Agency visit: Habanero

(guest post by Kelsey Hemphill)

Employee portals. Customer portals. Extranet. Intranet. Science fiction, or Interactive Design?

After visiting Habanero‘s Vancouver offices, I can tell you that the aspiring Interactive designers of DD30 are as excited about the kind of work done at Habanero as people get about science fiction.

Bradley Smith, Habanero’s senior interaction designer (and a DD alumnus from the first cohort of Digital Design students ever!) greeted us at the door, taking us past the bright red entryway into a large meeting room, where we met Steven Fitzgerald, the former mechanical engineer and self-professed “type nerd” who founded Habanero in 1996.

Steven Fitzgerald and his team at Habanero build business technology, sure — effective solutions with proven results and great case studies behind them — but on a more fundamental level, they design tools that help real people. Tools that make lives easier.

Take their educational portals. Ever experienced a breakdown along the teacher-parent-child chain of communication? A lost handout? A misunderstood message?

Before I made the leap into the world of interactive design, I taught in the BC school system.

I know from firsthand experience that maintaining clear communication between parents, teachers and students is a staggering amount of work.  Making sure educators are on the same page adds to the challenge. Teachers, principals, support staff, speech-language pathologists, behavioural therapists and anyone else involved in a child’s education plan need to have open communication and accountability to be effective. Discussion had to take place in the right space, because sometimes there are issues of confidentiality.

And keeping all of this straight for every child in a class?

Oh boy.

So you can understand my barely-contained excitement when Bradley took us through the process of how they created Iris, the member portal built for the Calgary Board of Education. With Iris, students and parents can easily create personalized learning plans, upload artifacts, and create a timeline that follows them throughout the school system. Educators can collaborate and organize information from education plans to guide curriculum planning. Resources are easily accessible. Everyone’s accountable. The amount of times I had wished for a tool like this while teaching? Innumerable.

Steven shared with us his belief that understanding the people behind each project is essential in identifying the true purpose of each project, and the key to changing workplace cultures for the better. Whether working with ICBC to create a portal that empowers employees, or building a phone app for Whistler Blackcomb that provides the latest mountain conditions to powder-chasers, Habanero is paying attention to who is involved and what they need.

They practice this people and employee-centred philosophy on the home front too; ranking #2 on the 2014 Globe and Mail‘s list of the “Best Workplaces in Canada.” A walk around the Habanero space justified this ranking. Habanero has lots of varied work areas for brainstorming, iterating and production. There’s plenty of natural light, a yoga room, and even a fully stocked kitchen space with a twist — it includes a live two-way webcam “portal” connecting the Vancouver offices to the Calgary offices!

Before we wrapped up our visit, Zak Woytowich (another Digital Design alumnus, now working at Habanero as an Interaction Designer) shared some of the biggest reasons he enjoys working with Habanero.

At Habanero, roles are shiftable.  The organization has a flat hierarchy which allow for roles that evolve with an employee’s interests. There’s a development and mentorship plan, ensuring that new hires always feel like they have an “ally” to help them grow and better their skills. Habanero invests more time in the interview process than almost anyone else in the industry, meaning that everyone who works there is “pretty fantastic – not just to work with, but as people. Everyone has a thing outside of work, whether it’s mountain biking, rock climbing, coffee or wine. I’ve never worked with a group of people I liked hanging out with so much.”

By the end of our visit, we all had a much clearer picture of what the world of interactive design can look like beyond the doors of VFS.

Steven, Zak and Bradley: Thank you so much for sharing your space with us.

We’re crossing our fingers for the opportunity to see you again soon!

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