On a cheerful spring day in the garment district of New York City, I crossed 7th Avenue at 40th Street with our Director of Business Development, Jason Rosenfelt. We had just completed what seemed like a promising meeting with a burgeoning sports apparel company, Feel The Power.
They wanted to create an e-commerce website. They were about 8 guys, 2-3 of them under 50 years old, and 4-5 who if I had to guess, had never sent or received an email in their life. These particular guys were old-school, and they were holding the purse strings.
One of the young guns was imploring the backers “we gotta jump into the web.” Two of them seemed to think he might be right. The other few were skeptics, bah humbug. They were debating openly in front of us – back and forth, no formalities, no shame, and no censorship.
There were six conversations happening at once. It felt like I was sitting in a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. These guys were great characters.
Since it was such a refreshing day we took the long way back to the office. We talked about a lot of different stuff. We enjoyed the sun, we walked slowly.
“There’s no way those backers are giving those guys money to do that website,” Jason predicted.
We got the call. To our surprise, it was on. An all-Flash e-commerce website. Sweet.
They had a simple inventory of 50 items across 4 categories. They did not have a brand identity. They did not have photography. They did have a logo and a few graphic icons.
They also had a crude “catalog” that was 85% complete – and not yet printed. In terms of a vision or approach to this project … they had neither. They were looking to us to deliver, and they were giving us carte blanche creatively.
We agreed to design an engaging, yet intuitive interface. They had no idea what we were talking about. We agreed to develop a custom ASP.NET database to store their product, customer and order information.
They thought that was cool. But they had no idea what it meant. We agreed to set them up with a merchant account and develop the site for secure, encrypted real-time credit card authorization. They nodded.
We agreed to develop a set of administrative tools so they could publish content and manage orders.
We lined up our team. Matt Sundstrom would design. Shea Gonyo would develop the front-end, and Jeremy Dost, a senior developer at our friend Blenderbox, would deliver the database and the shopping cart.
Here's what Matt had to say about his design approach:
“One thing that makes working with small clients so enjoyable is the challenge of taking a brand that worked well in their current niche and building it out to live on the web. FTP’s brand consisted of a logo, PDF pamphlet of their inventory and the physical performance clothing; so we had a lot of room to work with.
I looked at a range of FTP’s competitors, reviewed the information that Mark received from the client and started sketching.
For me, the initial discovery and sketching stage are the most crucial. We didn’t have the time or budget to make a rich media site like Nike, but I didn’t want it to turn out like a generic flash e-commerce site like Under Armour – their “competitor” – either.
I wanted to design something that could use the assets that we had to its advantage, something simple, clean and unique. I worked through pages of design ideas before coming up with a design hook.
A spiral design was both kinetic and functional. The nav’s kinetic interaction reflected the nature of the client’s products. It could be expanded to include new products and sort based on their various product types and shoppers.
I created the initial screens and on June 23, they were presented to the client. They were immediately approved.”
We were feeling the power. We were excited about the interface. We had 2/3 of the project fee in the bank. Shea was set to begin Flash development.
Here's what Shea had to say about his development approach:
“When I first took a look at Matt’s comps I was excited to begin developing the product navigation system. The interface had a lot of potential for really cool interactivity and motion. I immediately had ideas about how the circle of products should move upon cursor interaction.
I spent a few days brushing up on my trigonometry functions. After that, I was able to start prototyping the wheel. It wasn’t wired to the database yet, but it was a great start.”
On July 12th, Shea delivered a rough prototype of the wheel and product navigation.
The same day, Blenderbox started feeding us ASP/XML pages. I began populating the database with product information. By the 17th, Shea had the database integrated with his prototype.
The 20th was a big day. Shea reported the following:
“I was able to make some good progress today. Currently the navigation does not navigate, but rollovers and selected states are working for the most part. I have started programming the SHOP navigation which is not complete but is now pulling from the navigation XML database.
I also added my sound effect code library for future use if we choose to have them. There are place holder “click” sounds on the main nav and product nav release events to illustrate this functionality.
I think that the backbone of the navigation is now roughly in place. The next major challenge will be to dynamically disassemble and reconstruct the product navigation.”
We were using a mock-up image to represent all 50 products. We needed photography. The client didn’t know where to begin and started talking about some friends they knew that had a digital camera.
We urged them to spend some money and hire a professional. They balked. In a momentary lapse of reason, we offered to take a crack at it. We ordered mannequins and picked up their garments.
We were in good shape. Shea was cranking and Blenderbox was ready to begin work on the shopping cart and checkout process. The photography was complete by August 10th.
Although Matt did a good job retouching in fake back straps and inner waistbands, the shots were adequate at best.
