99designs Tech Blog

Adventures in web development

Research and Development

by Michael De Wildt

The 99designs Research and Development programme enables members of our development team to spend a full day every two weeks (what we Australians call a “fortnight,” much to the amusement of our American colleagues) to work on projects we think are important. Read on to find out why 99designs does this, how it works in practical terms, and the successes and challenges we’ve encountered.

Why we do it

Everyone has a proverbial “itch to scratch” and our R&D programme allows us to, well, scratch it. Companies allocating time for their best and brightest to innovate is not a new school of thought. Many, technology based and otherwise, have realised that the return on investment of allowing employees to work autonomously on projects of their own choosing is substantial.

99designs’ programme serves as an incubator for ideas, and it follows that one tangible result is fantastic new products. Also, we learn new skills by dabbling with brand new technologies and then applying the lessons learned in our day-to-day tasks. And then, of course, there is the more difficult to measure result: greater staff satisfaction.

We’re not alone

A good example of a company that has been doing this for a very long time is the one that brought us the little yellow notes you’ll likely see if you glance around you right now, scribbled with clever quips or very insecure password reminders and stuck to computer monitors. Bill Coyne, a former senior vice president of R&D at 3M, put forward one of the best arguments I’ve encountered about why it’s key for the company’s engineers to spend 15 percent of their time pursuing their own ideas:

Most of the inventions that 3M depends upon today came out of that kind of individual initiative… You don’t make a difference by just following orders.

The 15 percent rule was instituted after an employee at the then-struggling company went a bit rogue at work and invented the world’s first masking tape back in 1925. Post-It notes hit the market in 1980. The company now employs 7,350 researchers and has sales of $27 billion a year.

In the technology sector, Atlassian and Google are two well-known evangelists of R&D time. Google’s “20 percent time” paved the way for key products such as Gmail, Chrome and Google News. Atlassian credits its own 20-percent programme with helping to keep its developers so happy that it doesn’t need to pour a lot of money into recruiting new talent. Prospects simply hear about its innovative culture and climb over one another to join them.

How we do it

99designs’ R&D days are scheduled at the end of our fortnightly development sprints, so that we have one every second Friday. The day gives us a nice buffer in which to get creative after our projects and other business tasks are wrapped up Thursday and before a new sprint starts Monday.

We like to hold an informal meeting the day before our R&D day to share ideas about what we’d like to tackle. Not everyone has a killer idea every time, and it’s not uncommon for a colleague to describe a project that sounds a lot cooler then what you had in mind. The get-together allows teams to self organise and game plans to develop. Another benefit of holding a prep meeting is that it gets us all amped up to hack on whatever we want all day the following day.

The Monday after an R&D day, each team or individual gives a five-minute presentation on what they achieved, what they learned and whether it’s something they want to pursue further.

Successes so far

The 99designs R&D program was implemented six months ago and in those 10 or so days we’ve managed to come up with some useful tools and fun apps.

One of our very first projects to be adopted as a mainstream product feature was an admin toolbar. This project came from a few developers who were frustrated with how difficult it was to search for and manage contests, so during our very first R&D day we decided to form a team and build a solution. To the delight of our staff, the toolbar is now part of the application and used on a daily basis.

Mapviz pans across the world, showing logins and design entries

Another frustration among developers was the lack of visibility and subsequent difficulty managing errors within our application. Yes, we have error logs. But who in their right mind likes trawling through them to get to the bottom of an issue? “Triage” is the aptly named error management system we developed over eight R&D days. This open source, ongoing project will soon be rolled out into our application and will make our lives a lot easier.

On the fun side, one of our developers created a nice little app called Mapviz, which provides a real-time visualisation of all customer log-ins, contest launches and design entries on a world map. Our marketing team was blown away by it.

Challenges

One challenge we face is coming up with a way to involve all of our teams, including support and marketing, in the R&D programme. Involving non-technical team members from time to time could allow the development team to get inspiration and ideas from a different angle. Then there’s the challenge that comes with being a global company – the Pacific Ocean creates quite a barrier between our Melbourne and San Francisco offices, making it tough for us to consistently communicate ideas efficiently and effectively.

Secondly, is an R&D day twice a month the best approach for fostering innovation? Our friends at Flippa have taken on what they like to call “Triple Time,” in which the development team dedicates three consecutive days every month to R&D. This approach might work well for us, however, giving it a go will be a challenge when we are so used to our current programme.

Another interesting approach is the “FedEx day” championed by Atlassian, during which a team is given one day to build and demonstrate a finished or near-complete product. Could introducing a deliver-in-a-day element hinder or supplement our current programme?

Looking ahead

The evidence is clear that we’re off to a good start – we’re delivering some great products, helping to foster an innovative company culture and learning new technical skills. However, like everything at 99designs, the programme is continually evolving and improving.

I’m curious to learn more about what other companies are doing to foster innovation. Does your company have an R&D program? How is it structured – as a percentage of time, designated days, another format? How else are employees encouraged to innovate?