An Open Letter to Project Managers

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Dear Project Managers,

It has been a very enjoyable experience working with everyone over the last couple of months and sharing our ideas on UX design. The various discussions about user interface, product usability, and user engagement have been an enlightening experience for me as well, and it is very positive to see that everyone involved in the product thinks so highly about improving the user experience.

In an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, I think the best way to address UX issues is to perform the same tasks as the user under the same environment/pressure–even if we’ve built something never done before–because then we would understand the exact problems that they have to solve and hopefully come up with the best solution.

User-centric design principles, however, do not replace the fact-finding mission we all need to take as UX designers; they merely serve as a starting point for making design decisions. We are not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but we are here to help ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users.

So, let’s talk for a minute about this thing we just launched.

What went wrong?

When you asked me what the users think without giving me time or money for research, you are in fact asking me what I think the users think.

When you asked me to apply standard guidelines and industry best practices, you are asking me to ignore what users have to say and to treat them like everyone else.

If our users are feeling a little bit neglected, it is because we’ve allowed ourselves to think we know better than they do.

Standards and guidelines abound, but not all of them apply. You have to know the rules first to know when to break them. These then need to be combined with as much knowledge or information as possible about our users so we can make some design decisions on the assumption that it is in their best interest.

Finally, we need to test and validate these assumptions so we can correct any misconceptions and continue to improve the product.

Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering. If we aren’t given the right tools and resources to do our work, how can we be expected to deliver the best outcomes?

UX practitioners are not mind readers, and even if we do manage to guess right once, you can be assured that users won’t stay the same forever.

What could have gone right?

The more time you can spend thinking about UX and talking about it, the less time you will spend on fixing your products later.

If improving the user experience is something that the organization as a whole thinks is important, then everyone should be involved in UX design, just as the UX designer interacts with various people within the organization to come up with solutions.

Critical to improving an organization’s UX competency is removing the ‘black box’ view of UX design. There are definitely technical skills and knowledge involved, but I believe the most important skill for a UX practitioner is empathy, not Photoshop or CSS or how to read heatmap reports–as handy as those skills are to have and despite what many of the recruitment agencies would have you believe.

Certain aspects of UX design are familiar to all of us, in the visible and tangible part of the user experience. The user interface has a very visual and often subjective element to its design, but as a graphic designer can tell you, there are definite components (color, typography, layout, and the like) that are used in its creation. User interaction has a more technical and logical focus to its design because the nature of programming is modular and systematic.

Where I think people struggle to make a link with is the less accessible aspects of UX design, like dealing with user engagement of the product or the connection between the user experience of the product and the corporate brand/image. An organization may have many channels of communication with the end-users, but the messages spoken by the business unit can be very different than those of the product development team or customer support team.

Within the general scope of UX design there are different ways to involve the users: generating new ideas for product features, getting feedback on new releases/betas, running conferences or webinars, conducting research workshops, and so on, and it’s not as if organizations aren’t doing some of this already.

However worthwhile these activities are in themselves, if we make our decisions based on just one or two of them–or worse, carry any of them out but don’t act on the results–we’ve missed the opportunity to improve the user experience.

People who make complaints may just want attention–or perhaps they have been suffering for so long they can no longer deal with this unusable product. How do we know if all the complaints are filtering through customer support, and do fewer support tickets necessarily mean greater customer satisfaction?

Where to from here?

If we don’t like a particular color, we know how to change it. If a particular technology is incompatible, we can modify it or find an alternative.

But if we want to influence the behavior of our users, where do we start? Like any complex problem, the best way is to break the problem down into smaller and more manageable pieces.

If we want to make an impact on our product design, how do we go about it in the right manner? I think reversing some of the current attitudes toward UX design is a good starting point, because clearly the status quo is not creating the appropriate environment and culture for a UX-focused organization.

Don’t make the only UX designer in your company the UX team, don’t restrict the scope of UX design to the user interface alone, and don’t hide the users from the UX designers.

Do spend the time and resources to implement company-wide UX strategies, do try and understand UX design a little bit better, and do it as soon as possible.

But if we haven’t done anything yet, is it too late? Like everything else worth doing, it is never too late. However, not doing UX at all is probably not much worse than doing UX poorly. To act on good assumptions with caution beats acting on bad assumptions with confidence. A good UX designer knows that nothing about the user should be assumed or taken for granted, and we always need to be on our toes because just like the product, the user may see the need for change–even more readily than we do.

Having said that, if you don’t start taking small steps now, the challenge will become even greater. Make everything you do in UX design a learning experience that helps to reduce the problem.

If I haven’t lost you yet, then I think we are ready to talk some details.

Remember, there are a lot of standards and guidelines already, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel–we just need to work out what works for us and what we can disregard.

