Why Project Managers are a Barrier for Designers

by on 08/12/10 at 11:14 am

Project managers serve as the liaison between the designer and the client, but sometimes instead of serving as the liaison they can be a barrier between the designer and the client. When the designer is fed second-hand information through the project manager, this can result in misinterpretation and miscommunication.

When project managers communicate the tasks of a project to the designer, that is simply insufficient. In order for a designer to do a good job, the designer needs to be able to check what sort of things are important to the client and in what degree. The client may say they want something in particular, but the reason they want it is absolutely crucial.

For example, the client may go to the project manager and say that they want a photo gallery. The project manager might then tell the designer to design a photo gallery because that is what the client asked for. The designer then designs the photo gallery and ultimately the client tells them that this is not what they wanted. Never did anyone ask the client why they wanted a photo gallery. It could be that they want to be able to show the people who are involved in their company, or display the different activities they do in their events, or maybe they just want a lot of pictures on their site to make it look friendly and inviting. Whatever it is, the designer doesn’t get to question the client about what it is they’re truly looking for because the project manager is the one who speaks to the client.

Just like with users, what clients say they want is entirely different from what they truly want. To find out what they truly want, you have to ask them WHY they want what they’re asking for. When you ask them why, you get to the ROOT of the problem, and as a result, you’ll be able to offer a better solution for them. Asking questions is important. It’s the only way to know exactly what the client is thinking and feeling. When project management gets in the way of designers asking the client questions directly it becomes a problem. Even if the project manager asks the question for the designer the designer is only getting a second-hand answer and loses the opportunity to delve into the ROOT of the client’s problem and understand how they think and feel. When you understand who you’re designing for, what you’re designing and why you are designing it you can do a better job.

To truly meet the needs of your client, you must know them as well as you know yourself. Project managers stand in the way of this and prevent designers from client contact. Instead, they are given tasks to do as if they are merely a machine, never knowing why they are doing what they do, or if what they are assigned is truly what the client wants. Getting the tasks second-hand works if what you’re doing is manual labor because you really don’t need any further information other than what your tasks is. If the task is to mow the lawn, then you mow the lawn. In these situations, nine times out of ten the result will meet the client’s expectations. But design is different because it is something that involves creative thinking, analysis and problem-solving. It can be so abstract that designers must get first-hand information from the client to design something that will meet the client’s needs.

User experience designers talk with users when they are doing research, so why shouldn’t they talk with clients too? Understanding the client is part of the designers job, as is understanding the user. It’s the only way they will be able to design a solution that completely meet’s the clients needs. Getting second-hand information from a project manager isn’t good enough. The more details the designer gets from the client FIRST-HAND, the better the designer will be able to do his or her job. Project managers remove that essential intimacy needed between the designer and client. However, to be fair, there are times when the designer is included to present their designs to the client, but why should the designer only be present AFTER the designs have been completed? The most crucial moment the designer should be present is at the beginning where the client relays what they’re looking for.

Project managers and designers interpret information differently. Since the designer is the one who is ultimately responsible for the output delivered to the client, he or she should be especially included in client meetings from the beginning. Project management may be valuable in industries like construction, where the tasks are to simply do X and Y, but design is much more abstract, and therefore, requires inquiry and investigation.


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Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

8 Responses to “Why Project Managers are a Barrier for Designers”

  1. JWoods

    Aug 13th, 2010

    Hmmm…sounds like you have had bad experiences with project managers. But please don’t lump all project managers in with those you feel are blocking you from doing your job.

    First and most important, PMs are NOT liaisons. Ever. They gather requirements for the initial planning, and then step out of the way and monitor to make sure the project is within scope, time and cost leaving the project team to be sure that what specifically the client wants is what the client gets (within scope!).

    In my organization the PM gathers preliminary wants and needs from the client-the business case-which is the WHY. They then build a project plan, assemble the team and give up control to the team so that they can sit down with the end users and figure out the rest. If your PMs aren’t doing that, and you have a PMO, let them know. Let the PM know, they might not even realize they are hindering you.

    And remember, somewhere there is a PM writing an article complaining about designers holding up their schedules because they want to sit around and chat with the end user instead of designing…

    • anthony

      Aug 13th, 2010

      My point that I was making was that the preliminary requirements gathering is part of the design process. Thus, the designer needs to be able to talk to the client first-hand because PMs and designers interpret things differently. That’s the point I’m making, so I wouldn’t try to make this out to be more than what it is even though you PMs love doing that. :)

  2. scott

    Aug 13th, 2010

    Umm, the preliminary requirements gathering is about desired outcome and goals. Design shouldn’t be considered until after goals are set, features are decided upon and the overall scope is worked out.

