June 18, 2019

Keys to successful client engagements

Insights from three challenges during a recent UX design project

One of the many things I love about working in a design agency is the variety of projects. We are hired to parachute into often unfamiliar territory to help bring a product vision to life. There are many variables to quickly adjust to; including problem domain, client team dynamics, and business goals.

As one colleague put it, starting a new project is like starting a new job. Adaptability and a willingness to learn is essential for getting up to speed and putting your best foot forward.

I recently co-led a great project with a software virtualization company in the Bay Area who wanted to design the future vision for one of their products. Here, I want to share three challenges and how to overcome them.

Complicated problem domain

Virtual networking, microsegmentation, network topology, machine learning–this was the world our client operated in. We didn’t know much about this domain when we started and I’ll admit I still don’t understand everything after it wrapped up. To familiarize ourselves with the context around the coming design challenges, we dug into client files, YouTube videos, blog posts, academic articles, and more.

During much of the first several weeks, we created artifacts that attempted to align our growing understanding of the problem space with our client team’s expertise. Conceptual models, maps, scenarios, and storyboards were used to frame the proposed system and focus our design efforts.

During the first half of the project, we needed to quickly get up to speed on this complicated domain.

✔ Be ok with not knowing something

The client is the expert on what they do. They hired us as an expert in what we do. When presenting initial work to the team, we admitted that a lot of the details were wrong. And that’s ok! Our client helped take a “nearly-there” understanding the rest of the way and helped to further our knowledge.

✔ Align on a shared understanding of vocabulary

Every company has its own language. In this business, there seem to be many bowls of “alphabet soup” that are not only industry-specific but client-specific. In parallel to understanding their industry, we got our bearings on accurate terminology and how terms relate to each other. We iterated on conceptual maps that helped get everyone on the same page and using the correct language.

✔ Look for analogous products to draw inspiration

Supported by the foundation of a solid storyboard, the proposed product vision featured complex visualizations augmented by machine-learning functionality. Though novel, even a product three years in the future will benefit from tried-and-true interaction patterns. We found analogous solutions to design challenges such as visualization navigation, contextual actions, and information organization in products like Google Maps.

Challenging client team dynamics

Following the “new job” analogy, starting a new project is like being the office new hire. There are lots of people to meet, each with their own working style. We quickly needed to onboard to both technical knowledge and interpersonal team dynamics. The project’s success depended on it.

I, personally, find navigating these team dynamics almost as satisfying as solving design problems.

✔ Schedule routine in-person workshops with defined agendas

Working with the client’s product management team, the subject matter experts, was critical to our success. We communicated very early that in-person workshops yield the best results and set bi-weekly meetings with set agendas to best engage them. We had great involvement as a result that helped shape the storyboard backbone of the product vision.

✔ Be sensitive to preferred artifact formats and communication channels

When working toward tight deadlines, we always try to reduce friction wherever possible. An effective project team is like a well-oiled machine. One way to streamline collaboration is by using familiar artifact formats and communication channels.

Sure, Microsoft Word documents aren’t sexy. But they’re a familiar format that most people know how to edit and comment on. Don’t use Slack? No problem, email works just fine.

✔ Respect in-house design teams

We are aware that hiring an outside design agency can ruffle feathers of in-house teams. We have lots of experience working with internal designers and love the opportunity. Designers speak the same language and know how to provide actionable feedback. When collaborating, our job is to quickly align with current initiatives and set clear intentions to each design effort. Designing a future product vision that the company can work towards depends on it.

Unexpected time constraints

Creating an accurate and cohesive storyboard for concepting required many iterations via back-and-forth edits with our client PM team. Given this was the backbone of our final deliverable, this was not time wasted. However, when it finally came time to sketching and wireframing, we were about a month out from delivery. We needed to hustle if we wanted to meet the final deadline.

By this time, we had two visual designers join the project helping to bring our storyboard to life and bring our concept wireframes to full fidelity. They had their work cut out for them; while I in the meantime worked to take the best advantage of the few weeks we had left.

✔ Make yourself useful

With our visual designers pushing ahead like high-speed steam trains–designing high-fidelity application and network visualizations with ML-powered UI–I worked to give them the right help when they needed it. Every passing comment from our stakeholder was captured in the same prototype for them, acting as a checklist alongside their main efforts. I created parallel Sketch files purely for UI copy that was clearly labeled for them to paste into the emerging UI.

With everyone heads down working towards a deadline, make it so your teammates don’t have to think. Anticipating blockers and proactively accounting for them will save effort and time.

✔ Choose the right fidelity at the right time

What’s the goal of this meeting? Are we looking for approval, alignment, current-state understanding, or future-state exploration?

Knowing that each client meeting is precious, we didn’t spend unnecessary time presenting beautiful artifacts when it added no benefit. Quick sketches can get to the essence of the problem with little effort. When we needed a little more detail to get the point across, we designed at a higher level of fidelity to get the input we needed.

✔ Resist unnecessary design explorations

As designers, we are naturally driven to explore the system-wide impacts of our design decisions. However, this particular product we were designing was extremely complex–involving many visualizations, modes, and object hi

erarchies. In the interest of time, we doubled down on our main storyboard narrative and cataloged unanswered design questions in a list of future exploration work for the client team. The storyboard acted as the guided tour through the product, hinting at supplementary features ripe for exploration.

“The best way to accomplish serious design … is to be totally and completely unqualified for the job.”

– Paula Scher

Navigating client engagements is not easy. Success depends on an intricate balance of confidence and humility. Though you can never predict the next design problem or stakeholder personality coming down the pipeline, past projects arm you with skills and tools that can be applied to future engagements.

The unique blend of variables with each new project presents a new opportunity to learn. I find equal satisfaction in solving design problems as I do working with people to help them succeed. It’s this variety that continues to get me up in the morning. What’s next?!

This article was originally published to the UX Collective on Medium.

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