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

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Danny Bluestone is the CEO of Cyber-Duck, an agency that delivers UX-driven digital transformation for brands like the Bank of England, The Commonwealth, … More about Danny ↬

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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 Companion app.

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

Why Integrate Side Projects?

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.

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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

At Cyber-Duck, 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

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

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

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 37signals and its Basecamp.

However, The Value Doesn’t Have To Be Commercial

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.
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 version)

Define The Audience And Meet Their Needs

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

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

Because side projects typically have limited resources, designing for all devices is not possible. Recent research 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 apps. 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

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

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

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 Forecast. 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

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

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.
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 version)

Challenge Yourselves, And Explore New Technologies

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

Quality Is Key

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

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


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.

Smashing Editorial (da, al, ml, il)