How to Run an Immersion Phase

Katie Hill

Katie Hill

Lead Design Researcher

Zachery Oman

November 14, 2019

In an effort to share and get feedback on the Connected approach to Immersion, we’ve adapted our Immersion Toolkit to accompany this post. You can access it here. Please give it a try, ask questions, leave comments—we’d love for you to tell us what you think. 

Ambitious product builders come to Connected for help bringing their best ideas to life. Our ability to jump right in, at any point in the product development lifecycle, is part of what makes Connected unique. We assemble cross-disciplinary teams of product builders, allowing us to quickly cover our bases so we can collaborate with clients to get their products off the ground. Still, there’s much more to setting a new project up for success than putting together a well-rounded team. 

Enter, the immersion phase. At Connected, the immersion phase is how we start every new engagement. Typically spanning two weeks, immersion intentionally does not include production- or test-level design or development work. Instead, taking the time and space for immersion allows us to build something less tangible, but still incredibly important: understanding and alignment amongst our team members, with our clients, and about the problem we’re working to solve. This focus on level-setting ensures that when we’re ready to start exploring new product opportunities or building an actual product, we’re doing so from a solid foundation.

While most folks enthusiastically support an immersion phase in theory, problems can arise when we start to allocate time and resources. Understandably, we hear: 

  • From clients: Why should we invest in Connectors taking time to get set up for our project? 
  • From leaders: Why should the entire team get involved—can’t the Product Manager just conduct the immersion and report back? 
  • From practitioners: If I already know about the problem space or product, why can’t I just get started on my slice of the project? 

To answer these questions, we designed an outcome-driven approach to immersion that adds value for everyone. Grounding our approach is a series of activities that can be used and adapted throughout the phase. Here, we present the Connected approach to immersion.

The Immersion Toolkit
The Immersion Toolkit

Note: Immersion is sometimes used interchangeably with Sprint Zero. This makes sense as long as the outcomes below are accomplished. Without them, often what a Sprint Zero is referring to is project management setup.

Immersion Outcome 1: Strong Team Dynamics

Connected is growing fast—we’ve almost doubled our staff each year of our five-year existence. With each new Connector comes an expanded set of skills and fresh ideas, but it also brings a lot of unknowns. When a new project team forms, there’s a good chance at least some of the Connectors have never worked together—and the same applies to our clients. 

It’s important that we take the time to uncover our respective skills, experiences, and ways of working, so that we can figure out how to harness the strengths of our teammates, especially given our cross-disciplinary team makeup. Before we have a project kick-off with clients, our first step is to get the entire project team together for an internal kick-off. 

We run our internal kick-offs as workshops for core team members—including the client service representative from our Growth guild. These internal kick-offs are our opportunity to discuss individual interests, skills, working styles, and learning goals, as well as air any questions, concerns, or suggestions related to the project. This process enables the team to identify its collective strengths, set ground rules for working together, and begin the project with a shared understanding of our individual, group, and project goals.

Example activity: Team Form & Norm

Immersion Outcome 2: Alignment on the Project Goals

Ideally, practitioners are part of the proposal process—getting to know the project brief, the prospective clients, and having a say in designing the project they’ll be working on. In reality, we’re often busy wrapping up previous work or taking a well-deserved break when new projects come down the pipe. The result is a lack of clarity on how that project came about and what it aims to do. 

To ensure everyone (Connectors and clients alike) are aligned on the objectives and expected outcomes of the project, as well as our approach to achieving them, we need to go beyond the typical project kick-off. Too often, kick-offs are spent simply reiterating what’s already been outlined in sales documentation and on administrative tasks like finding the best time for team rituals. Sorting out these details is important, but why not take the time we have in person to kickstart our learning and collaboration processes? 

For Connected, kick-off with clients is an opportunity to ask questions, uncover assumptions, and decide how we want to begin to get answers. We run activities with the goal of ensuring everyone agrees on the problem at hand, what our hypotheses are, with what’s in and out of scope, where and with whom we want to do research, and what client resources we can leverage. Both the Connected and client teams should leave with a clear, well thought out to-do list, as well as a shared understanding of why and how we’re going to start checking items off that list.

Problem-Framing Matrix
Example activity: Problem-Framing Matrix

Immersion Outcome 3: A Deeper Understanding of the Organization’s Context

Connected is on a mission to build better products—sustainably. So when we don’t have perspective on how a client’s business operates, what spaces it has earned the right to play in, and how it’s strategically setting up for future success, we risk doing work that won’t resonate across our client’s organization, or for the long-term. Even with our long-standing partners, new projects can be with unfamiliar business units or recently re-organized teams. We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those groups, so that we can focus our energy where it’s most needed.

During the immersion phase, we work with the core team on the client side to ensure that our Connectors will be building appropriate solutions for their business. We ask that clients supply us with relevant documentation and access to the most relevant people, processes, and technologies from across their business. 

For our clients, we bring a fresh perspective on their product or problem space. Whether we’re conducting stakeholder interviews to define project and product success or performing an API/SDK sweep to see what else is out there, we end up with a deeper understanding of how things work for our client’s business today. With that, we can ensure any changes we recommend for the project, or the product we’re actually going to build, can feasibly be implemented in their current or near-future context.

Envisioning Success exercise
Example activity: Envisioning Success

Immersion Outcome 4: Deeper Knowledge of the Problem/Product Space

Variety—it’s a common reason that you might hear when explaining why consultants enjoy working in professional services. From identifying passenger pain points in ride-share experiences, to prototyping new ways to interact with news media content, to creating a scalable and secure way to deliver OTA software updates to multiple product groups—these are just a sample of the wide range of problems Connectors have worked on. At the onset of a new project, how do we keep up with this rapidly changing context between projects? 

The immersion phase sets us up to ensure we’re all working with the best information available. Depending on the project, we can use immersion time to get to know the user group we’re targeting by going to places where they experience particular problems. We might examine comparative and competitive sets to identify relevant trends in technology and UX. We can deep dive into the client’s current tech stack to assess how tools and services are used. At the same time, we can bring our clients along by reporting back on what and how we learned about their world—all with the aim of shedding new light on old issues and uncovering unknowns to prioritize for ongoing discovery.

North Star poster exercise
Example activity: Project North Star Poster

Connected’s immersion phase gives both our team and the client’s team the opportunity to truly understand the problem we’re trying to solve together. Without it, projects and teams can quickly become disjointed. By designing our immersion phase to achieve the outcomes outlined here, we position ourselves to speed confidently and cohesively through the remainder of the project.

Through immersion, we set the foundations of the project so we can help clients do what we promise to help them do: build better products.

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