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

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 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 trying to figure out the core value. The first step in any engagement, if the business hasn’t gotten going yet, is identifying that core nucleus. And if they’re already rocking and rolling and have a revenue stream, then the question is what layers are adding value and what is getting in the way. You might have a genius idea, but it might not be resonating as well as it could. A big part of our role is editing.”

A growing part of Zurb’s business, however, doesn’t involve any hands-on work at all. The company has gradually been developing a set of Web-based software tools that are designed to help companies create better websites without any consulting help. The first and best-known tool is called Notable, which lets designers attach notes to their screen shots, sketches, or website wireframes, so that they can share feedback and suggestions with one another remotely. Then there’s Verify, which helps designers quickly create test versions of websites to gather user feedback about proposed design changes; Bounce, a sort of lightweight version of Notable that works with any Web page; Resolve and Strike, a pair of task list managers; Clue, which lets designers test what people remember about their sites; and Chop, which programmers can use to share annotated snippets of code.

Several more apps are in the works, including a storyboarding tool and a presentation tool, according to Dragilev, who runs the company’s marketing and outreach activities. “The product suite is really growing,” he says. Some of the apps are free, while others require a monthly subscription; Dragilev says the company will eventually introduce a plan that offers access to all the tools for a single subscription price.

On top of the apps, Zurb has introduced a lecture series called Zurb Soapbox, with podcasts of each lecture posted online. Speakers so far have included WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, self-help guru Tim Ferriss, and Google user experience head Irene Au. And to wrap everything else together, the firm has a publishing operation that includes the Soapbox podcasts, a blog, and a “playground” site showcasing tutorials, design resources, and experimental apps such as FlickrBomb, which can quickly fill a prototype website with appropriate images from Flickr. “It’s really exciting to see all of these pieces are finally coming together in 2011,” says Dragilev. While consulting is still Zurb’s main source if income, “the big bet is that the products will help with the revenue,” he says.

“When it really comes down to it, we are trying to figure out how to design for people, and part of that is the tools and education component,” Zmijewski sums up. “I look at our business as a hybrid. I can’t say we want to be a product company, but I would say we are trying to be the world’s best at taking the design knowledge we have and showing people how to do things.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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