Steven Kury: Interactive Media Development, Business Analyltics and Strategy

The Production Triangle

Do you ever get the feeling that your clients want to have their cake and eat it too?  Of course, it’s their job to get as much as possible out of you to maximize the ROI of their investment.  Sometimes, though, they expect top quality work, delivered under the gun, for cut-rate prices.  This is literally asking for too much.  The principle of the production triangle comes into play here.

This simple principle is most widely known in film and software development, but it really applies in any field where production of some sort takes place.  The three corners of the triangle are quality, efficiency, and budget.  The catch is that you can maximize only two of them at any given time.  In short, “good, fast, cheap… pick two.”

It applies almost universally to employees and equipment.  For instance, if your company needs a website to serve a basic need and is in no hurry to get it done, the need for need for efficiency is low.  Thus, you could get it done rather cheaply by your nephew in design school, as he would take his time to do it since it is one of his first projects.  He will make a fair number of mistakes and have to fix them.  That is quite acceptable since you are in no hurry to get it.

However, if you are under the gun to produce a sophisticated rich Internet application (RIA) for a high profile client, and you can’t afford to miss the deadline, quality and efficiency are important.  You have to accept that the engineers to develop it won’t come cheaply, this is no place for generalists.  You have to pay top dollar for them.

The third option is when it doesn’t have to be high quality.  Though it is rare, there are times when a stopgap solution will work.  In this case, fast and cheap is fine.  Just slap it together and get it done, figuratively speaking.

Let’s look at some actual examples:

A public relations executive that I was once acquainted with explained to me how he contracted out his website development projects.  He simply associated different Internet studios with different sized budgets.  For a $10,000 website he called studio A, for a $20,000 one he called studio B, for a $30,000 one he called studio C, and for $40,000 and up, he called studio D, the most sophisticated studio on his list.

He didn’t share with me his reasoning for distinguishing between the four studios, but I imagine that it was something like this:

Studio A is a small shop, perhaps the principal and two or three website designers/developers.  They are good at basic website design, meaning that the style of it is nothing fancy and the interactivity is rather simple, push the button and go to the page.  All that they do is straight forward design, deep understanding of brand development and communications strategy is not part of their skill set.  Their client gives them a requisition and they bang it out.

Studios B and C are somewhat larger, including some Flash animators/developers and a turnkey backend database system engineer, in addition to the staff in the previous example.  They have an understanding of general marketing strategy, a more metropolitan sense of aesthetics, and design a more interactive experience for the client.  Call them Madison Avenue wannabees.

Studio D, on the top of his list, most likely has a worldly creative director, human factors experts to ensure that the end user experience is as optimal as possible, account executives that are quite savvy with integrated marketing communications strategy, an account planning department, and a strong interactive developer for developing slick rich Internet applications (RIA’s).  This would be his alternative to a Madison Avenue agency.

Neither of these studios produced “bad” work.  They just produced different levels of quality that served different purposes, under different timelines.  Compare them to a brand new Ford Pinto and a brand new Lexus.  Neither one of them is a poor quality vehicle.  They both operate as they are designed to, but the Lexus provides a much smoother ride, with more control over the road, six CD changer, and more ergonomic design and testing going into its overall design.  If quality could be quantified, the Lexus would possess more quality units than the Pinto.

Similarly, studio A couldn’t do the level of work that studio D does, and studio D would charge an exceptionally high fee for a project that studio A is appropriate for.  Studio D could do it quite easily, but its staff is overqualified for it and its pricing structure is not geared towards that level of work.

This also works the other way.  Back in the days of large scale CD-ROM development, many producers of them assumed that since the software for developing them was purchasable off the shelf, they could have their staff generalists, employed at relatively low rates, develop the projects.  It wasn’t long until the generalists were in over their heads and the projects were not being developed according to schedule, with substantial technical glitches.  At this point the producers had no choice but to call in the high end “go-to guys” to finish them.  In the end it cost them much more to finish their CD-ROM projects than if they had contracted the high end “go-to guys” in the first place.  They would have developed the projects properly the first time since they knew how to plan them out, avoided the glitches, and cost the producers less overall.

Tying this into the triangle principle, the producers thought that they could get a quality product produced cheaply, under deadline, by inexperienced and low paid developers.  They wanted good work that was done fast on a minimal budget.  Their mistake was that they underestimated the level of experience and skill needed by the developers to do it, and under-budgeted the project.  They learned the hard way that if they wanted a quality product developed within their deadline, they needed to hire developers that were experienced with such projects and knew how to plan them out.  One producer actually admitted this to me directly.

Interactive media isn’t rocket science, but it is technical and expensive.  You need to know which level of quality and efficiency you need for any given project, and hire developers of that level to produce it.  More often than not, if you try to develop a sophisticated project on the cheap, it will be far from so by the time all is said and done.

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Steven Kury, MBA, is a software product manager. Throughout his career he has contributed vision and leadership to a breadth of online applications. Contact him at or (717) 350-6781 to discuss how he could contribute to your system.