As with any problem-solving process, we have to go through an iterative cycle of observing, hypothesizing, and testing until we derive at the optimal solution. I emphasize the word optimal, because there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer but there may be the most optimal solution given the circumstances (time, resources, assumptions…).

For those of you that have gone through the pain (and joy) of implementing Agile methodologies, I think you will agree that there is no out of the box solution that is guaranteed to work for any organization. You can certainly embrace the philosophy and principles, but how you adopt them to work for your team will be quite different depending on how you define the goals and objectives you want to achieve, not to mention the type of teams that you work with.

Remember, I am not here to critique or provide expert opinions, but to help you ask the right questions and get the right answers from the users. What UX means for the organization is up to you to decide, but if I have managed to spur you into some action, then I will have considered my job complete.

Thank you for your time.


  1. Michael,

    You’ve provided a thoughtful letter here, but I wonder why it is directed at project managers? The perspective placed on UX design as a practice far exceeds that which lands in a project manager’s lap to manage. While I agree that user centered design is essential to a successful experience for actual users, I think the folks footing the bill don’t see the value in spending $$$ needed to conduct the level of user testing UX designers often request. This open letter should be directed to the people funding projects because if they don’t see value in your cause there is little a project manager can do to see your cause through.

    Thank you for creating such a thoughtful piece. I look forward to the comments of others.

  2. Interesting point of view, Michael. Sounds like you’ve been burned by a low budget project. That can happen. Here’s the thing: If you sign on to a team that runs scrum or agile, you’re also signing on to that methodology. And guess what? PMs do the same thing. Their job is to run that methodology within the constraints of the project. That means asking the team the difficult questions about what can be done within those constraints. That has absolutely nothing to do with the ideals you talk about here. Which, by the way, are mostly best practices that have been stated time and time again in article on sites like this and in countless books.

    I would never discount the fact that our work on digital products needs to serve our users. But all projects have constraints. You’re not going to be able to test and iterate on each one. I’d love to take a project that has no limits and do whatever work is needed to get it to its most optimal point for users. But that rarely happens, because our clients typically have budgets that create constraints. That is where our creativity comes in.

    In general, what I am saying is that the issue you bring up in this article is misdirected at your project management team. If they’re keeping you on task and asking the questions that matter to keep your project on time and under budget, they are doing their job. Also, I think you should keep in mind that a methodology is important, but maybe it needs to be adapted for certain projects.

    When you find UX nirvana, do let me know.

  3. Hey, Michael –

    Great post and I feel your pain. I act as a director of the PM world (also act as a Scrum Master (SM) when needed) so I wanted to comment on your very own comment “SCRUM masters (SMs) have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering.”

    Now from your example, the SM clearly is very junior or you have just been dealt with a bad hand of SMs that only know process and do not think about the big picture. Maybe I’m rare. Who knows?

    At any rate, most companies are always in the mode of timelines and are limited on how much time they can allocate. Sadly, most of that time and budget is always allocated to development time and reworking features that get revisions. I do agree that we need more of two things:

    1. We need a true UX/UI process where like you mentioned, research can be done. This means really targeting our customers, tasking out actions the customers will perform on our site, and then of course figuring out if we are actually creating that IA that works based on the customers UX/UI viewpoints. That feedback can take time which also equates to money in which the company will normally pass on. They will simply tell you to use your experience even when building a new IA for an entirely new product/service. Sad, I know.

    2. We need more product validation to see if the UX is even good. More importantly, validate if our features we put in is even what they want. It’s sad to know that most sites have such a horrid UX where navigation is not grouped correctly and having navi items that should belong in the footer.

    If we would pay attention to this more, it actually presents greater business value down the line. If we take Google Analytics to play and really use it, we will understand the users behavior and by bypassing the UX research and activities, we’ll likely see horrid bounce rates b/c the user is confused. If we did it the right way (e.g. user case studies to reverse card sorting), we would see really great analytics from initial analysis.

    The Problem:
    Most SMs, product owners, and business owners are not very versed in the UX/UI language. Nor do they want to validate and just use other’s experiences/education as the “customer’s opinions.” Which in the UX world, is just wrong. I’ve been personally fighting this battle so hopefully it will be adopted by teams all around.

    Don’t give up hope on it. There are others that read and learn from experiences. Just afraid that it will not be fully adopted for quite some time, but most mature teams do get it and train others.

  4. While not picking on project managers in particular, I have to say that Agile methodologies have not necessarily had to go through the same battles in the boardroom or the product design and development meetings (in my experience). And because, the product/project managers sign-off on the requirements and specifications of the product, so if they are not prepared to defend UX design, the UX designers don’t really have a chance. Unfortunately many UX professionals who have been hired to do the job have to justify or defending their position from those who have hired them.

    In my opinion the impact of implementing UX practices creates an equal if not greater change to an organization compared to Agile development processes, although there are significantly less resources dedicated to this cause. I believe that when you come up with better designs, it becomes easier to build/test/maintain/improve, so hopefully in the future we can hope to see bigger design teams given more resources to do better work.

