Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Technical Point of View

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.

My name is Juan Charvet, and I am a Lead Developer for VML ( where I manage a team of rich media developers to produce 360-degree campaigns centered around rich interactive components for adidas, Jagermeister, ESPN and more.

VML is a digital marketing agency that focuses on creative, and it has handfuls of interactive teams that excel in a variety of disciplines to successfully back that creative.

Unlike small boutiques, VML completes the whole interactive spectrum, from business analysis, UXP, SEO services, systems design/development, rich internet application development, mobile, QA and more.

The best part of it is that while the VML network is 700+ people wide with a home base in Kansas City, our NYC office houses 50-60 at any given time, so it makes us feel like a smaller shop with Midwestern charm and a heck of a lot of capabilities.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?

In late 1997, I came across while shopping for new tires online for my beat-up car. They had a nifty Shockwave application that would allow you to choose your car make and model, and it would filter their inventory to the wheels and tires that the user could install onto their car.

I remember being awed at the responsive feedback that it offered me through personalization; it was instant gratification at best. So I thought, “This is a great way to sell wheels and tires. Someone’s got to do the same thing to sell cars.” At the time, I was taking classes in 3D motion graphics and advertising, an had a multimedia class coming up on my schedule.

When it started, I produced a digital brochure developed in Director to promote an Audi Quattro. On top of adding the standard elements found in a car brochure, I added motion graphics, visualized car specs, and the ability to customize the car in and out. My satisfaction in combining all of this media led me to transfer to a new school to focus solely on interactive, and since then I haven’t looked back.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
Word of mouth is king.

I get multitudes of links sent to me over email and instant messaging, and I am just as quick to forward them out if what was sent truly impressed me. Also, Google Reader has become my best friend lately. I’ve subscribed to a great range of blogs and tweets that offer their entries as RSS and have them syndicate right through my phone.

This keeps me inspired and in the know about my peers, the industry, and other things I am passionate about at any given second, whether I am walking down the street, on a subway, or waiting in line for lunch. And the topics of these blogs are priceless.

One piece of advice is to never limit yourself to keeping in touch with only what’s going on in the interactive industry. Other industries, such as music, live performance, photography, architecture, fashion design, and industrial design - well, they’ve all gone interactive, too.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

I’d say that in my experience with VML, all of the work we’ve done with ESPN has risen above the rest, whether it be College Gameday or our upcoming work with this year’s ESPYS. College Gameday especially was an incredible challenge and experience for us.

The primary objective was to capture the experience of being one of the fans during the show’s live broadcast and recreating that experience online. If you’ve ever been to see College Gameday live when it comes to your city, you’ll know that it’s a morning of utter craziness.

The show is centered on location where the two best rival teams are playing that week, and there are equal amounts of fans rooting for each team. The hosts of the show each bring their own magic as they spotlight the teams and analyze the outcome. With all of this in mind, we went on location to absorb the full experience, capture key moments of the show, and produce some behind-the-scenes video content of the cast and crew for the site.

At this time, we realized that producing the online experience required us to build an extremely modular environment where we could replace the team flags, helmets, crowds, and general site colors each week depending on which teams were playing.

On top of this, we were launching new video content, stats, and fan signs almost every day, and we at times didn’t know the destination of the next show until three days before! This encouraged us to design an intelligent content management system and define a set of roles within our team to make sure all the latest content launched and performed smoothly throughout the whole season.

At the end of it all, we realized just how far we could push regularly updated content to make it as engaging as possible. As a matter of fact, all of our ESPN clients truly appreciate engaging creative and rich media, and they have always been open to our ideas.

Best of all, they’ve got a superb technical team behind the scenes managing and funneling the endless content that is housed on We get to take advantage of having custom feeds made for us, place high-bandwidth media on content delivery networks without having to worry about costs – it’s the works.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?
The ideal client is one that can collaborate with us on our ideas and artistic directions but regard us as the experts for the recommendations and directions we provide. He/she is open-minded to new ideas, but adheres control to their own objectives and demonstrates it through their decision-making process at all times.

The ideal client is eager to learn all facets of the end result and trusts us to be honest when we communicate something cannot be done or must be done differently. Best of all, the ideal client is one in which I never have to double-check my personal composition on. They accept us for both our accomplishments as well as our shortcomings and have a great sense of humor that they’re not afraid to use when they need to call us out.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?
Most of our clients are pretty savvy, but we want them to make an investment in learning about how we work. We help by creating a personal relationship with them so that they will in turn be encouraged to learn about us. Once we build this trust, it’s all about being honest and CONFIDENT when keeping them in the loop about the direction taken to meet any objectives, the tasks at hand in order to produce it, and the deadline. I cannot stress that last statement enough.

