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Managing Expectations of Stakeholders: A guide for Designers
July 12, 2022
Ilamurugu R
Software Engineer

Managing expectations is tough, let alone fulfilling them. You cannot fulfill expectations all the time, but you can manage them. Designers have to be in constant touch with various ‘owners’ of the product. This can become tedious especially when you have to get them on one page. Pulling this off, however, would mean you gaining trust.

In this article, I write about how you can manage the expectations of stakeholders on a design project. I’ve summarised these into nine simple points. This is if your project journey isn’t like this:

The life of a project. Stolen from Steal like an artist by Austin Kleon, who stole from their friend Maureen McHugh.

The Beginning: Identify Stakeholders

Every new project starts with an introductory call with all the stakeholders.

It’s important to understand who the subject matter experts are. Stakeholders could be product managers, upper management, or the creative director. Identify them.

This is also the right time to educate them about your tools, communication channels, and how you work.

Play detective: Identify what is important to them

Read between the lines

Play detective. Every product has a roadmap. This roadmap is created with a strategy in mind. It’s important to understand the “why” behind this. Sometimes a product strategy involves first designing marketing material and then working on the product. Sometimes it involves user research. Knowing this will help you understand what is important to the stakeholders. It helps you align your expertise with what is expected.

Setup up a Roadmap: Stay realistic and honest

Anything unplanned doesn’t go well (except weekends). So this is when you plan the project and set deadlines.

Don’t set unrealistic deadlines and fall short on time. You don’t want that reputation. Stay honest to yourself and set a plan that CAN be accomplished. One way of doing this is by assessing your previous work. Split the work into smaller parts and start working on those. This is very similar to setting short-term goals.

One might ask what if I could not complete the task before the estimated time. Well, a product timeline can be delayed due to a number of factors. If there is a delay be honest and let everyone know in advance.

Put pen to paper: Documentation

This is how you keep track of your actions.

Documentation is underrated. Document your process, decisions, guidelines you follow, meetings, etc. Make sure everyone has access to this, whether it’s a google doc or a confluence page. This helps keep a record of what is agreed to and sets up the context for what has to be delivered.

Documentation is a life saver when multiple designers are working on a project.

Brainstorming: Have more internal conversations

Here is where the magic happens. All the designer brains come together to come up with the solution(s).

Talking to your design team is as important as talking to the stakeholders. Schedule separate calls with the design team to showcase your progress. It’s important to have a separate set of eyes, it gives you a fresh perspective.

If you are taking over a project that was helmed by another designer talk to them. It will help you understand the decisions they made and why they made them.

Enter, Google calendar: Don’t wait for stand-ups

This is the stage where you are going good with your project and have scheduled weekly calls.

Design is all about asking the right questions. (And yeah, it is also about asking silly questions). The stakeholders expect you to ask questions and want you to get to know the problem at hand. Asking questions also gives them the feeling that you are really interested to take on the problem. After you get the answers, reiterate what they said. This avoids any miscommunication that might have happened. And with asking questions, comes over-communication. Keep informing them about the tasks at hand. This helps in keeping them in the loop about the blockers you are facing and also avoids unnecessary spillovers.

If you have any ambiguity regarding the task, do not hesitate to schedule a call with them as soon as possible. Consider this as a brainstorming session and try to solve problems with the stakeholders. Make it a two-way conversation where you are open to taking in their suggestion. Talk to the stakeholders, arrive at a solution, and deliver the output. The trick here is to keep talking to them.

Showcase: Something is better than nothing

This is when you showcase your beautiful creation.

Stakeholders expect to look at something rather than nothing. They might not understand the visual language put into words. So, if you have two or more solutions, show them that. Set priorities, pros, and cons for each solution and explain it to them. Tell them why you think one solution is better than the other. They might be the best people to choose the right solution. This also helps in avoiding redundant calls where you explain the solution and then present the design, only to go back and design again from scratch.

On the other hand, if you feel that a particular solution works best for everyone involved, as the designer, be firm on that. You know what you are doing.

It’s never perfect: Ask for feedback and requirements

At this point, working on feedback will set you up for greatness.

Again, this is about over-communicating. Share your design outputs with the stakeholders on a frequent basis. This has to be even more frequent than the calls. This can be on any messaging platform you might use. Make sure you ask for feedback. In most cases, the feedback will not be very specific to what you were expecting. If you want effective feedback, ask questions by pointing out that exact feature or design decision that you had made. And also be ready to get loads of feedback and criticism from some stakeholders. Analyse and check the feasibility of those points from a design standpoint and again, explain to the stakeholders. They might have a different take on things.

Success is measured based on this feedback and criticism. I would argue that a design with tons of feedback will count as a successful project rather than a design that goes out labeled as perfect. It’s never perfect. Get more eyes on the design and you will be astonished about the things you have missed.

The Handover: Deliver with a vision to scale

The business end of things.

A design project never ends. Ensure transitions or handovers are done well.

Schedule a call with the stakeholders and walk them through the entire project, the decisions made, the direction to take, and reiterate the most important things that you need to see in the product. The best way to do this is by delivering a prototype along with the designs, so you can actually show the workflow and the interactions. Figma, Framer, Proto.io are some prototyping tools you can try out.

Handover the design with a vision to scale. Create versions and document the features or design ideas you want to see in future iterations. There is always room for improvement and follow-up regularly with them to keep track of things.

Where to go from here

There is a lot at stake when multiple stakeholders are involved in a design project. Here are some books that will help you understand processes and communicate effectively.

  1. UX for lean startups by Laura Klein
  2. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
  3. And for the creative in you, Steal like an artist by Austin Kleon
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