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How And Why To Make Side Projects Work At A Digital Agency

It’s no secret that the digital industry is booming. From exciting startups to global brands, companies are reaching out to digital agencies, responding to the new possibilities available. However, the industry is fast becoming overcrowded, heaving with agencies offering similar services — on the surface, at least.

Producing creative, fresh projects is the key to standing out. Unique side projects are the best place to innovate, but balancing commercially and creatively lucrative work is tricky. So, this article looks at how to make side projects work and why they’re worthwhile, drawing on lessons learned from our development of the UX Companion1 app.

We’ve gained fresh inspiration on how to make side projects work from having learning lessons from developing UX Companion.2
We’ve gained fresh inspiration on how to make side projects work from having learning lessons from developing UX Companion. (View large version3)

Why Integrate Side Projects? Link

Being creative within the constraints of client briefs, budgets and timelines is the norm for most agencies. However, investing in research and development (R&D) as a true, creative outlet is a powerful addition. In these side projects alone, your team members can pool their expertise to create and shape their own vision — a powerful way to develop motivation, interdisciplinary skills and close relationships.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Building R&D into the identity and culture of an agency can also lead to new client work. These projects act as a road map, showing clients exciting new technologies and ideas that will differentiate you from competitors. One of our earliest projects turned our website into a brochure, optimized for the first iPad’s touch interactions. By demonstrating the final product, we went on to win a project to create a similar product for a new client.

How To Make Side Projects Work Link

At Cyber-Duck8, we’re still working on achieving that perfect balance between commerce and creativity. But we have fresh inspiration on how it’s done from having worked on UX Companion. The app gained a popular following in early October, as one of the first native apps to offer a full glossary of user experience (UX) terms and theory — but the development process was definitely a learning process.

Ensure The Project Is Worth It Link

Commercializing side projects alongside client work isn’t easy. Even if such projects are intended to generate additional revenue streams, they are not directly related to your core business. Those with a more qualitative aim, such as promoting expertise or technological experimentation, are even harder to justify.

A significant shift in mindset is required to support either type of side project — weighing the longer-term, incremental benefits against committing what would otherwise be immediately billable time. Many agencies do this with a time-bound model of 80% client time versus 20% R&D time, inspired by Google’s successes with Gmail and Google Reader — which they have since (tellingly) phased out. I’d instead recommend the following guidelines.

Take on Projects, Instead of Allocating Ill-Defined Independent R&D Time Link

Encourage your team to research, monitor and share interesting, emerging technologies and trends. We collaborate and circulate an internal newsletter, which feeds into ideas for side projects. These are debated in quarterly R&D meetings, with a select few being allocated further resources in the same way as new client projects.

The Best Side Projects Solve Genuine Challenges Link

Solving real problems also inspires us. UX Companion stopped clients from being overwhelmed by UX jargon, or from using terms differently from us, and we’re now working on a new CRM to resolve some of our operational frustrations. Carefully managed side projects that tackle common problems can become an additional source of revenue and can even, in very special cases, tempt the agency away from client work completely, as happened with 37signals9 and its Basecamp.

However, The Value Doesn’t Have To Be Commercial Link

Supporting R&D will increase the engagement and motivation of employees, giving them a true creative outlet to beat the “churn” of the billable hour, and helping you to recruit and retain the best talent. Indeed, post-launch, UX Companion achieved far more than we’d anticipated, with over 7,000 downloads in one week and thousands of social media mentions in the UX community. The buzz in our office was great and a real boost to the team.

We were encouraged to develop UX Companion to solve a genuine challenge: helping clients and new members of staff to understand key UX terminology.10
We were encouraged to develop UX Companion to solve a genuine challenge: helping clients and new members of staff to understand key UX terminology. (View large version11)

Define The Audience And Meet Their Needs Link

Defining one’s audience is a basic tenet of all user-centred design, and it’s worth repeating for side projects. The very nature of a side project as a “passion” project, free from the limits of a client’s vision, makes it all too easy to become convinced by your own idea — without validating general interest.

When scoping out UX Companion, we aimed to create a reference tool, packed with definitions to demystify jargon. Already convinced it would be of use to our clients and us, we quickly tested with our audience, which revealed that the project could be taken further. We asked the UX community about their go-to dictionary resources, and we heard accounts of a variety of frustrations with online glossaries, which encouraged us to explore how to also meet their needs.

