There is no such thing as a UX emergency

by Verity Woolnough on 15 November 2016

Ok... you're over budget, the project deadline was a week ago, a key stakeholder has materialised from thin air with a new list of requirements of biblical proportions which – of course - are critical for go live, and your team lead has announced that they're off on a 3-week psychedelic Kambo healing trip which wasn't in resourcing.

But really - what's the worst that's going to happen?

No one is going to die

No one is going to die (Kambo kid aside), there will be no plagues of locusts, fire and brimstone and, let's face it, if you grew up in the 90's you have already lived through the UX apocalypse using the voice automated phone service to buy cinema tickets.

So neck some rescue remedy, listen to Enya and follow these steps to get your project back on track.

1. Embrace uncertainly

Just like arriving for a tinder date where you don't know if you'll be greeted with the lithe young thing you swiped right for or a trade descriptions act Donald Trump look-a-like, projects by definition are unique events so will continually change. Embrace uncertainty and be prepared to stop and reevaluate. There is no point in blindly progressing towards a goal that no longer exists.

When the Gantt chart hits the fan, the best way to get back on track is to run a mid-project team review. Start by comparing the initial schedules, budgets and deliverables against current ones and discuss the blocks each one has. This will help to identify what has gone wrong and how to resolve it.

As a team you should use the review to;

  • Redefine roles and responsibilities
  • Reviewing activities and timeline
  • Reframing the project goal and if needed re-scope

Most importantly a review is an opportunity to spread some project love! Don't just focus on the issues, get some unhealthy carbs involved and celebrate the small wins. This will help to re-energise the team. It might only be that Barry, during a project walk out, found a great new coffee shop, but that is still a win so YAY!

2. Communicate

It's a good sign if your project team are bored by the sound of your voice.

The key to a successful project is frequent and effective communication.

This needs to be direct and simple so aim for face to face talks as much as possible - you'll need to see the whites of people's eyes. E-Mail is for wimps – it's evasive and subjective.

Keep it simple - decide on one channel of communication and stick to it. There is nothing more corrosive (and depressing) then one lonely person sending Mr T gifs to an empty slack channel.

In the midst of Project Armageddon, it's important to standardise meetings and communication points – I suggest implementing a daily stand up – even if just for a week to get your team talking and your project back on track.

Having a daily touch point quickly ensures everyone is aligned and mitigates ambiguity. Keeping this time boxed to 15 mins avoids it becoming onerous and spiraling into a 4-hour therapy session – save that for the wash-up.

If your project stand ups become monotonous then lucky you - your project is back on track!

3. Be inclusive – invite clients and stakeholders to the project party

Successful project teams have no secrets – just like BBF's they remember your pudding bowl haircut and Kappa tracksuit wearing days! For the duration of your project you should be finishing off each other's sentences and having the equivalent project sleep overs (or communal Trello card moving sessions?).

A project team includes clients and stakeholders; a catastrophe free project is one where the whole team understand and appreciates each other's workflow, milestones and blocks, including client issues such as deadlines and access to additional budget. Having an honest, transparent view of the project will manage expectations and allow for better solutions to be found.

The best way to facilitate inclusivity is via one communication tool – whatever you use, make sure EVERYONE in the team has 'VIP' access and you're sharing everything (or at least everything project-related –No one cares about your homemade chia seed pesto)

At any crisis points, get you whole team together and communally acknowledged the problem. Be clear and transparent about what has happened and what the impact is. This might involve difficult client conversations but the sooner you do this, the sooner you can agree a new plan and progress.

4. See into the future

Projects often start in the right direction with a detailed plan and shared understanding of risks, assumptions and dependencies.

However, just like waking up in a bush on a Tuesday, finding yourself wearing someone else's trousers (happened to a friend), unexpected things will cause disruption. If these come out the blue the project team risk reactively moving into resolution mode, focusing on the crisis management – not the project goal.

Project success lies in the foresight to recognise what could happen, not was is happening. Proper risk management allows the control of possible future events, and the best way to do this is sadly not with a Delorean, but with a trusty Risk Log.

Creating a Risk Log is IMPERATIVE to surviving Project Apocalypse, even if you have to create one retrospectively. It will help you understand why issues have occurred and how to avoid them going forward.

Your Risk Log should be an iterative process as risks won't stand still. Your Log needs to be updated regularly, not just at the start of the project when everyone is full of enthusiasm and still making eye contact with the client.

Ensure you allocate time for the whole team to collaboratively update: this ensures all risks that are logged are not just the ones the PM knows about. Communally acknowledged risks are less scary, fear is the unknown.

Lastly of course, you'll need to find solutions. It's pointless to flag warning signs without a resolution. If a project burn is more than anticipated at the start of the project, react and escalate. Talk to the team to understand why this is happening and if applicable communicate a scope creep with the client. Asking for additional budget or time at the end of the project is totally ineffective.

5. Be optimistic

In the eye of the storm when the project is crumbling around you and chaos ensues, just stop and breathe. Negativity and pessimism spread like project pox and your team risk falling into the doom vortex, spending all their time discussing issues rather than solving them.

No one produces their best work in a high stress zone so if things really have spiraled out of control, the best way to get things back on track is have some time out.

Go for a walk, get a burrito, go play beer pong. Step outside the world of the project, interact with life and get some perspective. A PM (alongside everything else) is the Gandalf to the project hobbits – they should provide protection, guidance and most importantly cheerleading.

Happiness equals productivity so go buy your team an ice-cream. They'll come back to project fresh faced, energised with a spring in their step.

But if you find yourself in Project Apocalypse and all the above fails, then as a last resort repeat the below PM mantra

'We are not saving lives'

'There is no such thing as a design emergency'

'It's only a project'

And then watch these cat videos with your team. Enjoy!


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