    To bring in a designer before the goals are even known will greatly hinder the outcome of the project as, in my experience, the designer will often run with an idea before everyone fully has an idea bout the scope of the project.

    When I was doing web PM, I didn’t even talk to the designer until about 1/3 of the way through the project. And I’d never stand in the way of the designer meeting with the customer. I did, however, make sure I saw any and all designs before the client did, just to make sure the design matched the goals and agreedupon feature set.

    • anthony

      Aug 15th, 2010

      What you speak of is exactly the problem I am talking about. Designers should be included in the meetings where the setting of goals and feature take place, but they often are not. They should be there to listen and to ask questions. What clients say they want is not always exactly what they want and a good UX designer can interpret the difference. Maybe other non-UX designers aren’t “client trained”, but UX designers usually know how to interact with users & clients effectively.

    • Susa

      May 6th, 2011

      Are the designers you’re referring to “visual designers” or “interaction designers”? I can see that a visual designer might do that; it’s their role to produce a design. Interaction designers, on the other hand, approach their work by understanding how and why users interact with a system. Therefore, the goals discussion is clearly the beginning of the work.

      Sometimes PMs are looking to establish goals as a means to “seal the deal”. As a UX person, I want to be in on those discussion and I can ask questions to understand the client’s problem (not the type of solution they’ll buy”.

  3. anon

    Feb 23rd, 2011

    I thought the project manager’s job is to come up with excuses when the project isn’t finished by the deadline.

  4. John

    May 2nd, 2011

    These examples are just bad project management and poor needs assessment. I agree with everything JWoods says. A requirements gathering session should focus on determining the client’s goals in the needs of their business, quality, scope and functional requirements. Undoubtedly, a company that professionally develops websites should have their own methodoligies that include seeking elaboration on simple requests such as an image gallery.

  5. Sam Barnes

    Jul 4th, 2011

    I’ve just scheduled a Tweet for this article, but couldnt disagree more with it – however, if the title was changed to “Why BAD Project managers are a barrier for design.” then I’d be in agreement with you.

    To your first two points, about asking the client why… I absolutely agree, but if you’re working with a digital account or web project manager who isn’t asking this vital question on every request, then I’m sorry, you’re just simply dealing with a BAD account or web project manager – the good ones ask this always.

    As to PMs essentially reducing designers to machines – again, this is what BAD ones do. Good ones actually translate the business problem from the client to the designer in such a way that they know what they need to solve using design, communicating any constraints or business priorities. If a PM is ever ordering a designer to “place that there” or “make that green” – then there is a trust issue with the PM and designer.

    To the next point, designer / client intamacy… ok, so in an ideal world the designer snuggles up to the client and they work together to come up with the ultimate solution – great, except there’s just one small point to address here – someone has to make sure the budgets, timelines, scope, happiness of the client, ROI, agency standards and a whole host of other factors are adhered to at all times – and when a designer is left alone with a client, often, and rightly so, they’ll get carried away and blow budget, scope, timelines and expectations – solution? A PM sits in on this meeting, Result? Two people’s time used for one meeting. This can work, but isnt always commercially viable. Again, a GOOD PM will be able to translate what the client needs into a decent creative brief, a bad PM will not.

    To your last point about including designers in on meetings with clients from the start… again, this shows a real naivity about the commercial reality of running a business. I’m not for one second saying this wouldnt be better than not including the designer, or the UX, IA or even developers in all meetings – but this just isnt practially possible and its WHY there are PMs!!!

    Again, a good PM is able to EFFECTIVELY wear many hats, understand the needs of the client and translate them into effective creative briefs without dictating to the designer what the solution is, but merely the boundaries in which they must work.

    A BAD PM will just do what the client wants as they dont have the confidence, experience or passion to challenge the client. A GOOD PM wants to solve a client’s business problem, a BAD PM wants to finish the project, tick a box and get home to watch the X-Factor.

    Sorry mate, I do enjoy reading articles, but cant help feeling youve just had some bad experiences with some PMs that give good ones a bad reputation on the production side of things – on behalf of those waste of spaces (of which there are many) I apologise to you :)

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