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
Listen to the interview
Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.
Although obvious, it’s nice to know that many of the problems we face when developing content internally are also challenges for companies like Interactive Knowledge. Tim’s willingness to share what he has learned through many of his projects will certainly aid us in the future and provide insights into solving the challenges.
Another thing that Tim discussed that I haven’t had much experience with is the different programs that are available for use during and after development. Out of the programs he mentioned, I had only heard of Drupal, but programs like Unfuddle or Basecamp may come in handy for future projects. It’s always nice to know what programs are out there and that other organizations find them useful!
I was impressed to learn about Tim Songer’s educational background as a classroom educator and think that this comes through strongly in his work. When discussing some of Interactive Knowledge’s projects over the years, Songer revealed that IK often conducts a lot of content research on their end, and seeks to truly educate the client during all aspects of a project’s design. For instance, having recently assisted on a website project for my museum, I was surprised to learn that IK has had to compile most of the visual assets for certain projects, which requires them to be somewhat conversant in the content. I was also impressed by IK’s customization of tools to fit the client’s needs, such as by providing and instructing one client to use tools to add bilingual content or, in the case of the Our Mother Tongues site, building a back-end structure that would allow the client to expand the site in the future with more funding. It seems as though Songer and IK truly care about the clients and educational projects that they undertake and are invested in the projects’ success for the long term–it is not just another job for them which ends after the launch.
Also, I learned that IK has been awarded a contract at my museum to work on a Mayan calendar website, so this interview was personally interesting for me in understanding more about the planning of this project. After the interview, I talked with that project’s manager, and was able to see one of the Axure interactive wireframes that were discussed in the interview. It was really cool, and I could instantly see how such a medium could be used to maintain a strong dialogue with the client and to test the website’s functionality with other users. All in all, quite an informative interview!
It is interesting to me to hear about how CMS technology has evolved and affected Tim’s work over the years. Going from creating their own CMS software to using open source CMS software in a relatively short time shows the willingness to change and remain relevant. This is something that I think the private sector has a real handle on and something museums could learn from. This was also repeated when Tim talked about the current migration away from Flash to HTML5 software.
Tim covered so much territory during the interview, I have no idea how he keeps it all straight! I learned so much about project management from this interview and how technology has made processes easier. The proliferation of project management software seems to have been helping IK become more efficient in all sorts of ways and that is a great lesson for museums as well. I appreciated Tim candid approach and the information he provided in the interview, it really helped me to better understand project management, great interview Cherie!
After listening to interviews like this one, I always want to see what it’s like to use the various products and sites that are mentioned. Drupal, Joomla, Axure… great names, and apparently great products that enable the company and the client to modify the content and project. As Ryan noted, its important for any organization to be willing to adopt new technologies that keep them competitive in the field. Considering that IK keeps a lot of client information/content on file even after a project, I wonder if they update that old content when they switch to a new technology such as a CMS.
Though there was a lot of talk about web tech (this is an internet strategies course after all!), a lot of the issues Tim mentioned had to do with communication above all else. I suppose that’s the key role of project managers: making sure the sides that need to be talking are talking, and that important information is established ahead of time. For example, IK was able to avoid scope creep on one project because they’d set out the scope early on, and were able to refer back to that meeting whenever people asked why their content was not included in the final product.
Was it just me, or did some of Tim’s insights on project pitches remind anyone of Mad Men? It’s always so interesting to glimpse the relationship between client and consultant; sometimes they’re in synch and trust each other, other times each side tries to prove to the other how much they know about certain aspects of the project (technology, presentation, content, etc.).
Just wanted to add that I also really liked the fact that Tim’s team is constantly looking at what’s changed on the internet scene since their last project, and try to incorporate these changes into the next project (ex: social media, mobile). Constant vigilance!
This was a great interview to end the semester on. Tim has certainly had a lot of experience, which means he has a lot of insights to offer. I also found his conversation about client interaction to be very interesting. When in this line of work, and dealing with such diverse clients, it is important to be upfront and firm. If a client has a budget that they will be strict about staying in, then they have to have reasonable expectations of what can come out of it. As Tim brings up, they can be tough conversations to have, but are necessary to get the job done properly. It’s also important to have these conversations early on as Tim said, rather then risk explosive dialogues later on in the project.
Hearing about client interaction is one of those things that you can only really grasp once you encounter it. It is good to hear about some of the issues that have happened to others in these situations, as most of the problems that are encountered are often similar, and need to be handled in a similar fashion.
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