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Digital Telepathy: Taking design to a new plane

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Crafting meaningful user experiences is at the heart of every piece of design Digital Telepathy completes. With a long, productive and innovative history, this agency takes digital design to a whole new plane

DTGroup

WHO: Digital Telepathy | WHAT: Web design, user experience design, user interface design, responsive
design and more
WHERE: 770 11th Ave. San Diego CA 92101, USA | WEB: dtelepathy.com


Everyone marks their birthday, but few make decisions as Digital Telepathy’s CEO Chuck Longanecker did in 2001. As he turned 25, Chuck had worked for Arthur Andersen and a few small start-ups in Chicago. He describes his time at these companies as ‘unfulfilled’ and so, with his birthday coming up, it seemed a fortuitous time to make a life-changing move.

Chuck explained: “Since I was a little kid I loved Star Wars, but more for the special effects than anything. My dad and I snuck into Industrial Light and Magic when I was 12 years old and I was hooked. I had no education in the movie business, but I knew my way around the Internet from a little tech support company I started in college (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and my experience with the early version of Flash. I was a fanboy of 2Advanced Studios and decided I wanted to create a special effects company for the Internet.

“This was easier said than done. Instead of building amazing interactions and sites from the beginning, my first project was a website for my Dad’s sailboat chartering company. I hired a friend, Bill Bonnefil, who was just laid off from another startup to help and he later became our cofounder.

“Our next project took two months to land and I didn’t start paying myself for six months. I had no savings and somehow stretched a $5,000 (£3,120) severance to cover rent and food. Our first recurring project was designing a genomics email for an advertising agency. Glamourous right? In 2002, we moved to San Diego and designed sites for local companies, mostly for trades. We stuck with it and eventually got bigger jobs, started building a team centred around a great culture and kept hustling.”


“We love to do research upfront including personas, customer interviews and user journey maps. That can easily take up the first month of an engagement”.


Naming any new business is always an important decision. “Our name came first… After college I went on a 12,000 mile road trip with my good friend Taylor Vignali. You really get to know someone on a deep level after that much time in a small Eighties Honda Accord. Taylor was set to be my original partner in the company. One day, I asked him to brainstorm a name while I was at work. I came home and he had written about 15 names on a sheet of paper. ‘Digital Telepathy’ was one of the names and it instantly stood out to me as fresh, yet timeless. I pointed at the name and said ‘that’s it’. People still ask us what it means and I tell them that I am still figuring it out.”

The website of an agency is clearly their calling card. As Chuck says, who would want to work with an agency that doesn’t have an impressive website? Digital Telepathy approaches the design and updating of their own website just as they would any client’s, as Chuck outlined: “We pay for what would be a $36,000 (£22,193) subscription to our own services and work on objectives weekly. This subscription assigns a strategist, designer, art director and developer to the project. We also have multiple stakeholders from the CEO to our recruiter to drive the objectives of the sites. From introduction of new content about our process to new case studies and blog posts our site is never done and is being improved on a daily basis.”

From its humble beginnings creating websites for local trade businesses, Digital Telepathy now has a diverse portfolio of clients. “We are extremely fortunate to have a lot of interest in DT from a variety of companies,” said Arnold Yoon, president. “We do tend to be selective with whom we work. We want to work with clients on a long-term basis, not one-off projects.
“Our ideal client is one who understands that design is an iterative process – that we’re solving real problems, not just designing interfaces. In addition, it’s a requirement that we have camaraderie with leadership and believe in the product or service they produce.”

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How an agency approaches each project is always different. Some subscribe to agile working practices, with others favouring a more fluid approach. Brent Summers, strategist, outlined how DT approaches each project: “We try to avoid the term, ‘projects’ as much as possible,” he stated. “Many leads come to us asking for a website redesign. But when you ask: ‘Why do you need a new website?’ We find out that they aren’t generating enough leads. Increasing leads can be accomplished through a variety of activities – many of them with requiring significantly less time and effort than a full redesign.

“That’s where our Objective-Based Design model comes in. We focus on results, not scope. A shift in the marketplace, introduction of a new product, or anything else can affect our client’s priorities. We don’t need to change orders… just a new objective. Most new clients start with a three-month term, and some of our clients have been around for nearly two years. “It’s impossible to say a ‘typical’ timeline because we work on such a wide variety of objectives, some of which are never done. We designed and developed Adventure.com in about four months, and are continuing to roll out new features every month. Our other service, IMPRESS, creates beautiful single-page websites that are ready in two-weeks.”

