Tim Songer, president and lead consultant at Interactive Knowledge, has worked in the field of educational media for over 20 years. Tim’s personal journey took him from teaching high school to grad school to study instructional design. Tim’s work on a grant for developing learning materials for an adult literacy program that were recorded on CD-ROMs led to the establishment of his own consulting firm. In 1991, Interactive Knowledge was born.
How have your projects changed over the years?
The complexity of the content IK delivers has changed primarily because of content management systems. IK used to develop content systems for their products, but now they are using more open source software, such as Drupal and Joomla. When IK started a decade ago, everything was Flash-based and there were lots of static pages on a website, but now clients want the ability to add their own content and clients have become more sophisticated.
Who would you have on your project dream team?
IK’s projects work great because everyone is involved from the beginning. Tim plays the role of project manager and client contact to get the project kicked off and he works with clients throughout the project to manage the engagement. For a project, IK has a creative director and two to three developers who work primarily with Drupal to come up with the initial structure and content types, determine roles and responsibilities, and identify all the decisions to be made early on in the project. Tim brings in contractors for more specialized skills, such as work with motion graphics and animation.
IK has stayed about the same size throughout the 20 years with six full-time employees and a network of contract developers working remotely where their skills can be leveraged when they are needed. When IK began, Tim had a hard time finding staff because IK was doing such unique work. Now they’ve become a little more technology agnostic as they are working on so many types of software and good programming skills are more important to transition across software platforms.
What project management tools and processes do you employ?
Projects kickoff with a face to face meeting to establish the relationship and get access to content the client may already have or determine what will still be needed. From that comes a content outline that will translate into wireframes. IK is using a new development tool called Axure that creates a very interactive wireframe. At this point they also build cases for different types of audiences or users to validate that the content is in the right place. Next, they build the visual design that addresses the client’s desired design needs. Sometimes the clients don’t have any visual assets and other times they have a lot.
After the wireframes are signed off, the developers start working on production. They build the Drupal structure and then the creative director and the ‘content wranglers’ continue to work through the development process. Tim said they are using Unfuddle, which has a bug tracking feature where clients can review the site progress and log edits or comments. After all the bugs are worked out, they move the site from their production server to a staging server and work with the client to move the site into the client’s own servers although IK is hosting more sites than they used to. Tim said they are using Basecamp for their project management software and there are many similar products out there. He told us the story of receiving a call recently from the project director at the Smithsonian for the ‘refresh’ project that IK completed a year ago. The Smithsonian didn’t archive all of the project documentation and fortunately Tim had everything archived on Basecamp so he could download all the emails, To Do lists, files, etc., and send those off to SI.
What are a few of the lessons you have learned about projects?
- Scope creep is one of the biggest challenges in a project and it can happen right from the very start of a project. At the beginning of a project it’s so easy let the scope get away because the project is just starting, sometimes things aren’t well documented in terms of specific features or the way they operate, it could be about content or who is responsible for producing the content. For Tim, scope management starts at the proposal stage where he has to be as specific as possible. Almost all of their work is fixed price so all of the details come into play in the Statement of Work (SOW). Requests can come in through a change order but it’s really the scope documents that are the final word to stay within the agreed to budget. For example, in one RFP, the client had a very long list of things that they wanted and IK’s proposal made it very clear what they could do for the budget. They negotiated back and forth to add functionality for the client and budget for IK, yet after that initial negotiation Tim had the first meeting with their content expert who was surprised that in one place where she had been gathering a lot of content it was not in the project. Right away she wanted to get it back in. Luckily the project director at SI understood the situation. This can be a tough conversation to have but we had it at the kickoff meeting so the project doesn’t get two months down the road and then it becomes an even more uncomfortable conversation. The second most difficult thing is the sheer volume of content which can also be a problem because it takes time to gather content, we have to make sure they have rights to it, and to get all of the sign offs so that we can include it in the project. This all takes time and we may not have it when we need it to move on so that creates special problems for us.
- Communication. Tim said that IK is usually involved because a museum has gotten some kind of grant. For example, they were involved in the ‘refresh’ of the Smithsonian Institution website. There were two different committees for that project: one for content and one that was more technical in nature. Dealing with 19 museums and trying to keep everyone focused on the final goal, which was getting an updated and more relevant site that SI didn’t have at the start of the project, was a huge challenge. So the size of the project wasn’t just that they were juggling lots of content that had to fit into the new templates we were developing but also there were a lot of opinions that came out, that needed to be discussed and dealt with. They had one project manager that was in charge of the content committee and she helped make sure we had what we needed. Some of the folks reported back to their own leadership and some of those people had their own opinions even though we were pretty far down the road. Then it becomes more of a structural issue. Everyone on the committee should have kept their leadership informed but some didn’t and these kinds of things can make a project go awry. While the committee did reach consensus on decisions, they didn’t get 100 percent approval on everything but they kept the project moving ahead. The OCIO was very smart right from the beginning that this wasn’t called a website project redesign but a ‘refresh’ because they were trying to update the technology and deliver a new visual look that was much more up to date.
- Ongoing support. That’s part of why IK is hosting more sites and doing more post-launch work because the websites need to change frequently for new content and to add new components. As new browsers come out, Tim said they have to pay attention to that. The launch is just the beginning of the project, so much more comes post-launch in maintenance, wish lists, bug fixes. There’s always a compromise of what can get done for the launch and what will happen later and IK often invokes the ‘oh, that will come in phase 2.’ They just launched a site for a filmmaker who had never launched a website. They explained how this would all play out and fortunately got additional funding for a content management system. The project, Our Mother Tongues, has a variety of content and they’ve just scratched the surface with these 12 languages. They knew the filmmaker’s budget wouldn’t ever be able to handle all the additional content so IK built a system that the filmmaker can add content to but also one that Tim knows he can come back to when the filmmaker gets more funding and needs IK’s assistance.
- Challenges of the external vendor. Working on a fixed price budget and issues related to scope creep are the biggest challenges for an external vendor. They sometimes have to browbeat contracting offices to provide a budget range during RFP/proposal prep. Also, balancing technology is a big challenge because it can be a decision between adding new technologies that are helpful and appropriate without going to things that are too trendy. Social media is the newest thing and clients expect more of these technology trends that are also new to IK. Mobile is big and response technology when the visitor’s platform is changing rapidly, too. They may have a client that is only working on older browsers but they want their site to appear up to date.
- Favorite projects. The project Tim was most proud of is a film project on Race: The Power of an Illusion that came out in 2003/2004. It’s mostly flash but the content was really interesting. The client was interested in a very academic version but Tim knew that it needed to be more interactive and engaging so they developed interactives that teach the main concepts and have stood the test of time. Another one was for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. They didn’t have any assets so IK had to find photographs, interviews with artists, create a fun visual design, and build an interactive to create your own art that they are still using. The SI refresh was a big project, very challenging, took a lot of attention but IK won a Webby award and made some good friends at the OCIO.
Links to the projects referenced in this blog can be found below:
- Smithsonian “Refresh” Project http://interactiveknowledge.com/project/smithsonian-refresh-project
- Race: The Power of an Illusion http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm
- Off the Map http://interactiveknowledge.com/project/map
- Our Mother Tongues http://interactiveknowledge.com/project/our-mother-tongues
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