The essential role of project management in UX

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July 05, 2016
The essential role of project management in UX.
Where digital and UX are concerned, project managers deal with a number of aspects such as team resourcing, scheduling meetings, and financial planning (to name just a few tasks) on a daily basis. The role of a project manager in the digital industry isn’t too dissimilar to project managers across other industries, however it is one that is becoming increasingly valuable to businesses seeking transparency and value from their web projects. There are too many examples to count of businesses leaping full steam ahead with a web project without considering either the timing, or the value returned from their spending; with outcomes and business performance often suffering as a result of rushing the whole approach. It is therefore the responsibility of the UX team to be accountable for perfecting their timing and reassuring businesses that their process works. Unfortunately this is often easier said than done.

The rigid waterfall method

A company looking for shortcuts with their website may choose a freelance designer or an agency which works with a more linear waterfall method of project management, an approach with very little client/agency collaboration, or scope for iterations. In essence (as the name suggests) this waterfall method is straight down without compromise, lacking the versatility for clients to see the design or development of their site until the project has been completed. This approach is cheap, but can be incredibly risky and potentially detrimental to business, which will have minimal input or investment throughout the process beyond the initial brief they provide.

The flexible, agile approach

The agile project management approach (otherwise known as a sprint cycle or scrum) is the preferred choice for many UX agencies and project managers nowadays. This approach allows an agency and client to work collaboratively on many things at the same time, encouraging regular communication between both parties, and short feedback loops. The beauty of this process is that the client is involved at each and every step leading up to the outcome, not just at the outcome as with the Waterfall method, therefore allowing for all parties to be proactive, not reactive.

The value of the agile project approach

Digital projects will inevitably cost more with an agency that adopts the agile project management approach, as there is a greater level of due care and attention, as well as time invested around achieving the optimum performance for websites. It’s a good sign when designers respond by challenging the brief, and communicating about project plans. It’s better than an agency or designer that doesn’t challenge any details from an initial brief or have any plan, other than just to crack on with the website. Those agencies that do choose to challenge the brief will at least be able to deliver timescales and a budget based on actions, unlike an agency looking to dive head first into a project without properly forecasting timescales or costs. Like most things, “a goal without a plan is just a wish” and many businesses risk outlaying greater costs and resources in the long-term by making numerous iterations to fix ongoing website issues. These iterations can often be made based on the views of internal stakeholders within a business, or assumptions driven only by unsubstantiated interpretations made from weak analysis. The danger with this approach is, when totting up the bill of ongoing costs incurred to fix a website which hasn’t been planned properly, there can often be a greater risk associated with hiring an agency to fix issues or worse, redesigning the entire website due to the sheer number of issues affecting performance. Trying to make numerous fixes to a poorly designed website can cost businesses thousands more just to rectify such issues. As the renowned management consultant Peter Drucker once said:
Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.

How agile UX project plans work for businesses

Websites have to be functional and user-friendly to generate leads and ROI for businesses. For this to be achievable, the project plan has to be executed to a tee. UX agencies in particular need to start to think more on the process, not the outcome. This is the case for UX teams to have strong project management. Speaking from my experience working at a user experience (UX) web agency, our projects are of course focused heavily around our clients’ and their users’ needs, as they are the very people that interact and engage with any business. To obtain all of the information we need about users, we need to have an effective, collaborative approach with our clients throughout the entirety of a project. An agile project management approach is therefore required.

Agile project plans provide full transparency

For timelines to remain realistic, the project isn’t just one sided based upon the capacity of the agency to deliver outcomes. There is a great deal of onus on clients to set aside time to give feedback to agencies on any information which help with progressing to the “next stage” of a project. Projects and timing plans should always be client facing and fully transparent, not just to assure clients about levels of productivity, but also to reassure clients that outcomes are being met, following a calculated approach. They help to ensure that no key elements (which could dictate success/failure rates) have been missed from the process.

In summary

Effective project management serves as reassurance to businesses that defined actions and outcomes delivered by a UX team are measurable. An intelligent project approach also guides businesses on how wisely their money is being invested. The value of project management to the process can’t be understated and should always be factored into discussions with prospects from the outset. Providing this information in the early stages will certainly help, not just to set expectations, but also for businesses to more accurately forecast their budget/spend for their website. Where businesses are concerned, they should find that receiving forecasted costs for their website alongside a defined project plan provides a greater level of assurance and substance. Certainly, it’s better than spending money on a website which they or their stakeholders had very little influence or involvement in creating. Successful UX can only be achieved by a clearly defined project plan to support the process.

Richard Trigg

Richard started his career in industrial design almost 15 years ago at British Airways, transitioning over the years into digital design. For the past 5 years, Richard has been UX and Creative Director of Tangent, a User Experience Agency based in Shoreditch, London. During this time, Richard and his creative team have worked closely with the government on digital projects and with a number of enterprise clients such as Microsoft, Thames Water and L’Oreal.

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