Design is an iterative process. To design something great, you must understand the problem. Digital is a fluid medium and you can always make a design better by understanding how users are interacting with your product. Choosing which clients to work with and which ones to pass on is something that agencies have realised they need to do in order to not only deliver their own business goals, but also to ensure that the work they do remains fresh and engaging. David Nguyen, director of strategy also commented: “Regardless of what ‘work product’ a client is asking for, we map it back to their objectives. For example: If a client wants to increase their conversion rate, we could optimise a landing page or tweak their messaging instead of redesigning their whole website. If they feel like product activation rate is low, we may recommend a simple drip campaign. By putting objectives rather than features at the centre of our process we create more space for creativity and innovation.

DTkitchen

“All of our clients are assigned at least one strategist, designer and developer. Larger engagements may have more than one of any role assigned. Generally we like to keep our teams as small as possible (two to four people) to increase accountability and ownership of our strategies and deliverables. Our largest client currently has eight total people involved. DT is a hyper-collaborative organisation – every client is getting the best ideas from our entire team.

“We love to do research upfront including personas, customer interviews and user journey maps. That can easily take up the first month of an engagement. As we move into strategy, our deliverables typically include information architecture, user flow diagrams, and a story canvas. Again this [process] often takes about a month. Once into the execution phase our timeline is really fluid, and we’re often pushing out deliverables at a rapid pace.”

The tools that any design-led agency could use are vast. Nate Sonnenberg, strategist explained: “We always start analog on a whiteboard or paper. We also love Axure and InvisionApp for prototyping [and we] use Dropbox to host password-protected subdomains. Of course we use the Creative Cloud and TypeKit to create amazing visual designs. We also work with clients on their own systems for analytics including Google Analytics, CrazyEgg and MixPanel. These systems provide actionable insights that inform our iterative design process.”

Jason Amunwa, director of products added: “On the production side we use fairly standard tools like Sublime Text Editor and the Adobe Creative Suite (we’re on Creative Cloud). Ultimately, our goal is to build better products. So we spend a lot of time working with analytics and customer development tools. We also spend a lot of time in Google Analytics, Mix Panel, and Qualaroo validating hypotheses and generating insights.Of course we want to improve conversion rates and prove ROI, but we also want to make sure we are listening to our customers and building products that they find useful. Although some of these tools are deeply integrated into our workflow, we’re not married to them. We love to try new things.”

The digital design space has exploded over the last few years with agencies leveraging a number of frameworks to deliver to their clients’ next generation interactive user experiences. “Browser manufacturers will continue to push the limits of what HTML5 can do by incorporating their own specifications and enhancements,” said Jamie Hamel-Smith, developer. “I think that competing flavours of the same technology will continue to be an issue. We saw the mess that was left behind with VML and SVG.
“User experiences will continue to be sweetened by these technology. jQuery in particular is becoming less and less necessary as modern browsers have made writing JavaScript a little easier. But many developers have grown to really enjoy the library, so it’s probably here to stay.”

Dave Shepherd, director of development also said: “JavaScript is what is really driving the web these days. When combining JS with HTML5 and CSS3, developers can create a single ubiquitous experience that performs well on any device. JavaScript’s ability to operate at a high speed without being a compiled language (with the advent of NodeJS: open streaming between a user’s browser and the server) allows for two-way communication. This enables interfaces to be changed in real-time based on behaviours without needing to refresh the browser. JS allows a website to evolve into an app-like experience because it can send data and receive data to the server without any effort required from a user. This is enabling ‘smart’ experiences.”


“JavaScript is what is really driving the web these days. When combining JS with HTML5 and CSS3, developers can create a single ubiquitous experience that performs well on any device”.