Create Personas and Use Cases Link

Expand upon initial research through a user-centred approach, drawing full personas for all audience types. A broad target audience is still possible. For instance, UX Companion was aimed at both UX-savvy designers and marketers who have far less knowledge of the terminology. In this instance, we were our own audience, which meant we could quickly solve key problems, with less effort spent on familiarization.

Then, move on to envisage the key use cases for your product. These use cases helped us to realize that our app needed to be accessible offline, with all content downloaded to the device so that users could refer to it in meetings or while travelling.

Consider the Best Format for Limited Resources Link

Because side projects typically have limited resources, designing for all devices is not possible. Recent research12 shows that almost a third of smartphone users no longer download new apps in a typical month, despite spending a significant amount of “digital time” on apps13. So, new ideas must be especially strong.

We thought long and hard about whether a native app would be the best format for UX Companion, and the use cases convinced us to go ahead. But we had to make the difficult decision to test the waters by developing for iOS first, with Android and a desktop app planned as a possibility for later. This enabled us to get the idea out there and receive feedback before committing more resources to develop across platforms, but it also meant losing a part of the potential audience.

Proactively Manage Resources Link

For agencies with a core commercial model of billable hours, resources are the main challenge in side projects. We found it difficult to balance R&D dreams with client visions: Delayed by client launches with hard deadlines, our initial aim to release UX Companion in January soon became August.

We realized that top-level project management had been neglected, with team members from different departments involved as joint stakeholders. Unlike the way we manage client projects, there was no clear lead person to drive the project forward and make definitive decisions. With a far less formal sign-off process for milestones, big decisions about copy and design were frustratingly revisited and due dates forgotten in email trails.

Keep Your Team Motivated, and Don’t Delay Projects Link

Clashing against deliverables and pushing back timelines can really waste momentum and enthusiasm, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in a project originally pursued as a passion “on the side.” Treating UX Companion as “behind schedule” left the team feeling downhearted and without a sense of urgency, as if all future tasks were just attempts to catch up, and the app’s launch was too elusive to get excited about.

If delays are unavoidable, then set a new achievable timeline and recognize the need to rebuild momentum and excitement for launch.

Negotiate Time for R&D at the Outset Link

Better still would be to avoid delays from the start. Just as agencies draw careful timelines with specific deliverable deadlines for clients, they should commit to a schedule for their side project as far as possible, even if that means planning for a far-off launch date using small increments of time on an ongoing basis.

We now schedule R&D projects using Harvest Forecast14. It is a great tool to block time into each department’s production schedule, to mark milestones (for low-fidelity side projects) and to gain a quick overview of a project as a whole.

Commit Departments Rather Than Individuals Link

In the past, different team members were assigned to a variety of specific side projects, with deliverables dependent on their personal availability. This further compounded resource challenges. Now, we work more intensively on fewer projects, each of which has a defined lead and defined stakeholders. As with client work, individual tasks are the responsibility of each department, so that team members are able to collaborate and complete on time.

Be Prepared for Surprises Link

As a creative experiment, a side project can throw up surprises, so retaining some flexibility is important. We didn’t realize that UX Companion’s content would be trickier and cause far more delays than the technical development. Our UX team was asked to write initial drafts, which we believed would capture nuanced definitions. We hadn’t accounted for the team being less accustomed to writing educational content. Next time, we’ll set a more careful and realistic strategy for any content-heavy project requiring the expertise of our busy team.

Our UX team carefully selected key terms to cover, from common terminology they come across in daily tasks — but found it tricky to find writing time.15
Our UX team carefully selected key terms to cover, from common terminology they come across in daily tasks — but they found it tricky to work in writing time. (View large version16)

Challenge Yourselves, And Explore New Technologies Link

A side project is a great chance to experiment with emerging technologies, ensuring the agency stays ahead of the game and feeds insight back into client processes. It improves employee engagement by encouraging them to expand skills and try out new things without affecting a client’s brief or deadline.

We assembled a mixed team to build our product, using Objective-C, the native language of iOS apps, in Xcode17. By chance, development began just before iOS 8 was due for release. To avoid compatibility updates soon after launch, the team had to quickly adapt and build within a beta version that could simulate the upcoming operating system. This experiment made the code messier, and development took slightly longer than expected. But it was a great opportunity for the team to learn something new.

Similarly, after launch, when Google announced support for in-app tracking via Google Analytics, we thought that testing its implementation in UX Companion would be better than testing in our next client’s app.

