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Successful Project Management: Using Time Management Tools

The Business of UX

Building and managing a UX agency

A column by Keith LaFerriere
March 23, 2009

Your talent is one factor that contributes to your being able to start or build a successful UX agency—and achieving the freedom that brings—but talent is not enough, especially not in the current economic environment. Getting your hands and mind around the myriad facets of running a UX agency—and the processes that ensure you consistently deliver high-end results that reflect your talent—is a rewarding, but difficult task. How, then, can you manage, learn, grow, and profit—all while keeping your talent in high regard?

In this introductory column, I’ll discuss time management and some ways in which you can use quick-reference sheets and project-management tools to help you maintain some semblance of sanity in your busy life.

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Learning to Fly

Unless you’ve had prior experience running a UX agency, succeeding in your endeavor to run a new agency or become a full-time freelancer will require countless hours of experience, a lot of learning, and a little good fortune.

Through interviews with the leaders of forty UX firms in the Boston area, over a period of seven months, I’ve gained many insights into how to run a UX agency. During these interviews, I consistently asked questions about the hardest learning curves the leaders of these agencies had to overcome in their quest to stay afloat. The responses varied from business acumen to general accounting, but the overwhelming response was time management.

What are these leaders doing to help them manage their teams’ time more effectively? One creative director noted that his team had not given enough thought to the balance between internal creative reviews and client feedback on their project plans. In an effort to change this, the creative director became more involved in the project planning process. Another leader, who runs an agency in Vermont, said they no longer travel for any project with a value of less than $20,000. They now handle calls, their sales efforts, and the discovery phases for smaller projects by phone.

Spreading Your Wings

Interestingly, the issue that has completely stymied some firms—or prevented them from maintaining a high level of quality—has been getting too much work. The fact is, when you spend all of your time selling and winning clients, you may feel there is no such thing as too many client engagements—that is, until you actually get the work in the door and discover you’ve got more work than you can handle. Then, it becomes a question of how to keep up—or, in some cases, when to hire.

The worst thing that can happen to a fledgling business is overpromising and underdelivering. Those are two things that can put your business underwater faster than a lead weight tied to your ankles.

Handling this problem will require a course correction. You’ll need to sit down and create a client plan. This simple tool can help you not only manage your time, but manage your deliverables, so you don’t get crossed up and fail to meet your obligations or, even worse, promise to be in two places at once.

Using a Client Planning Document

The client plan is a high-level tracking document that complements your project plans. This document covers your major upcoming milestones and includes three key components:

  • your current projects by client
  • deliverables for each project
  • scheduled delivery, signoff, and vacation, or holiday, dates

Table 1 shows an example of what a client plan looks like if you’ve got two clients and not a great deal of open time.

Table 1—A client plan
Client Deliverable Due Signoff Date Vacation/Holiday

ABC, LLC

Site Map

04.09.09

04.15.09

05.20.09

Wireframe 1

04.12.09

04.18.09

RCS, Inc.

Creative Brief

05.11.09

05.15.09

 

Technical Brief

05.13.09

05.16.09

You’ll notice that the Site Map deliverable for ABC, LLC is in red. This indicates there’s a conflict—either with different client requirements in the project plans or with staff time. It’s important to note that the client plan isn’t meant to help you run your projects. Rather, it’s a forward-looking quick reference that shows events you’ve already scheduled in the immediate future, so you’ll know when and where you may have a block of time in which you can schedule additional work—and when you’re already maxed out.

Client planning documents are just one small factor in helping you to start managing your time for better efficiency. Online project management tools can also be incredibly helpful in helping you keep things on track.

Managing Your Projects Online

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the online project management service Basecamp, by 37 Signals, which is shown in Figure 1. Basecamp offers a relatively low-cost solution for anyone who needs a centralized gathering place for client and team communications and project assets.

Figure 1—Basecamp Dashboard
Basecamp

There are a few frustrating things about Basecamp—such as its inability to properly brand a workspace, the lack of a really neat sorting function, and its lacking the ability to group discussions other than by date. However, this product has saved my team countless hours of time and effort. In a nutshell, Basecamp provides a useful set of tools that are extremely helpful in keeping up with project milestones and team members, putting together a project asset repository, and tracking deliverable review comments.

Basecamp includes a to-do list and lets you assign milestones that it reports to each project member. Using these two features together lets everyone on your team keep an eye on both the team’s overall objectives and each other’s specific deliverables. For example, if an upcoming milestone is your responsibility, but you realize you’re hitting a scheduling conflict, you can work with the project team to adjust the dates. Basecamp asks whether you want to adjust the dates for all subsequent upcoming milestones, so you can easily manage dependencies.

Leveraging Attention and Intention

Of course, just creating a client planning document and using online project management tools won’t be enough. What now? Are you having trouble wrapping your head around all the moving parts? Would it help if you had more hands? Have you considered whether you have the right attention and intention?

I recently attended a powerful seminar that explained how our energy goes where our attention flows. As a practice leader, an agency owner, or a freelancer, it’s your job to direct your attention and that of your team to the right things. The right things are the actions that fulfill your intentions—that is, the goals you set and want to meet or exceed.

But keeping your attention focused may seem difficult when the economy and outside forces are trying to pull your attention away in many different directions. Being busy is fine—even wonderful if your efforts are focused and fruitful. But if you’re busy spending too much time on things that pull you away from your intentions, that is detrimental to your business and will ultimately hurt your bottom line. You need to determine what matters most to each project, place a high value on those things, and understand your clients’ overall needs.

Evaluate your project schedules for the upcoming weeks. Talk to your peers and, if you have them, your employees, and go through every day and week. Pick out the things you know you can either delegate or automate. Put a client plan together as soon as possible to help you better manage your administrative efforts.

In the end, the attention you place on your highly valued intentions can lead you to greatness. 

Vice President of User Experience at Arnold Worldwide

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Keith LaFerriereKeith leads User Experience at Arnold Worldwide, one of the most award-winning advertising agencies in the USA. His passion and persistence in advocating for user-centered design—whether offline or online—enables the achievement of both user experience and ad campaign goals. For over sixteen years, Keith has made interactive environments and complex Web applications easier to use, working for clients such as Carnival, Harvard University, IDC, DHL, Ocean Spray, Huntington Bank, Panasonic, The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, and many more.  Read More

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