04 August 2022
20 Mins Read
Transcending Agency, Embracing Tech—A Peek Into Acumen’s Processes
Let’s meet you all, including what you do at Acumen Digital.
Melissa: My name is Melissa Okeibuno and I’m the People and Operations Manager at Acumen Digital.
Taiwo: I’m Taiwo Farawe and I’m the Mobile Development Lead at Acumen Digital.
Precious: Hi, I’m Precious, Lead Product Designer at Acumen Digital.
Ayo: I’m Ayo Onasanya. Founder, Acumen Digital.
Elvis: Hey guys, I’m Elvis, Lead Engineer at Acumen Digital.
Lanre: Hi everyone, my name is Lanre. I’m a Product Designer at Acumen Digital.
Nice, we have a full house. So, what is Acumen Digital?
Ayo: We are a software and product development/design company based in Lagos, Nigeria. We also have a substantial presence in South Africa and have been hyper-focused over the last one year on building internal tools and products that we are releasing to the market.
On one side, we have Acumen agency, the company that supports several of our clients. Our clientele includes the likes of Republic. As a multinational (by some definition), we also work with several companies in the US, Europe, Africa and even Asia. Basically, we are everywhere.
Beyond just working with these clients, we also bring all the experience we’ve gathered from these companies home to create something meaningful. Not just for the sake of profitability, but to also solve immediate needs that we find within our environment, as well as pressing needs that we come across as we try to tackle challenges that come up or as we develop products or solutions for our clients. This is why we took the step of setting up a studio.
This change in our direction does not necessarily preclude the fact that we are still a product design company, we just changed how we approach work with several of our clients. That’s just the summary of what we used to be, where we are now and where we’re going.
Based on this description, we can say that there’s the part of Acumen working on a product that will soon be released to the market. How does this dynamic work? How do different departments function on each Acumen product?
Ayo: Right now, we are about 50 people at Acumen and all of us are involved in everything we do from the labs to the agency side. We try to make sure that for each product being built, there are teams. Consequently, every team has its product manager, designers, developers; frontend and backend, people who make sure that we are testing as properly as we should, and that we are releasing these products into the market.
We tend to treat each product as a standalone company, and not just a piece of software. In addition, we take all we do seriously—even though we do have a lot of fun while doing it. We are methodical in how we operate and this outlook influences how the company is structured.
Can you share with us some of the tools Acumen is currently working on?
Ayo: One of them is live right now — Robinapp.co. This product allows you to quickly integrate DMs and chat functionalities into any app that you are building.
So let’s assume that DearDesigner would like to build a community of designers who can interact, find mentors and other community-focused features. You may want to integrate a messaging feature, perhaps even charge for messaging the way Linkedin does. What we have done is to build a chat/messaging feature and equip you with all you need to put it on any product. You can decide how to use it.
So you have technology as good as Whatsapp or Slack, and you can put it on your product. It’s similar to Uber where you can chat with drivers on the app. There are a lot of products that need chat features, but it’s not the core of what they do. Hence their initial technology needs do not cater to this particular challenge. This is why we’ve built this tool; so that entrepreneurs can focus solely on what the core of their product is, and still find it easy to integrate a chat feature on their products in less than 5 minutes.
What was the process like working on this product? What were the key milestones, and challenges, and how did you solve them?
Elvis: It was an interesting experience. One of the milestones we had was to first and foremost build a “Proof of Concept” to be sure that the idea works. When we had the proof of concept, we took the product to the design board to map out how we wanted it to work, and how we wanted the user experience to be across various points. Then we started building layers upon layers until it went live.
Precious: We had to create some sort of design language that suits all types of users from different fields. We tried to balance the design language; from the colour to the fonts and all. We did a lot of user research and competitive analysis of different competitors in the field as well and saw how we can improve our product based on the feedback we’ve gotten from all kinds of users. I won’t be overstating it if I say that the design of this product is top-notch and world-class because we’ve outdone ourselves in the design team.
What were the challenges you faced in designing and engineering this project?
Elvis: For engineering, we faced a lot of challenges because we were working in uncharted territory. We had to learn and unlearn a lot of things as we went along in building the product.
Precious: On the part of the design, I’d say from the onset, it looked like designing a chat system was as simple as ABC. But I think that was one of the problems that we faced, we initially had to do a whole lot of iterations to make sure everything was balanced and up to standard. We thought it was simple, just “send and receive messages”, but we eventually did something that could stand the test of time and stand with competitors.
From what has been mentioned, the Acumen team works in a pod-like manner where every project or activity has its stakeholders. However, for a 50-member team with about 2-3 products, how does it work?
Ayo: In terms of how we work, this is like an agency and in an agency’s usual day-to-day, everything is due yesterday. So we have had situations where one member can be across multiple pods. However, we try as much as possible to ensure that each team member is focused on one thing at a time. Unless there isn’t someone at hand or if it’s urgent, we could always sync with the project managers in-house and say “Hey, we have a high-priority task at hand and this is a show-stopper”.
A show-stopper here at Acumen means that the person or persons who have been contacted need to drop everything they are doing and focus on one thing only, even if they were not a part of the initial core team.