Challenge your team with by experimenting with new technology. For us, this meant building in a beta version of Xcode.18
Challenge your team with by experimenting with new technology. For us, this meant building in a beta version of Xcode. (View large version19)

Quality Is Key Link

No agency would launch a client project without comprehensive testing, and the same goes for all side projects. Alongside meticulous quality assurance (QA) testing of UX Companion, each definition was checked manually across an array of iPhones, using TestFlight to host and release new iterations of the app.

Furthermore, the app was tested by a small number of target users on different devices. These testers were tasked with finding key terms, reading through definitions and giving feedback on the content and usability.

This rigorous QA enables an agency to showcase its capabilities through side projects. After all, you’d only want to showcase a bug-free, intuitive product. Having demonstrated UX Companion to one of our partners, they are now considering working with us to create a similar reference tool for their industry.

Commit To Releasing Features Link

Keep the initial product simple, taking a “lean” approach to development and launching with only the most critical features. Otherwise, you court the danger of spending a vast amount of time on a product that you’re never happy enough to launch. Despite its status as a “side” project, commit to maintaining and releasing future features and building an active community around your product. Otherwise, you risk losing users and all of the team positivity that came from developing the product.

Starting small and adding features over time has helped us continue to find resources to support UX Companion. We’re happy with our initial launch, and the app’s popularity has validated our plans to build a version for Android. We’ve also gotten feedback that users would like us to add in-text links between the articles, to improve usability.

The final pages of UX Companion, including the dictionary-style list of terms, a full article and external resources20
The final pages of UX Companion, including the dictionary-style list of terms, a full article and external resources (View large version21)

Conclusion Link

Given the crowded, competitive nature of the digital space, investing in creative side projects is a powerful way to stand out, experiment and feed innovation back into client work.

Many of the tips covered in this article share some common ground — if you manage your side projects with as much professionalism as you manage client projects, then you’re likely to succeed. Achieving the perfect balance with client work isn’t easy, but we’re confident that following these lessons will be great for our next project, and hopefully they’ll help you on your way.

(da, al, ml)

Footnotes Link

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Danny is a self-taught designer, founding Cyber-Duck in 2005 out of his love to fuse design, usability and technology into a superior user experience. During 2013 and 2014, Danny was voted by BIMA as one of the UK’s hot 100 digital professionals. He works with young communities such as the Code Club and Young Rewired State (YRS) on initiatives to help educate the young. Danny obtained an MA in Design for Interactive Media in 2003 from Middlesex University in London.

  1. 1

    Håvard Bergersen

    January 23, 2015 3:22 pm

    First off, great article!

    My question is to the other people here in the comment-field:
    I work in a Norway-based agency, working only with clients and their projects. We believe in doing side-projects, but is thorn between the need to make money and the desire to do cool side projects. So here’s my question:
    How much of your office time can other agencies afford/make time for to work on side projects? Google uses the 80/20 split, is this the standard for agencies as well?

    • 2

      80/20 seems to be the sweet spot, and depending on how your business operates, you may have slower periods where it is actually more beneficial to increase the split to 70/30 or a little higher. Currently I am in the process of getting a few side-projects up and running, one is a simple creative project to try out new web technologies, while the other is a full featured app that we will pitch to the CEO in hopes that we can get more buy in and turn it into a full project.

  2. 3

    Marjan Nikolovski

    January 23, 2015 4:55 pm

    Håvard, having a balance between client projects and side projects is not an easy task to do. In general it much depends on your company vision and core values. If the owner of the company is looking how to maximize profit by utilizing the teams balance will never happen. On the other hand if the owner of the company is open minded, he will look into new possibilities and improving the overall satisfaction of the team.

    In our company for example, we speak a lot about new ideas and take notes of the discussed. Having free time, when we are not working a project is spent on different areas like: improve internal processes, update our frameworks, research of new technologies, discussing about new ideas and developing new ideas.

    We find this way of working very productive, with high level of satisfaction and freedom in expressing yourself both as a professional and individual.

  3. 4

    At our company, developers and designers are encouraged to use 10 per cent of their time for side projects like these. On a 40 hrs work week, that is just 4 hours, or one full day every other week. It is even possible to save up the time take more consecutive days for your side project.

