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Web Design

16 Things We Could Have Done To Save Our First Silicon Valley Project

In late 2019 a VPN service from Silicon Valley reached out to our team. A long story to be told.


In late 2019 a VPN service from Silicon Valley reached out to our team. Embacy's job was to redesign their branding and website. The project lasted 3 sprints, 5 workdays each. By the end of it, we made 6 in-depth options for their style, but the client didn’t like any of them. I, Sofya, led the project. I’m gonna tell you, how did it go and what did we learn.

How our Figma looked​ like

The first sprint went great. We followed our process, gradually making decisions on design. The concept, style, illustration sketches and the design itself. Out of the three options provided, the client chose genius superhero Tony-Stark-Elon-Musk type. He protects, and the user doesn't need to worry about anything.

So we kept going, the project was coming along. We were working closely with the two founders. And we were convinced that they are the ones making final decisions. That was before the middle of the second sprint, when they told us this:

So we rolled back and started all over. Out of three new ideas, they chose gradients and abstract shapes. It's techy, easy to support and expand.

So we had our "YEAH!" moment and it seemed like it's gonna go well from now on. We celebrated too early. Right after the weekend, they changed their minds again, and asked us to “just do something different”.

I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes. We had to decide, together with the client, what exactly the ultimate goals are for this design and the brand. That’s when we introduced branding worksheet. There, the client could answer detailed questions about their brand and their product. This way we would have more concrete basis to base set concept around.

Didn’t help. Their answers were contradictory, and our attempt to get more specific were a failure. After 14 total options, we gave up. We suggested to them to take a break and decide internally, how they see themselves and what their brand is supposed to be. In the end, the client decided to stop the project.

Our top options

By the end of last year, we reflected on this experience. We realised that it’s kinda silly to blame the client, when they don’t know what they want to be. We must help them figure out their own positioning. That’s how we came up with the analytics sprint. Its main purpose is to create the foundations for the conceptual search. This way all the final options we suggest to the client had backup in analytics. I'll list 16 things we use from now on when the client isn't sure about their brand using VPNs as an example.

Dive deep into the project and the industry by studying open sources

1. Go over their website

In order for this to be not too obvious, we've got you an example:

On their old website, Upmarket had a phrase:
“We’ll open new sale channels for you”

We transformed it to «opening new trade routes» and built the concept around that.

If the client doesn’t have a website, we study their presentations, google docs, white papers. We worked this way on the project Norma by MTS AI. They didn’t have a website, but they had an awesome presentation. It was enough to make the main page in one sprint.

2. Study company’s other open channels

Social media, blogs, mailing lists, booklets, press releases, and others. Think of the language they use, how many channels are there, what are their sale points.

If there are plenty of channels, it’s important to keep in mind that the final concept must be expandable and easy to support. If the company isn’t ready to get an in-house illustrator, they shouldn’t aim for regular articles featuring all-new illustrations. For them, an abstract style would work better much better. Not everyone is able to support and evolve the style like our client Chrono.tech.

3. Study the company’s analytics

We usually don’t expect a brand new product to have any analytics. So we get excited when they do and carefully study them. Though we also get upset, when a product that’s been on the market for five years or over doesn’t have any.

4. Test the product

Since we also work with copyright, we must understand what we’re talking about.

For example, Exponea gave us a very in-depth onboarding into their complex multi-layered system. They even answered all of our stupid questions. Without it, we wouldn't understand the product.

5. Googling

Go over some articles! In case with VPN services must-have articles would be:

  • Top 10 VPN services
  • How to pick a VPN in 2020
  • What is VPN and what do you need it for (read even if you already know it)

Read the feedback too. The negative reviews will tell about false promises we should avoid in website text. The positive ones will show what works and what to focus on. Most of our clients are digital products, so our main sources for reviews are G2Crowd and Facebook. Sometimes we have to dive deeper into particular industry-related sources if the product is very specific.

6. Look at the competition and related industries

Everyone knows you need to know the completion to be a competition. If we're talking about related industries... Mozilla influenced our project a lot. It's a tech company that values privacy, transparency and freedom, so it was a very relatable source of inspiration.

7. Get that design inspiration

Our top 10 sources are:

Check out our own selection too → Best Tech Websites

Discuss and generate

In the middle of our journey, when we’re deep in the product and the industry, we gather our thoughts and test them out.

8. Talk to the key people in the company: CEO, CMO, investors and others

The most important people in the company have their own vision of where the company is going. As they all focus on different aspects and have different responsibilities, this vision may vary.

  • CEO guides the company’s development and makes the decisions based on the company’s strategy;
  • Investor, puts money into the company or owns a part of it, has his own ideas;
  • CMO, who mostly thinks about communication;
  • Support supervisor, who knows all the headaches of the users;
  • And others, you get the idea.

In our situation with the VPN service, the concept that the company’s founders liked was crushed by investors’ opinions.

That's why we have a one decision-maker policy. Too many cooks in one kitchen can do great damage. During analytics sprint, we create the tools to make the decisions for this person and for our own team.

9. Have an interview with the dev team

The people who work on the product daily often have a much better idea, what the product actually is. They can easily clarify any misconceptions you could have gotten before.

For example, people at the top might make a big deal out of some feature, to the point of the whole design revolving around it. But...in reality, this feature is half a year away before release and will only work partially at the start.

10. Ask the people in the industry

The product team might have a «tunnel vision». It’s important to talk to some competent people in the industry who don’t have their personal interest in the product you're working with. If it’s impossible to get them on call, study expert materials on TechCrunch.com, vc.ru, and other sources.

11. Interview clients and potential clients

It doesn’t even have to be the users of the product you’re working on. Ask your friends on Facebook who uses VPN how they chose one and what do they use it for. It helps to get a reality check.

12. Talk to the competition

Fill out a form and see what happens next, and what could a sales or support managers tell you. It’s helpful to know how the competition works.

If it’s a mature market, the competition could tell you what makes them so great, and better than your client. It was very helpful for our Medialogia project to talk to the two main competitors.

13. Define where the brand is placed on the map

As a framework for our positioning, we chose censydiam, as it's illustrative and simple.

The short version of the brand territory map

How does a VPN service fit on this map?

Out of the obvious territories:

  • Enjoyment. Enjoy streaming services that aren’t available in your country and other censored content.
  • Protection. Protect yourself from hackers and corporations sneaking on your data.
  • Unity. Protect your family’s digital life.
  • Belonging. Join the #1 VPN-users community.
  • Control. Privacy is a right.

Not the most obvious territories, but we tried:

  • Ambition. Achieve more without censorship.
  • Authority. Do your dirty business when no one is watching.
  • Acceptance. You deserve the fastest and most secure browsing experience.

14. Define sales points

Using the map and what we learned from the actual users, we can now define the sales points. Couple more examples from the enjoyment territory:

  • Pirate freely.
  • Can’t access Netflix, Spotify, and many other services? Now you can!
  • Your brand new internet with blackjack and whores.

15. Define tone of voice

The tone of voice is the language of the brand, how it talks to the clients, how it “sounds” on the market. We must define the brand’s qualities that must be easy to understand and for the team to agree upon. Once we know how the brand talks, we can give it a “face”.

Customizing our character

16. Positioning and building the concept: turning the results into the final product

It’s hard for us to call it a brand platform, but it's kinda what it is.

We got a ton of useful information, and that’s great. Now it’s time to put it all together and make conclusions. They will become a base for the concept. That will help us make decisions in design and text composition.

The most important things that you must know before conceptualizing:

  • Description of brand/product;
  • The strong and the weak points of the product;
  • Target audience;
  • What issue does the product solve;
  • Sales points, difference from competing products;
  • Positioning: tone of voice, key points.

What is it all for?

It narrows down the concept search. When you know your audience, where you are on the territory, what are the features and the sales points, you won’t need to make things up. One conclusion leads to another. This research gives a clear vision.

The other result of this project was that we have updated our brief. To be precise, we added an extra brief for new companies. We’ll be glad to hear your feedback on the brief and this long read. Or share your own stories of the projects that didn’t go so well, but taught you something.

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