When thinking about project management and success, three things typically first come to mind: Scope, Budget, and Time. While these factors shape a big part of a project’s success, they are not the only ones. In my experience, there are two things that can make or break a project: (1) a lack of consistent client engagement throughout a project and (2) failure to have the end user in mind.
Why Client Engagement Matters
Keeping the client involved in a project from start to finish is crucial for any type of engagement. Involvement begins in the pre-project consulting process and typically remains high until the official kickoff of a project. But the problem is, after the initial kickoff, clients tend to disengage. This is often caused by the pull of their everyday duties and activities, the time it takes to get the project going and start delivering value to the client, or the assumption that the team has everything they need to develop a successful product. I’ve found this to be particularly true if the client already participated in a preliminary research phase (also known as the Validating, Design, & Planning phase at Frogslayer), resulting in the creation of formal requirements for the project. But, based on our experience, this assumption/mindset can have a significant negative impact on the project.
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Now, here’s the thing: despite having the most detailed starting requirements, it’s rare that the team won’t need to go back to the client for more information or clarification. If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve had to get requirements, acceptance criteria or business logic refined, clarified, or validated, I would be writing this article from a hotel room on a weekend get-a-way. Even the slightest shift in the market or change in a client’s priorities can lead to a complete overhaul of requirements. Without client engagement, the development team is, at best, left to make assumptions based on their knowledge of the client’s business and previous experience and, at worst, blocked by not having a clear understanding of the way forward.
Therefore, it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open with the client throughout the engagement to ensure the team is always aligned with the client’s needs and moving forward. Consistent client engagement is vital for validating assumptions and tackling unknowns that are sure to come up during the development process. To keep the client highly engaged, you could:
- Schedule recurring meetings early in the project, such as a weekly sync with the client on project needs, blockers, questions, and updates.
- Establish communication channels with the client. (Ex: Slack, Teams, Chat, etc.)
- Deliver weekly status reports.
- Set progress/milestones check-ins throughout the engagement.
- Make on-site visits.
Putting the End-User First
In project management, one of the most significant risks is rigidly adhering to the project’s requirements, budget, or scope, even when they might conflict with the needs of the end user. Even if a product has cutting-edge features and the latest UI design, it may still fail to cater to the user’s essential needs if stakeholders are the only ones designing it.
End-user feedback led to modifying an app’s UI for an agricultural project I was part of earlier in my career. A feature of counting planted seeds had been thought out by our client. During an onsite user research session, we spoke with the fieldsmen who would be using the app and they pointed out that carrying a tablet in the field to track seed count would be inconvenient and make their work harder. While this feature was intended to help them improve their processes and better project yields of crop in a field, it wasn’t designed with practicality in mind. Because of this feedback from the end user, we put our heads together and opted to modify the UI to be usable with iPad minis, enabling the fieldmen to integrate this process into their day to day activities without any additional burden. Had we not incorporated end users into the initial design process of the application, the product could have failed to be adopted after launch.
Similarly, on another occasion, we were designing an inspection application to be used in the field by tank inspectors. Our initial assumption was that while performing the inspections, one of the team members was solely responsible for documenting the inspection process and findings. However, upon performing an on-site inspection with the inspection team, we learned that what inspectors actually needed was a way to let the team perform their different inspection tasks in parallel while staying in sync. This would help speed up their time on-site, saving the client money and tank downtime while remaining safe and accurate.
These two experiences showcase not only the importance of thinking about the end-user but the value of validating assumptions and going out in the field. While out in the field and engaging with the end-user, we can discover previously overlooked or unknown processes. We can put something in front of users in an agile and rapid prototyping fashion to get immediate feedback. In doing so, we gain valuable insights by getting a fresh set of eyes on the product while also engaging end-users to generate excitement.
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Lacking an end-user mindset can pose a significant risk when creating a new product or process that doesn’t exist in the market. It may feel like a challenge to fully understand the end-user’s needs in these cases, as they may not be clearly defined. However, an agile approach is often a better option than producing a list of requirements that may miss the mark. By putting something in front of potential users and iterating on their feedback, the product can evolve to better meet their needs. This is particularly important when the project is intended to fulfill an unmet need or provide a new product that users may not have known they needed. For example, Slack, Airbnb, and Uber are all software products that fulfilled unmet needs and provided new solutions for users. By taking an iterative approach and putting the user’s needs first, these companies were able to achieve great success in the adoption of their products.
Prioritizing consistent client engagement and an end-user mindset throughout your project will only increase the likelihood of success for a project. Whether you’re developing an app for field workers or launching a revolutionary product, remember that your clients and users are people with distinct needs and goals. Make sure you understand them and keep them in mind every step of the way. Your clients will appreciate the results, and your users will thank you for the great experience. Don’t let a lack of engagement or a failure to put the user first derail your project. Follow these principles, stay agile, and create something that truly serves and delights your clients and users alike.