Written by Pete Withers-Jones

When all you have is a hammer

It's a well-worn saying: When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But, it's a relevant piece of advice to keep in mind when deciding on the approach and technology being used for digital work like web sites.

At Ethos we try to keep our technological approach fresh and up-to-date, on average changing at least one aspect of our process once every six months. Sometimes, it's something that clients are unaware of, such as changing from Grunt to Gulp, or Bootstrap to Foundation, but sometimes it's something as fundamental as a Content Management System or even the development languages we use. It means we stay on top of the curve of progress; able to use the more up-to-date tools (which often offer better security and better performance) along with the most recent approaches to development itself.

It also has a secondary benefit - we're not tempted to keep to the same technologies and approaches because it's what we know. We can cast our net wider, and find tools that match the needs of our clients.

"Our clients have to trust us ... to create a solution that solves their problems"

I'm surprised by how often I see studios that promote themselves as a single-technology developer, for example: Wordpress or Drupal. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with these tools, per se, but as soon as a studio pigeon-holes themselves into a particular technology, then they may be tempted to recommend that technology to all of their clients - whether it's right for their projects or not.

Of course, every approach comes with it's own set of risks and constantly pursuing new technology is not risk-free. At Ethos we mitigate that risk by spending time playing with new technologies and methodologies - and we give our development and design teams the freedom to get to grips with them until they can make decisions about whether or not they fit with, either the direction of the studio, or the requirements of our existing clients. If they don't, we discard them; keeping them in mind for the future in case they become relevant at some point later down the line.

This approach brings with it a beneficial side-effect. Sometimes, through playing with something, whether you adopt it or not, you learn something new about an aspect of your existing toolset or skillset. So, whilst we may not adopt a new technology, we may utilise some of it’s benefits, to help us better utilise our existing development pipeline.

But, the approach also relies on something that, I think, is the reason that so many studios stick with what they know, rather than reaching out and embracing something new: trust.

Our clients have to trust us to find the right technology and approach to create a solution that solves their problems or meets their requirements. Internally, as a company, we have to trust our design and development teams to play with new things, offering us their honest feedback and advice. And personally, we each have to have the confidence in our opinions in order to recommend new things.

This doesn't just relate to things like content managements systems or operating systems, our approach to projects also benefits from this. From the technical perspective we trial new approaches to organising our code, or ways of writing our code. For example, in the last year we've moved entirely over to the BEM approach for CSS, and are currently looking at how concepts like Continuous Integration () can help us in our deployment strategy.

We're also constantly looking at design tools to see if there are alternatives to the norm (Photoshop and Illustrator) that more suit the digital content we are outputting. This has led us to play with tools like Sketch and take part the the beta test for Zeplin rather than just settling for what we know.

All of this means that we don't fall into the rut of sticking with the familiar; instead keeping on top of the latest design trends and development curves. Our team feel like they are always pursuing something new and exciting, and our clients benefit from that enthusiasm and our ability to provide a product that more closely matches their needs.

Of course, sometimes the problem you are trying to solve is decidedly nail-shaped. But, knowing that you have a range of tools at your disposal, and being familiar with them, gives you a certainty and confidence that you just can't reach if all you have (and all you know) is how to use a hammer.