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   leadership    Project Leadership part 1: Diagnose Your Project

Project Leadership part 1: Diagnose Your Project

These days lots of people talk about UX strategy. Whether you are a researcher, strategist, interaction designer, IA, UX, VD, prototyper, being “strategic” seems to be the buzzword everywhere. How could us designer up our game to get better chance of project success? I’d like to share what I learned from project management field and translate it from a designer’s standpoint, in the hope that this could benefit our way of project engagement.
Based on Eddie Obeng’s book All Change! The project leaders’ secret handbook, there are mainly four types of project as figure below. Each type of project have its own specific nature, success criteria, and principle solutions that we can adopt.


Paint by Numbers

Let’s start with the easy one, Paint by Numbers. For readers like me who’s still learning western culture, paint-by-numbers refers to a children activity in which children will use crayon or other colorful drawing tool to paint the picture with colors that follow a sequential order (e.g. 1 is red, 2 is orange, 3 is yellow). Since it’s an activity for children to follow simple orders, Eddie Obeng uses this analogy to describe that the type of project that is  fairly simple, and participants just follow the existing rule to complete the tasks.

A typical Paint-by-Numbers project is something that the project goal is clear, and the method or process to achieve the goal is familiar enough. In short, low risk, no surprise. It doesn’t require much effort around understanding the requirement, nor finding ways to gauge if the problem is solvable. Therefore, mostly the effort is expected to spend on perfecting the quality of product, process, or services

Back to the UX design world, a Paint-by-Numbers project might be a good chance for several things: to test out your new hired employee, an opportunity to mentor junior designers, also good for  the team to try new process/tool/concept, or simply serve as opportunity to “breath” if you just finished a big project. I once leverage a Paint-by-Numbers project to test out new process like Google Design Sprints with a team that’s eager to learned new design process, and as a result both the team and the stakeholders are satisfied with the results.

Pro Tip: Since a Paint-by-Numbers type of project usually is easier to lead, often times the emphasis is around how to get marginal gain compare to existing process or product. It’s important to find a way to make the project exciting to the team so that the morale can stay high and the quality can be ensured.



When you’re equipped with all the skill set you need to tackle most types of projects, you might find yourself in a situation that you’re ready to go, but your business partner and project leadership team doesn’t really know what the direction is; And that’s what we called a Movie project, in which you’re ready to go but just don’t know where to. The reason why it’s called movie is that, think about the movie industry in Hollywood, you have all the great talents in town, all you need is a great script to start rolling the camera, but you just don’t know where that golden script is.

In a movie project, it’s imperative to help the project leadership team to clarify the decision as soon as possible. At the end of the day, nobody wants to see their work being thrown away simply because the direction is not clear. If the root cause of not having clear direction is because of communication issue, Google’s OKR methodology usually helps team member to communicate goals and key measurement. However, if the goal is not clear because the business reason, you might want to evaluate the cost and risk of kicking of work without having a clear direction, and communicate back to the stakeholders as soon as possible

In the UX world, we sometimes get unclear requirement in which the business value or users expectation are not clearly communicated. Especially in a waterfall process without savvy UX team leading the conversation, UXers could be treated as “talents that put lipstick on a pig”. It’s our strength to utilize design thinking to help stakeholders think through the value proposition of the product, and it’s our responsibility to urge the business side about the importance of clear goals.

Pro Tip: A workshop with the stakeholder, with some root cause analysis like 5 whys or Fishbone diagram could help sort out the problem statement, and using affinity diagram could help prioritize the issue therefore come up with great business opportunities. User research also helps to find the pain points and new ways to solve things.



Quest project happens when your stakeholder has a brilliant idea that’s totally different than your day-to-day job. You have a clear high level goal, but you’re not familiar how it could be achieved. And the reason it’s called Quest is using the metaphor of a dragon quest: You know you have to eliminate the dragon as a clear goal, but you don’t know what kind of danger you might encounter in a huge dungeon or maze, therefore it’s hard to prepare for.

It reminds me a TV show I recently watched on Discovery channel, called: “Phelps vs. Shark, Great Gold vs. Great White”. The show is about letting Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps to compete with a shark to see who swims faster. Seems pretty clear, isn’t it? But how exactly are they gonna make that happen? Do they just swim together in a Olympic standard swimming pool? with salt water or not?

Since you don’t know how exactly you can achieve the goal, inevitably there’s an element of experimentation in it. What you might want to do is to limit the risk of the experimentation(s), by using a lean and agile approach. More prototyping to verify what works and what not, breaking down a big chunk of task into smaller testable tasks to get early feedback, and a clear communication channel and documentation to report back to the team and stakeholders, so that you can swiftly adjust your approach before it’s too late.

When we encounter a Quest type of UX project, we tend to do competitive analysis and see if there’s any resolution has been done and proven successful. Also we might look outside to see if other industry have solved similar issue in a creative way that we can leverage. After exhausting the options above, we will try to set expectation with stakeholders to let them understand that this is going to be a trial-and-error process, but we can utilize Lean UX and other agile methodology to learn fast and adjust quickly.

Pro Tip: A picture says a thousand words. By having white-boarding session or create mock-up, prototype, it helps stimulate the conversation so that the team could potentially discuss different ways to solve the problem. Early-stage brainstorming session also helps us look at the problems in different way, so that when we realize one direction/method doesn’t work, we can quickly adjust.



Probably the worst scenario you could image: You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know how to get there. Needless to say, it’s frightening, no one wants to be this situation, and everyone just wants to get out of it as soon as possible.

When you encounter a fog project in which there’s no clearly defined goals, nor you can image how we can possibility get there by leveraging existing process and skill-set, the best thing you can do is spend more time on communication. Sometimes there’s could be a hidden goal that hasn’t been explicitly communicated. By engaging more with stakeholders, you could potentially move a Fog project into either a Movie project, or a Quest project

In the UX world, thankfully Fog projects rarely happen to me. A lot of time the issue could be resolved through clear communication. However, in a large team that everyone has their own agenda, or a hierarchical organizations where asking questions might not be encouraged, Fog project could happen. It’s important to reflect to the team of the risk of having a Fog project, not only for the project success, but also the potential damage to the team morale. I’d use the combined skill sets for Quest and Movie project solutions to ensure clear communication among silos, and small experiments quickly adjust to define the best approach

Pro Tip: It’s hard for anyone to be stuck inside a Fog project. In that scenario, constant support for the team members and the team morale becomes the top priority. Having in mind of the damage that’s caused by the uncertainty of the project, constant communication to the team to maintain the morale, also showing progress of getting away from the Fog nature, will help your team to stay longer with you.


Do you have any interesting stories about your project experience? I’d like to hear from you.



Photo Credit:


João Silas