Finding inspiration in the North Woods of Minnesota

A trip to the Concordia Language Villages reminds us why in-person visits make for a better digital experience.

One March night in the North Woods, a handful of creative types in a rented Explorer strained to discern icy roadway from certain doom. (In Virginia we measure snow in inches, not feet.)

Are We There Yet?

After a long trip and a gas station “dinner” of peanuts and jerky, the travelers were glad when they reached their destination in one piece. But they were even gladder to find a place vibrant with color, music, and glorious, mouthwatering food better than anything you’d find at a gas station.

This was our first encounter with Concordia Language Villages. Perched on the edge of civilization in Bemidji, Minnesota, this place is a microcosm of world cultures, all painstakingly recreated from the authentic Japanese roof tiles down to the decidedly German trash bins.

CLV Japanese Bowls

The villages teach foreign language through complete cultural and linguistic immersion, though they were kind enough to explain that to us in our native English. They wanted a new website to show off a place so unique, it’s almost impossible to understand without standing there in person. So we planned an on-site visit.

Why On-Site Visits?

We like to keep visits informal, but add a little structure with activities like audience and stakeholder interviews, discovery sessions, and other types of research. That way we can gather a large volume of data that would otherwise take months to piece together.

We do this with all of our clients, because it’s important to see them in their own environment, to absorb their culture. Not always the tea ceremony kind like at the language villages, but the little things that help you really connect with a group and understand how they work.

To really understand a client, we need to get to know them through more than just flipping to the mission statement in their annual report. The best way we’ve found is to show up and say hello.

This helps make sure the products we build support the reality of their situation. We can account for resources, capabilities, and talents an organization currently has and plan for where they’re going. It helps to define exactly what an organization needs so we can design each project phase to complement their unique situation.

We mix this internal knowledge with our perspective as an outside observer (just like visitors to their website will be), giving us the ability to see an organization from both the inside and outside at the same time.

We each found something that personally spoke to us on that trip to Bemidji. Melissa’s obsession with Scandinavian design got a little out of control in the Finnish village store. Matt and Brian are still wiping up drool from the steaks grilled on the authentic Argentine asador. And the excitement we saw on students’ faces comes to mind every time we sit down to work on a design.

CLV Steaks

Where We Are Now

Our main goal with this site was to paint an authentic picture. So visitors can look at the language villages and find things that are special to them, just like we did. Because we think telling a client’s real story, without the marketing fluff, is the secret sauce you need to build a great user experience.