  5. Michael,

    You write, “People who make complaints may just want attention–or perhaps they have been suffering for so long they can no longer deal…” It sounds to me like you’ve suffered for a long time under bad project managers.

    It’s easy to pass blame to a PM. I would love nothing more than to give my teams ample time and money to do all the research in the world but– when does that EVER happen? I can’t think of one IA, designer or developer who wouldn’t want more time, more software, more research, more answers, more money, more sleep, a solid gold unicorn… OK, I digress but you get my point.

    The most talented, creative and innovative people I’ve worked with over the years are those that make the best of what they’ve got. That meant strategic use of time, collaborative research methods and everything and anything in between. And while they may always have wanted more, they were no less empathetic to the user than you claim to be.

    Most important of all– who were some of these talented people fighting tooth and nail for a good user experience? They were Project Managers. I hope one day you get the chance to work with one of them.

  6. Loved this one : “Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering.”
    Fully agree 😉

  7. “Somehow, SCRUM masters have convinced senior managers that standing in a circle in front of a board full of sticky notes constitutes a meeting and playing poker figures out the work schedule and priorities, but any suggestion of UX designers talking with end-users seems to be a waste of time and effort and not worth considering.”

    Are you saying Scrum Masters shoot down the idea of talking with end-users, or that UX people have been less successful than Scrum Masters in shaping senior managers’ attitudes?

    If the former, I’d say you got a bad Scrum Master. It goes against what agile teaches, and goes beyond what a Scrum Master is allowed to do. Your frustration is misplaced, because your experience is not an inherent result of agile methodologies, but rather in violation of agile principles.

    If the latter, it is an issue with your organization’s business environment and would have occurred no matter what process you followed. A project manager always has to balance tradeoffs, deciding which of many project considerations will drive decisions. Apparently the PM came to conclusions you didn’t agree with. Your job at this point is to help the PM recognize the value of activities they chose to skip this time around.

  8. Michael,

    I think you make some great points in this article and as a fellow UXer I can sympathise with your frustrations.

    Sorry but I need to get up on my soapbox and say that this article is exactly what is wrong with UX.

    Why do we UX people view UX as some mysterious truth? A single truth, where any non-believers are dismissed as fools who need to be ‘educated’. We need to listen to ourselves!

    UX can greatly benefit projects and organisations however typically we are not employed as the key decision maker. While employing UX practices with end users is part of our jobs, more important is engaging stakeholders and the business to achieve the best outcome (based on user feedback) within the constraints of the situation. Sure we need to vent at times – but we need to seek constructive solutions.

    Rather than blaming other professions for ‘not getting it’ we need to turn focus on our own practices to figure out how we can work better with project managers, scrum masters, developers, marketeers and others. And how we can include genuine user engagement within agile environments.

    The true success of a UX project is not in how great your designs or ideas are, nor the contribution they make to your folio. True success is in what is actually implemented and the impact it has on the business.

    Keep engaging with your organization and step by step, little by little demonstrate the value of UX. Or find a place to work that appreciates your skills 😉

  9. I already got into some trouble for drawing comparisons between Agile and UX, but I think just as Agile has been used as an excuse not to plan and document processes sufficiently, UX has also been used as an excuse not to make better efforts to plan and research users sufficiently. In response to the comment about not having a sing’e ‘truth’ or solution to the problem, I do appreciate that every project presents unique challenges in balancing the business, technical and user requirements – I am just optimistically hoping that it starts from an equal weighting rather than being heavily stacked on the business and technical side (since there is usually one UX guy in the UX team).

  10. Sadly it’s all too true.

    Process is often the biggest problem that anyone working on ANY project faces. Get the process right, everything else falls into place.

    Make sure that UX is there from the beginning and you’re at least starting right.

  11. “Its the PM’s fault”

    Well here’s the deal. The PM almost never defines process and budget, unfortunately. They can object but the salesperson and client decide the scope, budget and whether or not UX has a role. Most digital PM’s know it should have a role in almost every project but alas, they don’t typically decide.

    So the open letter should be addressed to sales and the Delivery executive who goes along with a poorly conceived SOW.

    And the gratuitous pot shot at Agile/Scrum only helps the waterfall folks argue that the old way of delivery is the best way when clearly it ain’t.

  12. Hi Peter, I am definitely not trying to have a go at the PMs or Software Development Leads. In fact my life would be a lot tougher if I haven’t had the odd PM or Dev lead fighting on my side. I am only lamenting the fact that we haven’t learnt the lessons of transitioning from the waterfall to the Agile development process (which is not always the solution by the way), and many organizations are making the same mistake with transitioning from Business centric to the User centric design process. I’ll address the next letter to the CEO…

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