One of the things I should also mention is that although we work in pods, we try to make sure that everyone across the company understands the “how” and “why” of what we’re building. Such that in cases where someone is on leave for 2 months, someone else should be able to pick up what they were doing, oversee that and make sure the work goes on.
How did Acumen evolve into a product design and development company from the usual agency model?
Ayo: We were first a “product design only” company. This was our biggest strength and we wouldn’t take up any service if we didn’t feel like we were super good at it. We had customers coming to us with questions like “Do you guys handle social media management or digital marketing?” We say no and go ahead to refer them to our sister company. We wanted to be hyper-focused on things that we are confident to offer.
When I moved back to Lagos, we spent the first 2 years just doing strictly product design. We had the opportunity of redesigning Trove, we worked with Ventures Platform. We worked on Rise. We designed a couple of products in the Nigerian space. After a while, we started to find that a lot of our clients kept saying things along the lines of “Your designs are great, your designs are awesome, but we need it to be coded. Can you guys make it and make it as good as you made the designs?”
We already had a sense that this was going to happen and internally, we’d been setting up a full-scale design and development team—but we were not yet offering it as a service. We had hired a few developers at the time who we kept working on internal experiments; building small things here and there. When we felt confident in them, we decided to go all out and start building these products we had already designed for clients. That’s how we became a fusion of design and development. And now we’ve pivoted a little bit away from that and are now focusing more on building products for ourselves and not just for clients.
Lanre, as a product designer at Acumen, how do you get your task done? What’s the process like for you?
Lanre: I’d say, the fact is clear that I have a great team at Acumen. There are instances where we have things to deliver the following day and another client suddenly drops something you need to treat urgently. You’re confident in the knowledge that someone else can cover for you if they’re not too busy. We don’t work in isolation. So before we do certain things, there are times I’d have some calls online, we brainstorm together, and go through mood boards together. Everyone goes about their thing, and then we come back again to check together. It’s all about teamwork at Acumen, not about working alone.
So, Melissa, let’s assume that there is a need to hire a new designer. How does that process go?
Melissa: Whenever we are scouting for new talents or when we put it out there and get CVs, we do an internal review of the candidates’ portfolio and we shortlist. Our process is pretty simple but still, it is divided into 3 phases. We first interview the candidate; I usually handle that. And then the next part is to bring Precious in. We ask a few design questions, and then give them a take-home task and a deadline for it.
When they turn that in, we review it again internally and shortlist it again. If we have shortlisted 3, we have to do further reviews because it means that 3 people are good enough to join Acumen. Then we do further probing, ask more questions and if we find that we can take 2 people in, we go for it. But if we only need 1 person, we go for the best.
What are the 3 key things you look out for when hiring design talents for Acumen?
Precious: When hiring talents, we look out for their confidence and their ability to present and defend whatever designs they’ve done in the past. We ask them to go through their portfolio, and also highlight which would rank as the favourite project they’ve worked on. It could be live or it could be a mock project but we want to see their ability to solve problems and speak confidently about what they’ve done. That’s the key thing we look out for.
Ayo: The three things that stand out for me are vibes, skills and hunger. Firstly, they must have the right vibe. We are very big on culture and we’ve been able to grow quickly because everyone is working as a team and not as individuals and everyone understands the goal in front of us. When we are hiring, we want to make sure they have the right vibe, it’s very important.
Then design skills. We look out to see if they pay attention to grid systems, and spacing, if they use the right typography, and if they can spot a font and tell us what that is. All of that also includes presentation, because what we are trying to do is to make everyone at Acumen a leader. You have to be confident and understand what you’re saying. We always look out for team members who can work in-depth. We don’t like to micromanage; that’s where the place of skills comes in.
Lastly is having the hunger to learn. I’ll tell you a short story. Precious joined us as an intern at Acumen and he’s grown so fast so quickly to becoming a lead. The same goes for Elvis. Farawe also joined us as a junior developer at the time. We always look out for people who are serious, who can roll up our sleeves and get down to it. Those are the key skills I’ll talk about.
Melissa: One of the things we also look out for during the interview stage is your communication skills. Like Ayo mentioned, we are 100% remote and if a team member doesn’t know the basics of communication, it affects other team members and operation will be stalled. For instance, I mentioned that we give take-home assessments. If it’s close to the deadline and you already know you can’t turn this in at the deadline, ideally what you’re supposed to do is reach out to the hiring manager and say “Oh I won’t be able to turn this in, can I get an extension?” So little things that might not seem to matter to a candidate matter to us. And it shows that you’ll communicate as at when due and you’ll take it seriously. So that’s where the tenacity comes in.
So, is this process the same for engineering hires?
Farawe: What is key is the ability to solve dynamic problems. As Lanre said, we work as a team and tasks are always broken down to bits and we compile them. These are problems that’ll be broken down into bits so we need to make sure the person can solve problems efficiently. We also look into their experience and how efficient the person is, based on the stack we are hiring for. Also, the last thing I’d like to mention is that communication is key for us; as Melissa also said. We look at how the person can collaborate with a team which is important and how ready they are to always learn because the technology changes so you need to keep learning, you can’t just stick to what you knew last year. These are the key things for me.