    We get no particular directions for this, just as long as you are really interested in it and as long as it helps the company further in one way or the other. Most projects are what Marjan describes; improving internal processes and/or frameworks, researching new technologies etc. Also the designers can create their ideal future version of i.e. the corporate website, software login screen et cetera.

    Giving this time to your employees is part of the core values of the company; freedom, trust, responsibility. Freedom to have that 10%, the trust you’ll do something beneficiary for the company and giving you the responsibility to actually do so. It keeps people happy, motivated and challenged at their work and valued as well.

  4. 5

    But sometimes it is hard to find time and motivation for doing side projects after normal work – been there many times.

    • 6

      Yeah, I see. I was lacking enthusiasm and motivation each time I’ve started even to think about doing side projects. The decition I took for myself was to start planning projects: each step, each task. So when you have a plan of your project you can schedule it the best way possible with no harm to your normal work.

      By the way, project planning is now simplified like never before by numerous companies. There are tons of pm tools on the web, the majority are paid or limited, what doesn’t make them unadvantageous though. Giants like and are totally awesome to use! Though there are still some free apps (hellknowswhy, probably because they’re new and didn’t have enough time to become paid) like – nice simple pm app that I use in planning side projects every week.

      So you should try planning. Everything is in you hands, Mick!

  5. 7

    After reading your article, I have learned lots of things for making project work. I know that producing creative, fresh projects is the key to standing out for side project. But there are more details that I did not notice when I was making side project work. Frist, I need to ensure the project is worth it. There are few things to do it. First step is take on projects, instead of allocating ill-defined independent research and develop time. Encourage the team to research, monitor and share interesting, emerging technologies and trends. Supporting research and develop will increase the engagement and motivation of team mates, giving them a true creative outlet. Unique side projects are the best place to innovate. Second thing is define the audience and meet their needs. You stated that in the article “Because side projects typically have limited resources, designing for all devices is not possible…” Therefore, I need to consider the beast format for limited resources. Expand upon initial research through a user-centred approach, drawing full personas for all audience types. In fact, there are more details I have to learn for making side project work. Anyway, thank you for sharing your ideas.

  6. 8

    Great post, and definitely agree with the points on managing resources and challenging ourselves to use new technologies.

    One thing is plan ahead and anticipate long-term customer support needs you’ll have to provide if you are commercially releasing your product. We learned this the hard way with Launch Effect and Projectflow, which annoyed our developers who were then staffed on client projects. We built infrastructure for customer support and new releases by hiring someone who replies to customer inquiries and an offshore team to help make bug fixes and feature additions that our devs then review and approve. Without these in place, the side projects that you release commercially can be a huge pain.

  7. 9

    Robert Broley

    January 30, 2015 1:33 pm

    Superb article. I think it is a good idea to have a side project. It helps develop your skills more and also lets you show your creative side off.

  8. 10

    I have been doing this in my company just recently. We did not have a lot of work on recently so I built a basic project / task management system for the following reasons …

    1. To gain more traffic for my website by giving away a free software product.
    2. To gain a better understanding of the Yii 2 web framework, previously I had been using Yii 1, but a lot has changed since Yii 2 came out and I needed to learn it.

    I decided to call the software, Neptune. You can view the project / task management system here …

    My next side project will be to create a full software as a service product and sell it to the public on a monthly license fee however I need to make sure I have a valid market first as I have attempted to do this in the past and the product did not really get any sales.

    It is difficult when you have the spare time but you just do not know what to make or what will sell etc.


  9. 11

    Aleksandra Cataruzolo

    March 17, 2015 6:55 am

    Side projects sounds like a great addition to current marketing work. I think if there is anything that can be associated with a project or work along side a current project then it is crucial that we, as producers, use this method. This reminds me of an integrated marketing plan because there are many different facets that work together to improve the end goal. Also, with all the new social media platforms and new apps that are constantly showing up and gaining consumers, it’s important that we are finding new creative ways to engage these audiences and to reach our ideal target market. I really agree with your point that quality matters, because it does. Nothing can lose credibility like a poorly put together site can and that’s why it is important to put time into these side projects so that they can match the quality of the work being produced for clientele.

  10. 12

    I agree that having side project works really well for any company. Because it lets you to diversify your project, make employees more involved. And I agree about time which can be spent on such projects. I believe that 80/20 will work the best. But. of course, it all depends on each specific company, its capacity, management, and amount of existent primarily projects.

  11. 13

    What’s that orange MacBook cover in the picture where he’s coding?


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