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Prioritizing Parts of a Design Project

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 19, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how to prioritize specific parts of a design when time and funds are limited. Not being able to complete a full design solution is frustrating to many UX designers, but the need to do so is an unfortunate reality. If you won’t be able to do as much as you would like, how can you prioritize what you should do? Our expert panel discusses several approaches, including the following:

  • working within clients’ expectations for the design
  • creating a clear information architecture
  • using thoroughly validated style guides and design systems
  • performing a detailed task analysis
  • evaluating the business considerations of both the seller and the buyer of the product
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Each month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Joel Grossman—Chief Technology Officer at Reigning Champs
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters columnist
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Lead Designer at Citrix

Q: When the time and funds for a project are limited and you do not expect to be able to complete a full design, how can you prioritize what parts of the project you can design?—from a UXmatters reader

“Time and funds are literally always limited,” answers Steven. “I’ve spent months doing early-phase design for major projects, but we still had limited resources, had to rely on existing research, and had to meet constrained deadlines and budgets. Most projects are much, much worse than this. With hugely constrained budgets, I’ve sometimes had to do design work in only a few days and made revisions in just hours.

“Most of my project work, as a design consultant or contractor, is not up to me. I argue and cajole and conspire, but mostly, I must do whatever the client thinks they want. Then it’s a matter of doing the best I can through user-interface (UI) design revisions. There’s typically so much variation to this work that it’s hard to classify how I approach it. But, when I do get a chance to sell a project team on how I should engage, and it’s early or they really, really believe it when they ask for clean-sheet design, anything is on the table. In such a case, I generally have a hierarchy of things I want to do that I work through, in the following order:

  1. Help the team better understand their product and their users. Essentially all product organizations—from one-person startups to Fortune 50s—are very internally focused and make assumptions about their users. A favorite example is that, for most B2B (business-to-business) software, the customer and the user are not the same. I've even worked on products for which the people who showed up for training were never the actual users. They just used it as an excuse to get out of the office. When we found out who the users actually were and what their work environment and pressures were, we created a much better product. Go find out real data about your users and try to be open to new information. Try to get into the field to see users working in their native environment. Then, summarize your learnings for your product team and use them to help create a set of objectives and design principles for the product.
  2. Design the structure. If there’s any one design task I prioritize, it’s the information architecture or other structural-level work. Lots of very pretty products are unusable because they lack clarity, make no sense, and are impossible to navigate. Lots of products are confusing because no one admits they have a product instead of a Web site or app—or, very often, both. A lot of users’ failures result from bad structural design, the result of which is that users are not even aware of certain features and functions. So I always start with structure way before doing any UI design.
  3. Don’t build unnecessary features. One of the things that causes product teams the most heartburn is building things they don’t even need to make—things that often become the worst-performing features. Such features exist in most apps—and, to some degree, on Web sites, too. Many product teams spend huge amounts of time and money on features such as mapping, when they could get much the same user experience for about ten minutes of work by linking to the user’s favorite map app and displaying the data there instead. The same holds true for open APIs and libraries for many purposes—from contacts to response forms to cameras. Don’t build what you can borrow or buy, especially if you have a tight budget and schedule.
  4. Create style guides and design systems. For a digital product of a typical scale, my ideal UX team would be at least a dozen people. But no one ever gives me these resources, so we’re always struggling. One thing that I learned long ago is that drawing every page, in every state, lies somewhere between foolish and literally impossible—not enough time remains in the life of the universe. So, even for big projects, for which I’ve drawn thousands of screens, I start by creating a style guide, then, if time permits, a design system. I create reusable templates and components, providing detailed explanations so people after me can implement them—even developers with little or no design background.

“This is just my first-level guide for starting the discussion,” concludes Steven. “Very often, many other small things are necessary—such as turning a company’s brand into something that’s digitally appropriate. Or I might find that their entire strategy is based on bad assumptions, so I must carefully inform them of that. Or I discover that the highest impact would result from creating better content and developing a set of communications guidelines. For quick-and-dirty impact, it’s never a matter of any UI design tricks. It’s always strategy, structure, templates, content, and functionality first.”

Determine Your Top Tasks and Prioritize Them

“A great way of prioritizing your areas of focus is to conduct a top-task analysis to understand what users are trying to accomplish with your product,” replies Andrew. “You can survey your actual users—or prospective users—and have them vote on their top five tasks from among their complete list of tasks. Once you’ve identified the top tasks, you can focus your design efforts much more effectively.”

“Prioritize your design effort based on the primacy of those design elements that address the primary jobs to be done for your most important user type,” answers Joel. “Satisfying—even minimally—that user’s Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) means your initial redesign focuses on the removal of constraints from the key jobs your product purports to enable that user to accomplish—the redesign that would be most transformative.”

Consider Both User Needs and Business Needs

When time and funds are limited, you have to make some tough decisions during design. You cannot do all that you would want to do. When deciding which parts of the design to focus on, it is important to consider the following three types of users, as well as your company’s business concerns:

  1. The actual user—What do these users need most to complete their tasks and achieve their goals?
  2. The buyer—What does the buyer of this product require to make the decision to purchase this product? Without a buyer’s deciding to buy the product, there will be no actual users.
  3. The evaluator of success—What does the evaluator of this product require to consider this product a success for the customer? What would they need to renew their subscription for this product? Retention is a key indicator of product success.
  4. The seller—What does your company, the seller of this product, require to consider the product a success? It is important that these business considerations are clear.

Sometimes the actual user, buyer, and evaluator are the same person, but very often, they are not. You must consider all of their concerns to ensure the practicality of the product. How can you do this? One approach is to prioritize the aspects of the design solution that increase the product’s ease of adoption. Lay out the tasks, needs, and goals; determine which ones are most important to increasing product adoption; then focus on the ones at the top of the list.

Other approaches to prioritization include focusing on increasing the number of units sold, reducing the number of support calls, or reducing the time necessary to bring the product to market. It is important to decide what factor to emphasize in prioritizing various parts of a design, and this factor can vary from situation to situation. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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