Elvis: I will add that it depends on the level of the engineer we are hiring. For the most part, what I look at is the mastery of the particular stack or something similar to what we are hiring for, just a general mastery of the program concept as well. So that’s mostly it for me. Also, the willingness to learn new things and grow. I’m a growth junkie.
How do you manage the culture of the company and keep it consistent across different people joining from different backgrounds, while running a 95% remote team?
Ayo: The interesting thing about company culture is that when it is genuine and not forced, you’ll learn that culture real quick and you’ll adjust. Our culture is not one where you need to adjust to anything out of the ordinary, just be yourself, you’ll learn that in the space of 2 weeks of joining Acumen.
We also try to meet at the office—we still have an office—every Friday. Still, there are some months when we only see each other twice in that whole month. There are some teammates I’ve never seen before. Everyone is based in different states and we even have interns outside of Nigeria. It’s a very diverse team.
Some of the things we do for culture are the way we approach work, our communication style and the occasional physical events. From time to time we also do physical events. A couple of weeks ago, for example, we went to Asa’s concert. We do a lot of activities to try and keep the energy going. In December, for example, we went all out.
We just like to have fun as much as possible. We try to make sure that the environment is not one where people are laughing when they are supposed to be working and I walk in and then everyone is like “Urgh, the boss is here” and keep quiet. They’ll just invite me over and tell me the joke and we all continue laughing.
I’d like to know how you work with clients. I can imagine that building products for startups is not a sweet job, so how do you guys work effectively with in-house designers?
Ayo: We are extremely embedded in their teams. We are not just some guys you hired in Nigeria who do some work for you. We embed ourselves into your process and your products, understand what you’re doing, the why, what needs to be prioritized and deprioritized, and even the business needs. We always pride ourselves as an extension of your team as opposed to typically just scaling your team by going through the tedious process of hiring.
You come to Acumen and you say “We want to build the next Google and we don’t have engineers. We think you guys will do a great job and we need 10 engineers from you who can write this framework” When we look at that framework we assess it and we start to work with you based on that requirement.
That’s an interesting way to work. So what are the tools you use internally at Acumen to ensure easy virtual work?
Ayo: Jira, Slack. Interestingly, we also use the Robin app that we built, we use it internally as our communication tool, it’s also a part of our stack. We are also our evangelists, so when we see our own bugs we call them out. Also, G-suite is essential to us.
What is the handoff process like for design and development projects?
Precious: For every design project, we try as much as possible to create design systems and style guides for the project. This helps us better collaborate with the designers on the project for easy development handoffs. Prototypes are made when the final and approved design is done. We also have some sort of design and development meeting after a design project. We try as much as possible to walk them through our process. Developers are also aware of our design process to make sure everything is in tandem with what the developers will be building. That’s our handoff process.
So how do you measure the impact of your work for your clients and your own products as well?
Ayo: The impact of the design is measured in two metrics. Adoption—How are the customers reacting and engaging with this design? And revenue—Is the product generating revenue? Is it driving the bottom line?
Because we are first a product design company, we understand that good design is good business and design is very critical for business. If a product is well designed and isn’t translating into profit for a company, something is wrong somewhere. It might be the strategy or a flaw in the design flow or something. Even when a system goes live, we always critique it with questions like “How can we make it better? How can we improve the user experience?” to help scale adoption and revenue for the business.
Finally, in one word, what is working at Acumen like?
Farawe: Growth. My journey has just been about growth and I’m grateful for that. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Precious: Fulfilment. We are happy with working on different projects across different industries and still get to eat doughnuts every Friday. That is fulfilment.
Elvis: Like Taiwo said, Growth. There are a lot of avenues for you to grow in whatever path you choose and there are a lot of people to help you do that.
Lanre: I’d say growth too because I remember where I started as a graphics designer in 2018 and then it’s been an interesting journey for me, I’m so happy.
Melissa: First off, I’d say fun because I get to work with these amazing individuals and there’s never a dull moment. Secondly, I’m very big on growth, because I went from knowing nothing about tech to knowing so much now. Lastly, it’d be the feeling of fulfilment, because I look forward to doing it. I wake up in the morning and I just want to work. So that’s it for me.
Ayo: I’d say culture and the amazing people. I think we’ve been blessed with an amazing set of men and women from all walks of life and different backgrounds and it gives us this richness in terms of how we approach problems. One of the things I like about our culture is that I’ve seen people who are extremely shy and when they see their people, they can be “unshy”. Lanre used to be shy but he’s no longer shy; he’s our elder. And elders cannot afford to be shy. So culture and people are things I hold dear to my heart at Acumen.
Game time! Just a quick game to get to know you beyond work.
Who’s the funniest here?
Who’s the foodie?
All of us. We always represent
Who works the most?
Who’s the bookworm?
Ayo, he’s always researching things.
Who’s the soft-life baby boy or baby girl?
All of us, nobody here wants to suffer.
Who’s most likely to get dragged or drag someone on Twitter?