Specialist teams or x-functional pods? A developer’s view

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Conversion.com is an agency comprised of specialists that will look for opportunities to improve client’s ROI through methodical research, testing and learning.  We analyze user behaviour and expectations of a website, in order to increase engagement levels and consequently, conversions.

Testing is at the heart of everything we do, so we’re always trying to improve and find better ways of doing things. Typically, our company is split into three major ’specialist teams’ – consultants, designers and developers.

Consultants: Their role is to perform in-depth research of a client’s website and get relevant insights about the business. Consequently, test ideas are generated and wireframes created. Also they are the main bridge between our clients and internal teams.

Designers: They feed into the wireframe stage by collaborating on ideas on how to implement the test concept. After approval on this stage they elaborate the final design file that will be transferred to the developers.

Developers: These geeks have the ability to transform the final design file into code readable by browsers. This is the final stage of the test creation flow.

After this internal process the test runs to a live audience through an A/B testing system, where at the end consultants analyse the final results and make recommendations for the client’s site.

Here is how the teams typically interact within the company:

As can be seen, developers come in at the very end of the process.  After designers have completed the final file they assign to one of the developers available at that moment. This is great from a developer’s standpoint, because they have the opportunity to work on many different clients and retain a good working knowledge across all of them. However the downside to this is that the work overload can be an issue. This happens because different consultants have different deadlines to deliver tests, so at times, congestion becomes unavoidable. Sometimes many tests come in to the development team simultaneously, and it is difficult to manage requests in order to deliver each test at the desired time.

Because of these issues, we had an idea to grab an element of each team and make them work more closely together. We have created a cross functional team a.k.a. pod.

What exactly is a pod?

A pod is like a small startup inside the company. Instead of organizing your business in separate functional departments, you create teams that contain a member of each function. Let’s illustrate what we have done within our company:

Graph 2

Clear goals and collaboration

With the team working collectively on the same clients, it’s much easier to sync up schedules. Since we always have a priority list for our tasks the team will work towards those goals by order. For example if a developer needs designer approval for a certain test, the designer will stop whatever they are doing to evaluate the developer’s work because that is the current priority for the whole team.

 Tidy schedule

Because there are clear goals, the project manager is able to build a clear schedule for everyone in the team. This helps the developer to know what work is coming soon to his stack. In this way, the developer can manage his time, along with his other number of tasks. This allows the developer to shift his projects the way he prefers as soon as he delivers his work on the expected deadlines.

Earlier technical evaluation

We have introduced a new format for the test idea/concept phase. Before the pod, the developer had little input at this stage. The developer is now an active member of the conceptual phase, bringing valuable know-how on potential implementation issues. Sometimes even a very slight different approach can save many hours of development and help the team deliver a certain test faster (for example – implementing native placeholders can cause cross browser compatibility problems. The developer might ask at this stage ‘is this really required for the test? Will this make a significant difference to conversions?’) Also, assimilating with the test at the very beginning can be good for the developer to research and develop some code practices that will be required to implement it (e.g. get familiar with new frameworks).

Faster test development

Since the developer has a clear pipeline he can start to develop the test before he actually receives the final design file from the designer. How is this possible? Well, before the designers start to work on the final photoshop file, there is a wireframe stage. As soon as we get approval from the client on the wireframe the developer can start to work at the same time as the designer prepares the final file. This is possible because the wireframe gives a clear indication of what the test is all about. With this visual info the developer is able to develop a big chunk of the HTML, CSS and javascript. Remember that from the test idea phase the developer already knows what functionality and goals the test is supposed to deliver. This allows the developer to finish around 70-80% of his work even before the designer delivers the file. With the final file developer just needs to make some tweaks on the code (e.g spacing, colours, etc.). So far, this new process has allowed us to deliver tests 35% faster than before.

Quick decision-making

Because the members are simply around each other, as opposed to working in silos, it is easier to take a minute to discuss something momentarily. Moreover, interrupting one of your team does not feel so intrusive because if you need something to finish the pod’s priority task, they are more open to being interrupted in order to collectively help meet the team’s goals.

Flexibility

Because the pod is like a small startup within the company, it allows the team to change processes and try new ways of working. This can be very useful in finding more efficient ways of working which we can then share with the other pods.

Results

As optimizers, a testing culture is a vital part of how we work. This means we also need to measure everything and be able to critically evaluate how things are doing. Here are the results we have observed so far by moving from a specialist-teams to cross-functional pod approach:

  • 35% faster test delivery time from start to finish  By developing test ideas in parallel, as opposed to serially, we have seen a significant reduction in the total time lapsed from the inception of a test to the final launch.
  • 28% reduction in actual developer build time  By integrating the developer more closely in the design and consulting phases, devs have a much better idea of how to go about building the test at the point they start working on it, meaning the build time is dramatically reduced.
  • 66% reduction in bugs reported during QA  Consequently, developers are able to build tests more intelligently by anticipating any issues, and feeding in to the test development earlier on to avoid prospective clashes.
  • Happier team members  Although there are a few downsides to working in the pod, such as less variety of sites we get to work on, the individual members of the pod are generally much happier with this new approach, because they are working as a team throughout the whole process. This means fewer internal conflicts and more efficient workflows.
  • More time to work on other projects  Because we have increased efficiency across the board, pod members have more time to spend working on other tasks, such as internal assignments and creative projects. The introduction of a project manager also means that consultants spend more time doing valuable conversion-related work and less admin, which is likely to be correlated with the uplift in team happiness!

While it is still early days for the pod, the initial results and general consensus are a positive indication. As a developer, there are far fewer conflicts and less back-and-forth between the design and consulting teams, and we have become much more connected to the conversion aspect of what we do. The developer becomes more of an expert on a smaller number of clients’ sites (as opposed to a generalist working across the whole spectrum). Despite the small downsides – for example, if a pod developer is needed to work on a different client’s site they may initially be less familiar with the technical setup of the site; the surplus time the developer has as a result of working in the pod can be used for more internal sharing and learning which may be more valuable in the long term. The developer also has to adapt to many more meetings than they are typically used to (!) however the benefits of being more involved in the project overall makes it worth our while.

Do you have anything to add? Questions or comments? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

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