent blog post about ‘UX professional’ not being a real job title?
BW: I like Ryan, but that post was ridiculous. The industry is growing up, which naturally brings specialisation. As long as we don’t wear blinkers, that’s not a bad thing. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could do everything really well? Yes.

.net: What tools and techniques do you use to measure a site’s success?
BA: We first define key metrics, based on business goals, and then test in two forms: directly with users and indirectly via traffic statistics. We conduct usability tests on designs before and after a site’s launch. In parallel, we set up event triggers, funnels and goals in Google Analytics to measure how users progress through key actions. We utilise A/B and multivariate testing in Google Website Optimizer to identify the ideal sequence of design elements for maximum conversion. Lastly, we use tools such as SpyFu and SEMRush for SEO research, and Campaign Monitor for email metrics. We’re testing tools like Flowtown for social media measurement.

.net: Will Internet Explorer 9 change your work?
CN: We’re excited by the new features in IE9. The canvas support is going to free us up to make even more great websites without relying on Flash for IE – not that Flash doesn’t have its place. We’re already using some features from CSS3, and now we’ll be able to give IE users the same experiences we’re providing for others. Of course, older versions of IE will be still around, and we’re going to support them as well.

.net: What’s been your most bizarre client request?
BW: The manager of a very high-profile celebrity asked us to come up with a “code word”. She wanted to use it when her client was in the room to tip us off that we should do the opposite of what the celebrity was asking us to do. Coincidentally, this kicked off our ‘stop working with celebrities’ phase. Except for Brian Regan – he’s awesome.