We knew this was going to be the case. We pushed forward. We were creating a special website.
On the 18th, Shea reported the following:
“I was able to make massive progress today. I fixed a lot of existing bugs as well as implementing the Shop nav which is still buggy. I’ve added the expanding radius and scaling chip functionality to the home state as well as loading rollover and product detail images.
Nothing is set in stone yet in terms of transitions but it is nice to see the big images loaded into the interface. I would like to finish up the home state and product detail by Wednesday or Thursday next week. After that I can concentrate on loading the cart and footer sections.
There is still a lot to do but I’m really satisfied where it is right now.”
We were on course and on schedule to be live by September 15th.
We had a meeting with the client on August 30th. Jason and I strolled in expecting to be greeted like conquering heroes. We were stunned to hear they were sort of unhappy. First, the logo was too small. OK, no problem.
Who hasn’t heard that in one out of every three projects? Second, they hated the photography. We agreed the photography could be better if it were shot by an experienced professional, as we had suggested.
They promised to get a photographer. We promised to make the logo bigger. They wanted us to do a status meeting with the backers the next week. By the time we got back to the office, the client had sent me this email:
”Thanks for coming up with Jason today and after we meet next week I'm sure all the players will be very satisfied that FTP is going to have a first class web site to launch very soon.”
On the 6th, we had the above-mentioned meeting. Even more characters showed this time. Now there were fourteen conversations at once. They were talking to each other, they were talking to us. They were talking to themselves.
“How do we plan on shipping the orders? How are wholesalers going to see wholesale prices? How are we going to charge for shipping? Yes, we have 50 products, but those are “styles”. We need to build the database to account for over 2,000 items by UPC numbers.”
Whoa! We were basically done building the website. Two things became immediately clear.
One, we were heading out of scope. Two, this site would not be launching on September 15th. This was a major setback. We rolled with the punches. But there was no doubt about it. We were feeling the pain.
On October 6th, we turned them on to John Uher, a great photographer who works with one of our clients, Godiva. We facilitated a quote and urged them to act quickly so we could get the shots turned around and uploaded into our database.
They assured us they had a “photography professor from New Jersey” who was working on a new set of shots. Additionally, they were working on getting us specs for the revisions they wanted to the functionality of the site.
On October 24th we received the professor’s first shot. The garment was wrinkled and the shot was significantly worse than what we had done.
We realized that to a large degree the issue of good photography was going to remain beyond our control. We resolved to do the best we could to work with the photographer and hope for the best.
As it remains today, the photography is easily the Achilles Heel of the overall website experience.
November and December, 2005
November and December were tough grind it out months on the project. We had to revise major portions of the shopping functionality, which meant lots of front-end and back-end work.
The client gave me their 2,000+ UPC codes, which had to match up to style names, sizes and colors, in 6 Excel documents, varied in format. It was a 3 day puzzle to figure it all out.
Our project coordinator, Sophia Leang, spent a week and a half inputting the data. Shea and Jeremy put in an additional month of work to re-do the database, product catalog and check-out.
By mid-December the website had soft launched and although we were proud of it, we were wrapped up in end of the year stuff, our own site update, and some work we were doing for Kellogg’s.
Plus, we were burnt out on the revisions. Getting it launched was bittersweet. We agreed there was only one thing that could make it redeeming. An FWA.
I was personally exhausted. My wife was 9+ months pregnant and we had decided back in October to quickly find a house in the suburbs and move before the baby came. Between life at the office and life at home, I had never been busier.
On January 9th, I dropped Rob an email to inform him of our own website update and to submit Feel The Power for an FWA.
On January 11th, my wife was lying in a hospital bed ready to deliver our second child, and I was illegally using my Blackberry as I paced in the hallway. I received an email from Rob Ford informing us that Feel The Power would be FWA SOTD for January 12th.
I danced an Irish jig and then I went in the delivery room, held my wife’s hand, and a few moments later snapped this pic of our new daughter. While my wife recovered and the nurses took the baby for tests, I sent Rob this note:
“Quite a day for me. My wife gave birth to our beautiful baby daughter this afternoon and now this! Thank you so much for making an unforgettable day even more special. I tried to convince my wife to name her FWA, but she didn't go for it. I've passed the news on to our team and everyone is excited, proud, and grateful.”
We named her Charlie. Feel The Power is live today, an FWA-winner, and the pain has subsided.
About The Author, Mark Ferdman
Mark Ferdman is founder and principal of Freedom Interactive Design in NYC.
Since 1997, he has managed the design and development process for hundreds of interactive multimedia projects.
Mark’s clients have included Comedy Central, Estee Lauder, Godiva, Kellogg’s, and L’Oreal, among others.
He lives suburban New York with his wife and two young daughters.