A bad project manager can spoil even the best user centred intentions

All those that espouse user centred design as the elixir to all ills aren’t seeing the full picture. The reality is that organisational and other factors often outside of your direct control are highly influential in determining the successful execution of your work.

Even with a solid user centred design approach, the success of a project can be scuppered by factors such as a technology team rooted in “old school” development approaches. The benefits of user centred design can’t be fully realised until there is buy in from the full project team.

The influence of a bad egg

A project I recently worked on was completely stymied by an unreceptive old school project manager. He was of the “the less we promise to deliver, the more chance we have of success” school. He felt that the prototype we’d spent months and months iterating was purely illustrative of the kind of thing we wanted despite repeated attempts to convince him otherwise.

Another favourite quote of his was “you’ll know what the users will get when we give it to them”. It seemed like it was a power trip for him. “You will get what I give you”. The concept of user experience was alien to him.

He, and the entire IT department behind him, were used to delivering whatever they could in whatever time they had, lobbing it over the fence and never giving it another seconds thought. He was used to sitting in his ivory tower and delivering things without any care of whether they met user needs, or as is more likely completely frustrated users. He was primarily driven by deadlines rather than having any focus on the quality of what was being delivered. Thus throughout a project in which it was increasingly evident to everyone that we would fail to deliver on the intended delivery date, he continue to offer nothing but positive messages around the likelihood of meeting the launch date.

He was convinced he could meet the launch date because he paid no attention to the quality, or user experience of what he was proposing to launch.

Incentivising people by anything other than the ultimate success of the project is wrong

The problem was that our bad egg was incentivised to deliver the project by a certain date. He had no care for the quality of what was delivered. He didn’t give a moments thought to “fancy new notions” such as user experience. Having such an influential figure in the project having no long term incentive in the success of the project was ultimately leading the project to almost certain failure.

In a warped way I can kind of understand his position. He was doing what he was being asked to do by the people that hired him. The real problem is that the organisation not only accepted it, but actually encouraged his approach. But then again many organisations do just that.

If we hadn’t had such a supportive business owner and gone through such an extensive user centred process, and had been able to cry long and loud about every proposed compromise required to meet the project deadline, the entire project would have ultimately failed.

Thankfully our cries were eventually listened to, the voice of the user prevailed, and our bad egg was escorted from the building (literally!).

The result is that the project was much delayed, but the user experience ultimately prevailed. It is good to see that it isn’t only in the movies that the good guys win.

This experience has highlighted to me the importance of getting the whole project team on board. For the user experience practitioner it becomes essential to be able to share and convey the importance and impact of each compromise that is suggested as the project proceeds. It also highlights the importance of continued involvement throughout the entire project lifecycle.

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3 responses to “A bad project manager can spoil even the best user centred intentions

  1. This is a very familiar story: a power struggle between timely delivery & a designed solution. I agree with your premise that “the success of the project” should be the only incentive for those working on it. But for that to mean anything it’s important that what constitutes “success” is very carefully defined & agreed to at the outset.

    Why did the deadline exist, if as proved the case it was necessary to spend much more time to deliver a solution that would actually be used and valued?

    In my experience these deadlines are externally imposed & often immoveable – occasionally for good reasons. They become a design constraint forcing the designer to identify the aspects of their prototype, design research etc. that promise the most value and can be delivered with the resources on hand. The hope is that the unrealised aspects will be added subsequently to complete & increase the “success” of the user experience.

  2. simplerisbetter

    Angus, I agree that an up front definition of what constitutes success is essential. I think the old line is a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative measures.

    You are right this is a familiar story, but one I’ve never experienced played out in such a polarised way. We got the distinct feeling that the project manager would have been happiest delivering absolutely zero because it would have meant he could do so successfully in the timescale.

    But I really don’t think the problem was primarily the deadline. It was attitudinal. An entrenched attitude within an entire part of the organisation that their customers got what they delivered them. I think arrogance and disconnectedness were the real problems.

  3. So the real culprits got off scott free? The bad egg was a patsy, I tell you, a patsy!r

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