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

8/30/11Follow @wroush

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learning sales and marketing techniques. But by 1998 the Internet “had hit with full force” and Zmijewski decided to hang out a shingle as a freelance interaction designer. “Basically, I had $3,000 in savings and a cup of noodles and my apartment, and just started doing it, and it was profitable right away,” he says.

Since then, the firm has grown slowly and methodically, adding just one employee per year, on average. “I don’t the goal has ever been to grow the company to 100 people,” says Zmijewski. “Our goal now is to increase the margin per employee, make their time more valuable and still grow the business by becoming more efficient at the types of things we’re already doing.”

Zmijewski can’t share lots of details about Zurb’s current or recent engagements—clients aren’t always eager for the world to know that their ingenious site or app design was hired out. But he cites Photobucket as one case study. Back before the image-hosting site was acquired by Fox Interactive in 2007, Zmijewski says, it was looking for help collecting more metadata about the photos it was hosting. Users were uploading hundreds of thousands of images every day, but they weren’t writing labels or captions or providing other data that would have made the collection more usable.

“Alex [Welch, Photobucket's co-founder] had figured out how to make it extremely easy to put up a photo and link to it from somewhere else,” such as eBay, MySpace, or LiveJournal, says Zmijewski. “We were brought in to start adding sandpaper and smooth out the areas that could help make it a business. Photobucket was never a pretty site, and we never tried to change that—that wasn’t where their value was.” Jeremy Britton, Zurb’s design lead, suggested ways to make metadata collection a non-intrusive part of the workflow when Photobucket users were uploading images—basically, “adding a call-to-action to insert some text,” Zmijewski says. In this way, Britton was able to help Photobucket increase the amount of data it collected by a factor of five. “That had no direct impact on sales, but we put them in a better place to help sell their business,” says Zmijewski.

In another case, a client needed help selling an idea. This time it was custom merchandise maker Zazzle, and it was trying to convince the U.S. Postmaster General to let it print postage stamps bearing images uploaded by users. Zurb was given a week to design the stamp-customization application and come up with a convincing pitch. “We flew to Washington on John Doerr’s jet to meet with the postmaster general for an hour or so,” says Zmijewski. (Famed venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is Zazzle’s largest backer, and Kleiner partner Doerr is on the company’s board.) “We did this little kid’s storybook telling the story of why a kid might be excited to get their dog on a stamp, and why a family might find value in that.” Zazzle got its stamp idea rubber-stamped.

Boiling a concept down to the scope of a children’s book might sound extreme, but “the number one problem we always see is that people are trying to build something that’s overly complex,” Zmijewski says. “The vast majority of our work is cutting things away and … Next Page »

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

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