In recent projects, I’ve been struggling to set the right tone for the project. I mean, the project goes well once we get going, but there isn’t the right kind of kickoff that 1) gets the client excited; 2) sets expectations; 3) educates everyone; 4) builds a team dynamic within this group.

Get Excited!

When I was in high school, we had friendship week where the girls could purchase cards, write a note to a friend, put them in a bag and have them “sent” to their friends. One of the cards had three stick-figure girls on it, looking happy, with the text, “Get Excited!” Get excited because we’re friends. Yay!

Most years I got a lot of cards and I would feel great. I’d be on a high for a couple weeks. Hey, as a teenager, it’s important to be popular and liked. It made me want to be nice to people, to make more friends, to get more cards the next year. There was one year when I got two cards. Man I felt like a reject. I didn’t want to be nice to anyone. One friend told me she didn’t send me a card because she was busy. Was I that unimportant that she couldn’t take 10 seconds to write me a card? Holy cow.

On a project, I normally work for an agency or another consulting company and I represent the user experience portion of the project. Others from the consulting company, in general, know the value of “usability” but they don’t know how to “sell” it. When starting a new project, the consulting company and their client need to be excited about the project. If these two groups haven’t worked together in the past, it’s important to team build.

It’s important to set expectations, sooth nerves (the client is spending a lot of hard-earned money, after all), and get excited about the work to come. From a UX perspective, it’s important to show how this portion of the work will create an effective product. Through a bit of education (see below), the client can start to see how UX will make a difference. With a bit of creative exploration, opinions can be heard immediately.

Setting Expectations

Sometimes I will happen upon a project that has already been estimated and won and I need to provide a task list within a certain amount of hours. Sometimes I create the estimate and the company includes it in its estimate. Normally, companies are surprised to find that wireframes aren’t the only task and that it won’t just take 40 hours.

Not to disparage the people I work for – not at all – I think it really comes down to how well user experience professionals communicate and how well we’ve marketed our profession. It’s about setting expectations up front for the UX work by educating people about the goals for the work and the tasks involved to get there.

Educating Everyone

In educating everyone, I do mean everyone. Ok, now we normally hear great stories from big UX companies about how well their kickoffs went, that the client came to them for UX work, etc. etc. Wouldn’t it be ideal if all our projects went this way – if we were able to define what the project was going to involve and could do the whole she-bang. (Is that how you spell she-bang?)

As a UX’er who works as part of a larger project, who represents the whole UX perspective on a project, I normally don’t work on projects where a client is specifically requesting a better user experience. Nope, what the client is requesting is a new website because the old one is out-of-date or people have stopped using it. The client may have heard of usability and wants it for the project, but doesn’t know what is involved in usability.

Then in rolls me, there to do the work, but needing to educate people about what usability is; why I need to talk to people directly and can’t use an intermediary; what a persona is for; what a site map looks like and how it works; what wireframes are and how they’ll help the visual designer. The basic stuff.

Educating people is a great way to spread the value of user experience design and it’s fun to see people grasp the need and value. Once they grasp the value, they can go spread the good news, so to speak. However, it’s hard to judge how much people know. I might dive in too deep and end up having to backtrack to the beginning. Or I might start to simple and bore the group.

On the other hand, while I was talking to another UX’er, how much do people need to be educated about things to approve them? I mean, they’ve hired me to do the work and to do what is best, so what depth do I go to in educating those I work with?

Building a Team Dynamic

So, then, how do we get a feel for the team when we have little opportunity to get them all in a room together. Perhaps I have 30 minutes to 1 hour to do my “kickoff.” What do I ask? What’s the highest value thing I can do to get the needed information from people. On one project, I had about 30 minutes for a kickoff with everyone. People did not have time to review anything beforehand and they did not have time after the meeting to follow up.

30 minutes. What do you ask?

After talking to that same UX’er as mentioned above, we might ask if they’ve worked with other UX’ers or other consulting companies and what they liked and didn’t like. You might ask how much they know about usability.

To make things more difficult, do this all remotely, over the phone.

Another point that needs to be laid out in a kickoff meeting is that people’s interests vary and that more than one opinion needs to be accommodated. It’s important that everyone realize that, from a UX perspective, his opinion isn’t the only one and may not be the most important (ha ha ha, what stakeholder thinks his view isn’t the most important?). Getting people collaborating early can show the differing opinions and interests pressuring the project.

Resources

As always, A List Apart has a great article: Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings.