When agencies talk about working iteratively with clients, it tends to mean, “We’ll check in with you more frequently, but the work will still be polished and baked when you see it.”

But our partnership with the TD Ameritrade Workplace Solutions team took on a different tone when we worked with them to execute a digital strategy for their website. We were asked to help them rethink how to position three of their service offerings, and packaging those offerings in a new digital experience that captures the friendly personality of TD Ameritrade.

We started with one belief: clients will always know their own businesses better than we will. So while we can provide our expertise in user experience, content, digital design, and development,  a close, collaborative partnership enables us to create a truly remarkable digital experience that meets the business and user needs – in an efficient (and even fun) way. So we designed a 2-part workshop process that allowed for more fluid knowledge-sharing.

We broke up the initial collaboration into two working sessions. During the first, the objective was to answer a specific need for prospective customers coming onto one of the product pages; the second was to refine those ideas and strategize how they ladder up to the homepage.

In the first work session, we paired each member of our team with a business or marketing partner from TD. Each pair focused on one user need that would lead a prospective customer to visit the site (e.g., to understand how easy it is to implement their service, to assess their offerings compared to alternative options, etc.). With one user need in mind, each pair illustrated six different ways to address that need in a visual format: we literally spent time drawing out ways to solve our prospective customer’s needs (e.g., show a diagram of how TD works with their clients).

Members of the business team then shared their ideas with their colleagues and selected the best ideas to create a sketch of an entire product page. As their partners, we provided inspiration based on our expertise, and challenged assumptions that the business team had about what information is important to customers. We relentlessly ensured we were solving user needs first and foremost.

After the first work session, the Sullivan team took all of the sketches and ideas and turned these into a paper-based ‘pattern library’ that represented structural ways of supporting the different types of content that we all agreed was important.

In our second session we used these more refined assets to arrange, and rearrange, components to create the rough bones of each page. We then discussed what content would belong in each component and how this would then ladder up to a homepage. We left the second work session with the momentum we needed to begin detailed visual design, content creation, and development.

The low-fi nature of this approach made the task of building a website accessible to everyone. As a result, we achieved three things:

1. Our clients became personally invested in the project.

We set expectations at the very beginning that this would be a practice in listening, instead of the traditional show-and-tell approach. The tone of our partnership was, “Here is what you’ve told us; here is what’s possible; and here is how it serves your customers.” As a result, each team demonstrated respect for the other’s area of expertise while feeling ownership for the work.

2. Our clients are better prepared to manage the site.

Since the business partners could share their thinking amongst each other, they were able to draw from one another’s ideas to make each idea better.  It allowed us to build a website more efficiently with scalable modules—and, just as importantly, to seamlessly transition ownership of the site once built. It also ensured that when we hand over the final code, our clients will be intimately familiar with the decision making process for how the site is structured.

3. We created a more durable relationship to withstand the messy work of creativity.

Instead of operating in a vacuum, the website took shape through open dialogue with the client. Sometimes that meant showing work that wasn’t completely polished or finished. It gave us the chance to get client input early and often and for the client to see the work much sooner. This saved us from developing work that didn’t meet our client’s expectations and it gave them a framework for helping us do the best work possible at every step of the process.

As a result, both parties could feel good not just about the finished product, but the process of working together. So the next time you’re thinking about working with an agency, consider if a workshop-based approach could be right for you. It’s a great way to be more involved in the creative process, while helping to create a better outcome.