What Heston Blumenthal can teach you about web design

It's not very often I'm totally inspired by a TV program but watching one last night about cooking on a submarine did just that and you can draw valuable inspiration on how to not only follow a very tough client brief, but knock it out of the park.

Heston Blumenthal

The program - Heston's Mission Impossible, featuring a world famous chef cooking food in a submarine was, at first glance, totally unrelated to web design.

His mission in this particular episode was to cook for nearly 100 submariners on one of the Royal Navy's nuclear subs.

You'll probably still be wondering what on earth this has to do with web design...read on.

Here's the brief and restrictions Heston had to work with

  • Update an old, very unhealthy menu for nearly 100 crew on submarine that stays at sea for up to 90 days without resurfacing
  • Create a varied menu with 3 meals a day
  • Improve the nutritional content of the meals (currently breakfast every day is a full fry up)
  • Do this on a fixed budget of less than £2.50 per man per day (don't forget, that's for 3 meals)
  • Consider how to store all that food in a very confined space and that fresh food goes off long before the end of a mission

Now hopefully looking at this sort of brief you'll start to see some comparisons with a lot of client briefs that come through your agency or freelance door. They demonstrate many of the usual traits in most businesses and certainly common in web design work.

Some common themes you'll see with web clients

  • Insanely high client expectation
  • Insanely low budget in relation to expectation
  • User base who must be satisfied and included in any testing/improvement

Bit by bit, Heston showed classic analysis and problem solving technique that you could still apply in any industry despite what he does being a world apart from web design.

Lets go through it bit by bit and analyse how Heston worked and what lessons you could learn and apply to managing your own projects and delivering great user and client experiences.

Stage 1 - Analysis

What Heston did

Analyse the existing menu, establish what's good and bad (nutrition, cost, health impact etc) about it and what the crew think. This is very similar to the first step we take with our clients once we start working with them. In order to improve on something, you need to first understand it and find out what does and doesn't work.

What web designers can do

This is very similar to the web. Many users, like the crew of the sub, are now used to certain design patterns and as we all know, certain websites and services. It's often difficult crafting an entirely new user experience and making it work when you discard one that's been in place for a long time so you do need to give even a bad menu (or existing website) consideration as often there's a reason it's the way it is and you need to decide if that reason is valid or not and what you can do to improve it.

As a web designer, you can monitor analytics, review any existing user testing or conduct new testing to establish what does and doesn't work on a site and then target areas for improvement. If it's a new site, you need to engage with the client to find out what they're trying to do with their site. Is it a sales site? A brochure, purely informative etc?

Stage 2 - Creating something new and amazing

What Heston did

Always the tricky part - it's time to design something new and amazing within a tight budget. It can of course be done and it's something we as designers and developers do every day.

In Heston's case, he had to design a meal plan that satisfied three different "user groups" - The crew who had to enjoy the food and benefit from the improved nutritional content, the captain and XO of the boat who had to consider morale in particular and the Ministry of Defence who set the budget and operational restrictions.

What web designers can do

Again, you'll see a similarity with many web clients. You'll be expected to craft an exceptional end user experience, perhaps getting them (in our case with Olympic Holidays) to find and/or buy something for example.

We also have to consider the budget available for design and development each month and the commercial restrictions placed on the work we do and of course, we have to get approval for work we push live.

You should consider the value of user testing if you don't already. As a web designer you use the web completely differently to most people. We've uncovered some fascinating behaviour on Olympic Holidays by testing and we've implemented small tweaks that improve the site and ultimately lead to better results both for users and commercially.

You can target specific problem areas or establish where best to put your resource to get the best gains through use of tools like A/B or Multi-variant testing as well as creating simple user journeys to test with.

3. Working to a budget

What Heston did

Starting to see the similarities here yet? The budget Heston worked with was nothing short of disgraceful but unfortunately that's the reality of some commercial work. With web clients who don't have the budget, you can respectfully decline to work with them but before you do, take a look at how Heston met the brief and budget on this one with some creative use of ingredients and technique.

What web designers can do

Sometimes you will get a client who comes to you asking for a website that might be quoted as £5k of work when they only have £1k. 9 times out 10 you'd probably be unable to take on such a project but before you turn it down flat, perhaps consider looking at the requirements and feautres requested.

Often the client has a wishlist and not a feature list and you'll always find a wishlist is more expensive than a well thought out feature list so perhaps consider refining wish vs feature and looking at staging development as budget allows. This also has the benefit of building a relationship over time with a client who might be able to find more money for their project over time and staged development instead of having one massive bill up front.

4. Delivering beyond expectation

What Heston did

I've got to say that the solution of pre-cooking much of the food using a technique called "Sous Vide" where food is cooked at very low temperature over a long time and then vacuum sealed meant that Heston in one go managed to find a near perfect solution for this "client" and produced nutritional food that only needed reheating in the sub galley.

Heston Blumenthal

It kept its nutritional value as it could be frozen and because it was vacuum sealed, took up a fraction of the space normally used.

When you're talking about a nuclear sub, it's worth remembering at this stage that they only really *need* to return to port to stock up on food. Deployments could be longer and more cost effective if storing more quality food was made easier.

The Captain and XO were so impressed with the suggestions the MOD were informed while Heston was on board. How many times do you manage to hit a brief so perfectly that a client considers rolling out your suggestion across their entire user base immediately?

What web designers can do

You can deliver on time and budget as well. The beauty of this post and the program is that what Heston did was entirely transferable and relevant to so many industries including out own.

Although several rockets (and torpedoes) are involved, delivering beyond expectation isn't rocket science.

It was a demonstration of how to listen to your client and establish the key requirements of what they need commercially (budget per man for meals), what their users need (confined space, little opportunity for exercise, requirement for immense concentration over long periods) and then involving the key stakeholders throughout the process to ensure everyone is happy with the end result.

Watch it and learn for yourself

If you have 46 minutes over a lunchtime or during your day (call it research) you can watch the full episode on YouTube.

Written on Tuesday 13rd of March 2012 by @peteduncanson

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