Clients have a great way of sensing whether you’re sure about yourself when you speak or not. So even if you are being honest but not so sure of yourself, chances are you’ll get shot down.

When new design or functionality comes into play, we do our best to work with our clients before setting the priority list in stone. Mainly, it boils down to whether or not the request has an explicit impact on the ability to measure the experience and objectives. If not, they usually agree to add it in at a later date.

On the other hand, if it is integral, then we educate them on the contingencies that this new addition surfaces and work with them to compromise between the other tasks at hand.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

Personally, I can produce 5-6 projects comfortably at any given time, and have probably had up to between 9 and 12. I prefer to lead my team and divvy up the tasks to the team members that I believe would benefit most from working on them, and then I usually am fully committed to developing on one or two large-scale projects. Beyond that, my mind starts getting fried and I get all confused on what I need to develop for whom.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?

My dream production team involves a variable number of people pending on the scope of a project. Each of these said people care about what they’re producing as if it’s their own baby. It’s easy to see who on a team is passionate about producing impeccable work and who is eager to fall short.

I don’t get the truly passionate types confused with the people who are excited about the content of what is being produced. They need to demonstrate excitement for the context in which the content is distributed, because that is what they are producing.

Open communication is just as important. I’m often as easy to critique work and state my expectations of people just as I am to give praise and encouragement. But team leaders shouldn’t be the only ones with the passion to speak their mind. All team members need to have their own voice, and they need to take advantage of that.

To produce successful interactive solutions, each team member must be a natural problem solver in all aspects of life, whether it’s designing a business system, mathematical equation, or dealing with issues in their personal situation. If a person seems drastically problematic or incompetent dealing with a specific situation, I can’t deem them to be an excellent interactive producer because they cannot control their own real life interactions with themselves or others.

Lastly, each member in my dream production team needs to have some involvement in networking with the industry. This will empower that notion that it’s not about what they know, it’s who they know, and that will afford my team to acquire additional resources at any given time.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?

All projects go through a discovery phase in which we discuss the measurable challenges and objectives. We document this into both a creative brief and a fairly detailed functional specifications document that maps out every single business rule and requirement to a part of our design.

Through the creative and production process, constant, direct communication is key. While its usually required that channels of people are involved in every step of the way, questions are answered easier when they are most approachable through one-on-one time set aside over a phone call or email.

I encourage clients to meet with us as often as it takes to make them feel comfortable. Providing that level of support has really made some of our clients believe in us. Then at the end of each large project, we invite our clients to a debrief so that we can have an light-hearted discussion on how the process went, what was learned, and how what we learned could be applied to future projects.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?

The last few years have been focused on a four major things:

1. creating, harvesting, or syndicating interesting content
2. optimizing the content for search visibility
3. distributing the content through an rich and engaging interactive experience
4. tracking user interactions and measuring the results of users’ interactions within these applications.

Over the next few years, I believe we’ll see each of these verticals continue to get pushed. I can see database technologies that are designed to store, access, and cross-reference content in non-conventional ways. They will perhaps even allow for non-owners to access certain branches of the database for a charge.

Content will also start becoming available for purchase on a micro-payment basis. I believe there to be a struggle on finding standardization on SEO but believe that a universal ground can be reached, and parallel to that, tagging and tracking systems will become more robust.

Above all, the largest change in the coming year or two will be the way we distribute content to users for display and feedback. We are starting to see single sets of content being distributed through different user interfaces designed for different display types, whether it be for an LCD monitor, internet-enabled television, smart phone, architectural projection, or piece of clothing.

The big challenge here is whether to continue building separate visual interfaces for specific devices or whether there is a more efficient process to hit all of these birds with one stone. Our industry, at this time, will become responsible for the gateway in which all media is accessed. Alas, the rise of the creative technologist. The world is at our fingertips.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.
The interactive industry moves and changes faster than you can blink, and this intimidated me. I feared myself to be one day obsolete as the tools available to me were and are still becoming more and more accessible to the younger generations. I finally (and only recently) ended this fear by accepting that I would never be able to excel in every single facet of interaction design.

Instead, I analyzed what I believed to be the PROCESS for success through an interactive project, embraced it, and demonstrated it. At this point, I now know how to preach the process, where and how I want to contribute to its success, and what tools I need to know it.

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