Managing stakeholder expectations is the most difficult yet most important aspect of any design project. In this post I’ll share some tips, strategies and lessons learned that have helped me over the last 20 years.
Put yourself in the shoes of your project stakeholder for a minute. What will be their experience of working with you and your team? How can you best serve them and their business?
When it comes to UX design, everyone talks about the user. That flag gets waved all over the internet. As a result, stakeholders sometimes get unintentionally overshadowed in our zeal to please users. This is a big mistake.
Besides the user, always keep the needs of the business top of mind. After all, if there is no business, there is no product, and consequently no users. It’s a pretty simple equation. Here are some things to keep in mind when working with stakeholders:
• Stakeholders are ground zero for project success
• A good relationship from the beginning helps smooth the process
• Understanding where they are coming from helps you work around roadblocks
The best user experience always comes from carefully keeping business needs on equal footing with user goals. While it is simple, it’s never easy. So how do you do it?
Who Are UX Stakeholders?
Before a project ever officially kicks off, I like to hold a “meeting before the meeting”. This is an opportunity to identify everyone who needs to be involved in the project and get acquainted with key stakeholders. It doesn’t need to be a long discussion at all. Thirty minutes or less will often be enough time.
It’s critical that you leave that meeting with a very clear understanding of what is most important to the project sponsor, who they want to involve and why. This information should also give you the information required to create an accurate project brief.
While a project brief is an important focusing tool, it will never have all the information necessary to fulfill a project’s eventual requirements. It’s just a line in the sand to help get everyone on the same page at the beginning. The project brief is only an initial guide and a listing of who’s who on the project.
Besides the key project sponsor, who else has a say in executing your project? For example, does the project sponsor have a business partner or another person in the organization who will approve the final designs? Make sure that person is also on board!
It’s crucial to get buy-in from everyone involved on the business side. Roles represented by the business can include:
• CEO (Chief Executive Officer)
• CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)
• CIO (Chief Information Officer
• Marketing Director
• Marketing Manager
• Brand Manager
Don’t let all those C-titles intimidate you. At the end of the day, they are just people with problems that need solving. You are there to help them solve their digital project problems. They want and need your help.
Your Team Counts Too
What about your own team? In my experience, anyone who touches a project is stakeholder. Ask early on who should be involved, connect with those folks, and welcome them to the project.
For large corporate projects I am usually brought in as UX lead to an in-house or agency creative team. Besides me, the roles represented almost always include:
• Project Sponsor
• Project Manager
• Account Lead
• Creative Lead
• Art Director
• Tech Lead
• UX Lead
Depending on the specific project, sometimes a copywriter or content manager will be included in the mix. Work with your project manager or account lead to make sure everyone is appropriately represented and the project has enough support.
Have Empathy For Your Stakeholders
As a UX designer, empathy is one of the most important skills you bring to the table. But the empathy emphasis almost always focuses exclusively on the user. What about the stakeholder?
Remember, your project is often just one of many that key stakeholders are dealing with. That’s almost always why it’s hard to get and keep their attention once a project gets going.
Own the relationship with your key stakeholders from the start. This relieves them of the burden of having to keep track of things. After all, they already have enough on their plate.
While stakeholders don’t want to be involved in day-to-day details, they do want to know what’s next. So agree on ways of working up front.
For example, establish a weekly status call at a mutually agreed upon day and time. You can also use an online project management tool such as Teamwork, Asana or Basecamp. Whatever system you choose, it needs to be high-level and uncomplicated.
Some stakeholders won’t be interested in using your project management system, which means you’ll need to work around it. They won’t want to have to login and may instead prefer to receive updates via email. Smooth out the process for them wherever you can.
Stakeholders hate surprises, so don’t let that happen. As you get deeper into a project, you may discover that you need to pivot in a completely different direction.
Always give your project sponsor a heads up before changing direction. While you don’t necessarily need to ask permission if there is no impact to timing or cost, you definitely don’t want to ask for forgiveness later.
Own Up To Mistakes
On the flip side, no matter how organized you are, mistakes are going to happen. Everyone makes them. Yet we live in this culture that avoids mistakes like the plague. Don’t be that way.
Mistakes happen. When you make one, take full responsibility, rectify the situation as much as possible, apologize and move on. While they hurt to varying degrees, mistakes often teach the best lessons.
Trust, Team and Transparency
Something wonderful happens when you take this approach towards managing your stakeholders. Trust gets built early on and begins to permeate everything.
Teams tend to relax a bit since they know what to expect. Tensions lower during status meetings. People may even giggle from time to time and actually enjoy doing their work.
And, when mistakes inevitably happen or a change in direction is needed, it’s easier to bring these issues up. Transparency naturally occurs with a trusted team.
Over To You
How do you manage stakeholders? Do you agree with this approach or do things differently? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!
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