Dealing with project purgatory

Posted 2 years ago

I was messenging a designer friend recently and he earnestly asked if he can include projects that never went live in his portfolio. The short answer is yes (in my humble opinion), but I’d like to unpack my reasons why you should showcase unshipped work and what to do if a project gets canned.


The death of a software project

If you’ve worked in the design industry for any amount of time, the following scenario should be familiar.

A product manager or stakeholder comes to you with a problem or better yet, specifications for a new project. You form a multi-disciplinary project team and begin conducting research. Your research leads you to designs, the final designs are tested and developed iteratively until you’re ready to launch. Everything is good, until someone or something pulls the pin and stops the project from going live. You and your team are stuck in software purgatory. The project is dead in the water.

During this confusing time, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed for your team, yourself, and especially your users who won’t experience the software you championed for them. The outcomes are out of your control, despite your best efforts.


Focus on your findings

Regardless of why the project didn’t launch, I’ve realised it’s important to focus on what you personally learned from the entire experience rather than dwell on the situation. You might have learned a useful new approach to problem solving or you might have a deeper understanding of your users. Maybe you were exposed to new tools or techniques that will help in the future. You embarked on something new or found new solutions to old problems. The whole project team has grown professionally, despite the outcomes of the project.


It might not be over just yet

Following the closure of a major project, your product manager might organise a retrospective meeting, to clarify any questions and tie up any loose ends. This gives every team member an opportunity to update the team with their position, state their case, describe their learnings, and vent their frustrations.

A project retrospective can be the perfect starting point to make plans for the future. Perhaps the project is only on hiatus, and there is a chance it will be picked up later. If that’s the case, you may be able to continue work during your team’s collective downtime and demonstrate the value of the project to the wider organisation.

The stakeholders may have ended the project for financial reasons, which could be an opportunity to demonstrate longer term cost-savings if the project is reinstated. Shine a light on the user research you conducted and emphasise the importance of this ongoing research. I’ve found hard evidence can be very persuasive when working directly with stakeholders who control the resources of software projects.


Your work is still valuable

Even after all your efforts are exhausted and the project is shutdown, the work you put into a project is undeniably part of your career. The project might never go out to the masses, but you still created something of value and grew as a designer.

Unless you’re under a strict non-disclosure agreement, you should include any of your best work in your portfolio, dead or alive. If you decide the work isn’t good enough for your portfolio, it still is worth documenting your processes as your findings will inevitably help your future self.