Perhaps by now, you have heard the concept of "Growth-Driven Design," a concept which was defined by a team at HubSpot and proselytized as a methodology for crafting quick and dirty websites, after which they are continuously improved and grown upon over time. We've actually even featured it among our service offerings for quite a few years, ourselves. However, like anything else, GDD is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. In practical day-to-day application, the system has flaws, which can lead to trouble down the road. So, in the interests of fairness, I've assembled this post to help understand some of the short-comings of the concept, hopefully enabling potential clients to make a more sound judgment about the validity of the approach for their particular circumstances.
Why GDD Exists
First, I want to shed some light on why GDD exists. Sure, there are in some cases client benefits, and we'll review those below. But, the primary reason is because of the business models of agencies. Retainer-based services are the holy grail of agency relationships. The more retainers an agency has, the easier it is to plot and plan their operations. The dilemma for many agencies over time is defining what services they can offer in a retained agreement that adds value to the client and continue to produce that ongoing revenue. Marketing services are a no-brainer – they are continuing forever, and you do need continuous help to make it work. Design and development are a bit trickier. GDD enables agencies to get a foothold on a client relationship that is stronger because it now adds the element of continuous improvement to the table, a service that encompasses design, development, copywriting, and marketing analysis. The proponents of GDD are right – sites are never indeed done, and therefore they always need a bit of "kaizen" (a Japanese word for continuous improvement). However, GDD aims to develop full properties over time as opposed to merely developing them in one shot. Therein you have the ongoing need for help and services. This isn't a totally flawed idea – and for some, it makes sense. But, let's dig into where there could be additional issues with the approach.
Good for a New Property, Ineffective for Redesign
GDD is a good solution for a new web property. In fact, it's probably in many cases the preferred approach, though I'm unsure it's really all that unique in this respect. A new property, in most cases, usually starts with a microsite or smaller website. GDD calls this a "Launchpad," as an example. And, over time, as the company grows, the site grows with it. This is a viable approach.
However, the majority of work that design agencies see these days are redesigns. New companies and organizations are increasingly swaying away from agency relationships and bootstrapping their way to existence. I can't really blame them – the side-projects I've been working on I've employed similar tactics.
Redesigns are substantially different from new site design. They involve the advanced concept of migration. Agencies have to work carefully to make sure all that was on the old site is contemplated on the new one, moved over, and all organic search value is preserved. As such, the concept of a "launchpad" doesn't work – sites already are complex and have deep content trees. This isn't to say that a redesigned site doesn't need continuous improvements – all websites do. But, the initial project is large, meaning it is outside the realm of what the GDD methodology excels at.
Needs a Design System
I'm shocked at how many agencies are doing GDD work and not providing consistent design guidelines for clients to use going forward. I'm also surprised at how many of these sites are not designed but just based on templates. But – I don't want to go down that pathway.
Websites need consistency. Nothing turns off users more than inconsistent navigation, shoddy design work, and an overall low-quality look and feel. Having a series of brand guidelines, and a design system defined and in place, ensures that future improvements are actually in line with the original plan for the site's overall UI/UX.
Unfortunately, design systems take time, and the theory behind GDD is for the agency to spend as little time as possible to stand up the site. This is why custom design and GDD simply don't add up – custom design takes too long to show tangible results and makes clients worry about where their retainer funds are going.
Launchpad Sites Aren't Comprehensive Enough
The agency is typically motivated by the idea of getting the launchpad live as quickly as possible and as profitably as possible. When you look at the economics of GDD, it's challenging to get a high-quality site deployed with comprehensive content and functionality all within the first couple of months of a retainer. So, typically, with speed-to-market being the most critical factor, sites are very small or based on minimal content structure.
Now, this isn't bad in all cases, and sometimes maybe it's precisely what you are looking for. But in many cases, the sites are too small for the desired purpose and the desired effect of having something you can iterate and improve backfires because the foundation just isn't there.
A good rule of thumb would be to have a site serve as a comprehensive enough property, which would be viable even if there wasn't a follow-up retained services agreement in place. This way, you at least are sure you have something that can stand-alone and accomplish your goals from the day of deployment onwards.
Traditional Retained-based Services Aren't Always Beneficial
In the digital services world, traditional retained services agreements are based on the concept of a block of time that you commit to per month. GDD is based on this concept, you commit to a block time and then plot out how you will use it. However, in many cases, this isn't entirely beneficial.
One negative I find is that clients plan their efforts around the time available and not around the requirements they are facing at any one time. Without mitigation strategies to prevent this fear, clients will always be worried about their time allotment and therefore make decisions that aren't necessarily smart for them. This means that in busy months, they don't get everything they need. In slow months, they don't use the time allotted. At some point, there is dissatisfaction. That dissatisfaction can lead to account review procedures, where clients may realize they aren't getting what they really need.
Account managers also feel that retainers are challenging. More often than not, they are either trying to get clients to do more work to use up their time, or they are working to slow down clients, in the worst case, they tell them that work may need to stop or be subject to cost overruns to continue. Never a pleasant task.
This isn't to say that retainers based on set times per month are non-starters. We do many of them! They work well when the clients are somewhat consistent in their usage, the agency is willing to be flexible, and there are negotiated procedures for overages. At NPG, we reward monthly retainers with discounted overage hours. This mechanism works well for everyone.
What is an alternative approach that also works? I'm a fan of agile retainers for continuous improvements. This is where you have an unlimited amount of time, with billing in chunks of time to prevent the risk of over accrual. Clients have the flexibility to use time whenever they need, and they can always refill at a level that is comfortable to them. They also know they have an agency on call whenever needed, who is familiar with their needs and requirements.
Who Should Consider GDD
So you may be wondering why we even entertain offering this service at all… Well, it isn't all that bad. There are plenty of clients who would benefit from GDD or some flavor of it. I often refer to these determining factors when recommending GDD:
- You are starting a new business or new web property.
- You would rather space out your budget rather than put it into one defined project.
- In addition to the above, you want ongoing help and assistance via a retained services agreement.
- You plan to engage in marketing efforts on an ongoing basis as well as technical improvements.
If the above factors apply to you, then GDD could be the way to go.
As I say so often in this blog – there are many technologies and many methodologies you can employ to solve your problems most efficiently and effectively. GDD is indeed a handy approach. However, it isn't for everyone. Clients should carefully consider the pros and cons of the methodology and apply those to their own requirements before choosing whether it will work well for them.