With Jason Amunwa, director of products, commenting, “Our industry is so fast-paced. I see coding becoming less about language-fluency and more of a mind-set.”
Mobile is a key component of the web experience. What is Digital Telepathy’s approach to designing and developing for different devices? “There are many viable solutions for addressing a project that is mindful of multiple device experiences: responsive is just one option,” said Jessica Moon, art director. “When approaching projects at DT, we [tend] to focus more on how to create a unified presentation of content with specifically tailored interactions that fit into the behaviours a user might have depending on the environment they are in, ie browsing at home with an iPad, working away at a desktop computer or digesting news while walking [with a smartphone]. This way it’s not about screen size but more about the type of engagement and use they’re getting out of the UI, rather than just how much screen real estate is available for them to see at one time.”
Jamie also said: “Mobile is important. DT’s current strategy is to leverage existing frameworks. We do that because we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and these frameworks are built with knowledge that we haven’t discovered yet. By using a framework you are often solving a problem you don’t even know you have.… Responsive, mDot, and App — responsive is the lowest barrier to entry and serves the widest option. In its current incarnation responsive design still has many problems, but it’s definitely the best that we have right now.”

Dave Shepherd explained: “What responsive design stands for, in my opinion, is the only solution. Mobile devices being able to access the Internet exponentially grows the way we can interact with games, brands, libraries, and anything else we want. Creating a unified experience and ‘flexible’ design is really the only way to go. We approach our design with consideration creating the best possible experience for all devices and form factors. Content is the focus, and creating a good way to interact with that way is the key piece.”

With a changing digital landscape where new tools seem to appear daily, what is exciting DT right now? “JPG prototyping, specifically with InvisionApp, has changed the way that designers collaborate together, present and get feedback from clients on designs,” said Cody Iddings, designer.

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“The idea of flexibility [as] more important than pixel-perfection is cropping up more often. You’re no longer designing for ‘a page’, instead you’re designing an atmosphere. That’s a shift in the mind-set for designers that have come along with the rapid adoption of responsive design. With technologies like TypeKit integrated right into my Adobe Creative Cloud, I can evaluate innumerable typefaces with no real commitment to buy until we’ve completely explored it in all possible [cases].”

Jamie also explained his view: “As developers, we’re excited about task runners like Grunt and Gulp. These compile files making sites faster. They’re a great addition to a developer’s toolbox. [I’m] really interested in the development of FlexBox [but] for sticky headers/footers, or stretchy side-navs you have to use JS. FlexBox lets us make those kinds of interfaces in CSS and also allows for the vertical centring of content, which is something that has been a pain in web developer’s sides for years. Although it’s only supported in modern browsers this is an exciting advancement in development technique.”

With Dave also commenting: “Hardware-accelerated animations and transitions have allowed us to create very rich and fluid, app-like, experiences in the browser. This means the web can be a more interactive and engaging experience. Open technologies are now allowing for progressive builds ([like] Flash) rather than simple boolean on/off states.
“Coupling MVC frameworks with JavaScript [,which allows] the server to automatically deliver data to the browser (without needing to be requested), is very exciting. Slack is an excellent example of tight integration between services, allowing push-notifications from discrete sources to happen (passively for the user) in the browser.
“The interoperation between services via API layers has endless possibilities. Facebook has a huge API [but] our Facebook account can send notifications to other interfaces. Connecting GPS info from your phone to your maps to deliver a seamless and friction-free experience extends the reach of these services while providing more value and convenience for the user.”


“Hardware-accelerated animations and transitions have allowed us to create very rich and fluid, app-like, experiences in the browser”.


With a proven track record, DT is clearly an agency that has great plans for the future. “Our next big project is a comprehensive redesign of our blog to bring it in-line with the style of our core site,” said Brent. “Our goal is to give our growing audience a world-class reading experience that emphasises readability and speed. Some of the most exciting things happening at DT are from our products team (the makers of HelloBar and SlideDeck). Digital Telepathy has a symbiotic relationship between our three divisions (agency, products, and publishing).

With Laurence Montgomery, GM concluding: “We’ve doubled our employee base since moving to a new office in downtown San Diego in the Spring of 2013. We want to grow professionally, personally, and together… not just in size, but also in impact. The whole crew at Digital Telepathy is passionate about making great design accessible to the entire world through our products, services, and publishing.

“On an individual level we have a Betterment Bonus Programme that keeps us motivated to challenge each other to achieve new things and to do things we’ve always wanted to do. As a company, Digital Telepathy will continue to grow our team and our services by adding more specialised roles to our agency so that we can solve more complex challenges.”

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