At first glance, Software Engineering Professionals’ new, off-site design studio looks like a day care center.
Bins tucked into cubbies wear labels for paper, tape and Post-it notes. There are scissors, glue and crayons.
“The tools you’re introduced to in kindergarten are sometimes the best tools to foster that kind of thinking,” Chris Shinkle, SEP’s director of innovation, says of collaboration.
Indeed, collaboration is the name of the game for Carmel-based SEP, which will use the studio as “an immersive collaborative environment” for clients and SEP designers to work together to develop software and information systems.
According to SEP, this hyper-collaborative model should speed products to market, lower cost of development and result in products that are more thoroughly vetted before they make their way to end-users.
Such collaborative approaches align with the current marketplace, in which technology and culture are moving at a rapid pace. Big companies need a way to react more like an agile startup would, and SEP says the studio will give clients an edge.
Rather than being located at SEP’s headquarters, which is just south of The Palladium, the 3,428-square-foot design studio is about one block away at The Nash, a $10 million, mixed-used building at 836 S. Rangeline Road.
The studio, which sports a bright orange awning at street level, is a neutral ground for clients, users and SEP staff. There’s no distraction of the normal office environment. It’s a location to be visited by all parties at different times during product development — a retreat, of sorts.
It’s a stark contrast from traditional industry approaches that might entail an initial meeting in a conference room and then subsequent emails and phone calls. In that process, a product may be hatched two years later, “often with no idea whether it’s going to be successful or not,” Shinkle said.
At SEP’s studio, initial discovery sessions are designed to achieve what SEP calls “extreme clarity.” This process can take just days.
The grist of this idea mill are pads of Post-it notes that are peeled off to capture ideas that emerge. Often full of technical scribbles, the room looks like what a scientist might produce after downing a gallon of energy drinks.
There also are stations for mobile devices and wearables so users can test products. Video can be streamed to executives anywhere in the world, where they can actually see how a person interacts with a product.
The goal is to catch a problem in the studio, rather than after product release.
“Software runs the world today. It’s a team sport, a collaborative effort to build something. It’s important that everybody be on the same page,” Shinkle says.
Sena Hineline, director of partner solutions at Indianapolis software development firm RocketBuild, says this sort of exercise “is something we’re going to be seeing more of as people become more comfortable with collaborative projects.”
While RocketBuild doesn’t have a remote design studio like SEP, it has been a disciple of the agile work environment that involves heavy collaboration with creative agencies, marketing firms, software companies and entrepreneurs.
“We try to capture every single use case you can possibly imagine,” Hineline says of initial sessions at RocketBuild.
The last thing the team wants, Hineline adds, is halfway through development someone saying, “we need this, too.”
Hineline recalls one project where a company wanted an app to run on a custom-device to be installed in the break rooms of retail stores.
Rather than just get to work on an app, RocketBuild used a collaborative exercise to drill down further into the client’s concept — such as why it didn’t simply use a run-of-the-mill smartphone or tablet. The client said it didn’t want something that looked like a phone or that someone would walk away with.
“That was the only reason they wanted to spend millions of dollars developing a (custom) device,” Hineline recalls.
After much more back-and-forth, RocketBuild and the client came up with a cheaper idea: a custom case to surround off-the-shelf devices that cost just $12 a piece.
Greater collaboration with clients at the early stages has proved to result in software that doesn’t include needless features or capabilities that might otherwise be engineered into it.
Design is about “intention and understanding the context of the product you’re building,” says Noelle Webster-Milam, SEP’s lead experience architect. Great design follows companies that invest in this process from the beginning and remain engaged, she said.
“You want to make sure you’re not building and building and building” needlessly, Webster-Milam says.
Shinkle figures this collaborative approach cuts a month or two off the time it takes to complete a typical project. An average project takes six to nine months. Cost savings can exceed $10,000 on a smaller project to $250,000 or more on a major project, according to SEP estimates.
SEP was founded in 1988 by four Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology graduates and has more than 100 employees.