Team Cuckoo: sharing the secrets of collaboration

Johanna Drewe & Tommy Toner

Running brand and digital projects together sounds great in theory, but can feel scary. Johanna spoke to Cuckoo’s Tommy Toner to tease out the learnings from our recent collaboration.

As product teams and agencies will testify, running a digital design project alongside a rebrand can be daunting. There’s always financial pressure. Usually time pressure. And sometimes that unique pressure of a stakeholder who takes an interest in the project at precisely the worst moment.

So what can you do? The last thing you want is a protracted waterfall process, where one project has to end before the other can begin. But running them together needs careful sequencing to avoid wasting time, effort and resources.

Which discipline leads the process? What happens when one workstream slips? And who makes decisions about the biggest concepts and smallest details?

Output found the answers while working closely with Cuckoo’s in-house design team. As a result they got a new brand identity, design system and digital platform, helping the founders achieve a sale within six weeks of relaunch. A pretty good ROI story for the CEO!

The learnings will help anyone delivering this type of project. So we talked through them with Tommy Toner, Cuckoo’s Co-Founder & Chief Experience Officer, and Johanna Drewe, Output’s Creative Director & Partner.

The first interview is about collaboration between the teams and the importance of sequencing the work.

The project was a real collaboration between the Output and Cuckoo teams. How did that work?

JD: The key stakeholders on the project were involved from the start. Tommy was growing his team, so people were introduced as it went on. But it was done in a diplomatic way that didn’t turn into lots of different opinions, which can derail a project.

The right people were there to offer input, so they bought into the process and design direction, and could bring it to life. We handed over Figma files or anything in the decks that could be explored and there was a reverse share at the end. That dialogue continued, with the designers catching up on Slack. Everyone was open to creating the best thing, and we got there together.

TT: The way you set up projects with a ‘sprint on / sprint off’ cycle was really valuable. As we kicked off the first brief, I’d hired my first designer. By the end, we had a Cuckoo design team of six. So as my team grew, the project grew, and everyone felt involved.

The sprint model meant, in that week of downtime, the Cuckoo team could sit with a Figma file, test and adjust it and try to break those components in situ, so we could give timely and accurate feedback for Output to pick up in the next sprint.

Rather than design files being handed over the fence in a waterfall model, we stuck with it as the project matured. That meant we were much more comfortable with the end product, because we were on that journey and working with the assets as everything was unfolding.

Early Cuckoo design exploration

What were you handling in the sprints? Was the brand part delivered and then you moved into the digital experience side?

JD: They were structured at the same time, but the first brand sprints built on the wireframes. The Cuckoo guys had done the UX for the site, Output were building in character and looking at where we could simplify. Our first digital sprint started to build out a few different pages, while we also looked at what the brand needed to do. We tested our ideas in screens during sprint 2, with new components in the pages. So after a while they caught up. Brand finishes and there’s another digital sprint, but one informs the other.

TT: For Cuckoo, brand and user experience are two sides of the same coin. By running stages in parallel, Output’s brand & digital teams worked in tandem with our product design team. We were uncovering what was and wasn’t working at the same time. So there were sprints where Sam worked on the UI, which then informed part of the brand’s direction, and vice versa. Perhaps working in a different agency model, where it goes from brand, then into UX and UI, we wouldn’t have been so agile in the way we solved problems.

By doing it this way, you’re making sure all the key stakeholders are on the journey and feel they’ve contributed. The team see it as a collaboration between Output and Cuckoo rather than it just being an agency project.”

Tommy Toner

Co-Founder & Chief Experience Officer, Cuckoo

Have you worked that closely with a client’s product team, Johanna? It felt like this went a level beyond working with other teams.

JD: It did, and it’s a best-in-class example of how we can work with a product team because we were so in harmony. Sometimes there’s a barrier, like working with incomplete UX, or a product team only giving access to one designer. That’s not a full experience compared to the way we worked with Cuckoo. There was a mutual respect and understanding of what we both brought to the party, which enabled us to create something ace.

TT: I totally agree. The Cuckoo product design team had enough breathing room and time during the project to actually contribute. We could easily have cracked on with our normal projects and committed 100% time to business as usual. That would’ve left us without the opportunity to play with stuff as we were going along, and give the level of feedback we were able to in each sprint.

Are there any other watch-outs to working like this? Is there anything else you have to do in a different way?

TT: The resource element is probably the biggest dependency to working in this way. But the pros outweigh the cons. Because we’re a startup, everyone wants to feel like they’re growing the business. That’s why a lot of designers joined, because they had a vision they could grow the brand, or the design system. If we just handed those decisions and responsibilities over to an agency and they weren’t involved, they wouldn’t feel fulfilled or part of the project.

By doing it this way, you’re making sure all the key stakeholders are on the journey and feel they’ve contributed. The team see it as a collaboration between Output and Cuckoo rather than it just being an agency project.

Alternative route explored

In terms of resources, is the sprint methodology helpful to a tech business?

TT: It’s an easier conversation, because any board or leadership team will be more comfortable, particularly if they’re a tech business already working in sprints. It translates nicely because they understand, for example, the objectives we’re going to meet over the next two weeks. That’s much better than, “Some stuff is going to be done in six weeks.” It helps manage expectations.

You can also line it up with internal projects. We wanted to relaunch Cuckoo’s social and one of the sprints was focused on the key visuals and brand assets we’d end up using there. We lined that up with our social strategy internally, and launched it ahead of the wider brand launch.

Final Cuckoo experience

Finally, you mentioned the ‘reverse share’ being something new for us. How did that come about, and how did it help?

JD: Tommy and I were checking in to see how the Cuckoo guys were getting on and he asked, “Why don’t we present back to you?” I know you said it was a nerve-wracking experience to be on the other side of the table, presenting everything you’d been working on! But it was great for us to see what had been really helpful, or where you’d had to evolve something because it’s not quite working.

We always try to create things that can be handed over easily. We’d prefer to work this closely with other clients, but don’t always have as much control, so they just go quiet when they’re rolling it out. Hearing you say, “Should we show you what we’ve been doing?” was great.

TT: We’d been working with the new brand and evolving the design system. We were so close to it and wanted to get an objective opinion on how we’d been using it. It was a 90-minute session, and then a few hours to consolidate your notes and write it up, so I appreciate it was a fair amount of time with your agency team.

But it paid dividends because there were things you caught that allowed us to realign the direction, so it was much closer to what we’d originally intended. The funny thing is, everything your team called out was obvious once you’d mentioned it. That sort of review is something we wouldn’t have been able to do internally, so it was really valuable to us and critical to the overall success of the project.

Look out for more learnings from the Cuckoo project soon. In future interviews we’ll be exploring design & digital craft, and the importance of motion design.

Johanna Drewe & Tommy Toner

As Creative Director and Partner at Output, Johanna (she/her) ensures brand and digital disciplines are developed with equal imagination and rigour. A design leader in a male-dominated industry, she uses her experience and learnings to empower a new generation of female designers. Tommy Toner (he/him) is Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer at Cuckoo. With over 15 years of experience in UX, product, and marketing, he brings a unique perspective and skill set to the broadband industry.