Zurb: The Boutique Interaction Design Firm That’s Really About Business

8/30/11Follow @wroush

Why did Color, the $41 million startup that was launched with such force in March, slam instantly and with equal force into a wall of user dissatisfaction? The folks at Zurb have some thoughts about that.

Color’s iPhone app is designed to let users share photos with other people using the app in the same vicinity. The company describes it as “a fun way to create a public photo album with your friends.” But in an April blog post, Zurb marketing lead Dmitry Dragilev pointed out “the app only works if there are already a few users nearby.” People felt “confused and lost” because the app didn’t explain this subtlety, and didn’t give them a way to search for other people using Color.

In short, Color violated one of the fundamental principles Zurb tries to teach its clients: “It’s the click that matters most.” The firm formulated this maxim for the Web, but it applies equally well to mobile apps and other software. As Zurb founder Bryan Zmijewski explains, “Your online brand thrives and dies in the void that is created between clicks”—meaning the brief time between a user’s arrival at your site via an incoming link and his departure via an outgoing one. Unless your site (or app) lives up to the expectation created by the first click and delivers on the promise made by the second, nobody will care about it.

As you may be gathering already, Zurb is an unusual sort of design firm. It has a judgmental streak. And it’s not afraid to lecture clients about good and bad design, the dangers of complexity, and the need to think through a business strategy before sitting down to design anything.

Zurb "Chief Instigator" Bryan Zmijewski

Having been around for 13 years—which is roughly forever in Internet time—Campbell, CA-based Zurb has probably earned the right to have an attitude. If you got all your news from mainstream publications like Wired or Fast Company, you might think that the only design firm of note in Silicon Valley is Palo Alto-born Ideo, which employs more than 500 designers around the world. But boutique firm Zurb, with a team of just 14, has designed marketing sites, Web applications, and mobile apps for more than 150 companies, including a large group of what Zmijewski calls “grownup startups,” such as eBay, Facebook, McAfee, Netflix, Salesforce, Yahoo, and Zazzle. It claims to have generated over a billion dollars in market capitalization for its clients.

The Web is a far more automated and standardized place than it was in the 1990s, but Zmijewski (it’s pronounced shmi-yes-key) argues that companies actually need more help than ever understanding how to use their websites or mobile apps to hook customers. That’s because today’s sites and apps must often function as both the pitch and the product. “Ten years ago, there used to be a marketing site, and an application, and the story between the two could be completely different,” he says. “Now there is a marriage of the two and a kind of blending together. The marketing is a component of everything you click on. Understanding the words that are going to encourage a user to click in the right place or what are the places for the most profitable clicks; understanding how to drive people through a flow and get them to convert is all incredibly valuable, especially if your primary revenue stream is the Web.”

Zmijewski says Zurb designers think of themselves as “bottom-up strategists” who spend as much time helping clients conceive a product or service and how it might translate into revenue as they do thinking about its look and feel. “With an entrepreneur, I often say ‘Don’t worry about the marketing aspects of visual design right away. Start thinking about the mental model of the user that you’re trying to serve.’ If you have enough skills and you can collect enough information, maybe you don’t need help—or maybe you want a team to validate the idea and get it to market faster.”

Zmijewski’s first job out of Stanford, where he earned an undergraduate degree in product design in 1997, was at Skyline, a toy development company founded by Brendan Boyle. After Ideo acquired Skyline, Zmijewski spent some time soaking up the Ideo way of thinking and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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