Californian agency ZURB specialises in helping web startups connect with their customers. Partner Jeremy Britton explains its approach and philosophy to Oliver Lindberg
This article first appeared in issue 216 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
.net: What does ZURB specialise in?
JB: Good question. ChubbyBrain recently analysed 32 startups and found the number one reason for failure is ignoring customers. Most companies develop a product and then solicit feedback after they launch.
We think that’s insane, but it created an opportunity for ZURB to specialise in designing interactions for people. We flip the whole process around to exchange continuous feedback with potential customers from the first napkin sketch to the launch. It’s enlightened trial-and-error.
.net: How has ZURB developed in 13 years?
JB: It’s been a continual learning process, as we experimented with our service. We made forays into development; writing a .NET shopping cart from scratch and launching a community stock photography startup at different points. These problems were interesting challenges, but we’re better suited to tackling other ones. They weren’t perfectly lined up with the core of what we’re about.
Now we’ve got a healthy business with diverse services under a focused vision of design for people. We design and build our own apps to help exchange feedback, we invite speakers to inspire us at our Soapbox events, we push ourselves to develop cutting-edge CSS3 techniques in our Playground and we teach classes.
.net: How do you work? If a startup wants help, what are the first steps you take?
JB: We ask why are you doing this? What are you passionate about? Do you want to see some change in a market or something mass adopted throughout the world or are you in it for an exit?
We then focus on setting challenging but realistic goals, positioning their product and sketching out the people we imagine paying for it. We avoid heavy market research and customer segmentation because we find most of the big problems are easy to solve if you ask simpler, more direct questions. It’s easy to get buried under a mountain of important-looking data, but that rarely helps us make valuable design decisions.
.net: You put a lot of emphasis on sharing. You speak at conferences and publish material. Why?
JB: It’s hard to change the world on your own! We want to help people design great things for others. We love hearing from others about the things we’re doing and we love giving feedback. Our talks at Google, RailsConf, jQuery, Web 2.0 Expo, BayCHI and others are just avenues for us to exchange information with like-minded people. Our Playground – where we publish techniques, tutorials and plug-ins – is another way to connect with the design community about details important to pushing our craft forward as an industry.
.net: What’s hopping on the ZURB Playground?
JB: That depends on what the team is passionate about right now. All of the ideas bubble up as by-products of challenges related to something we’re doing. We’ve been heavily involved with jQuery lately, so some of our latest stuff includes plug-ins for that. These include Orbit, an image slider; Reveal, a modal window plug-in and Raptorize, a sleek jQuery effect that amuses visitors with a velociraptor that dashes across your screen.
.net: You’re big fans of progressive enhancement. Why should people use it?
JB: Progressive enhancement is about innovation and moving forward. Graceful degradation is about covering your ass from the past.
“Don’t screw up on IE6” is still important in some contexts, but we all know that there’s nothing graceful about it.
.net: On your site you say you have a strong culture that puts an emphasis on collaboration. What does that mean in practice?
JB: Collaboration is just another word for design. Great design is always focused on solving problems for people. A mentality of sketching, using magnetic whiteboards, continuous open dialogue over IM and breakout sessions in side rooms or across the open floor permeates our office space.
.net: What are you looking for in new ZURBians?
JB: Whether an engineer, designer or copywriter, they should be T-shaped, geeks, scrappy, hard- working, team players, fun and enjoy challenges.
.net: What are you currently working on?
JB: Feedback is a popular word here at ZURB. To make this process easier for websites, we developed an app called Notable that enables you to take any screenshot, add notes on it, and share that with somebody. After we launched it we asked for feedback from customers, then hunkered down to refocus and redesign the app to solve problems.
.net: What’s the weirdest client request you’ve had?
JB: Some of the best are when the clock is ticking. In 2005, Zazzle said their custom product design tool wasn’t working well any more but they needed to convince the US Postmaster General to let them make custom postage stamps – next week.
It was too exciting to pass up. We ended up creating a children’s book about a child watching their parents use custom stamps in a few personal and professional capacities. We also got into some details and refactored the tool’s interface.