Drinking from the firehose

Posted 3 years ago

Anyone working in a software project team understands how stressful it can be preparing for the go-live date. I thought I’d use this post to describe first-hand some of the challenges I’ve faced working within a project team under tight deadlines.


Stick to your time estimates, deliver early if possible

When tasked with design work under pressure, I have found it’s a good practice to always provide a conservative time estimate with extra padding added in case unforeseen issues arise. Even if you believe the task to be simple, other factors may influence your ability to meet a tight deadline. For example, two hours of design work may take five hours when including time for client communication and/or revisions, so it’s safer to estimate six hours or more. And if the work is completed in less time than expected, everyone is usually happy.

In contrast, delivering design work late can have a negative effect worse than a longer quoted lead time. By missing a deadline you agreed to, you appear incompetent or seemingly ignorant of other team member’s responsibilities or workload. One person’s lack of planning can cause a chain-reaction that impacts the rest of the team. As a designer, it’s likely other team members are depending on your work being delivered on time.

I’ve seen designers fall into the trap of agreeing to strict, arbitrary timelines that hurt their reputation when they can’t stick to it or are too proud to put forward a more reasonable timeframe. Managing client expectations is just as important as the quality of the work produced. And sometimes you have to negotiate with your team in order to protect yourself and the project.


Splitting design work into small tasks is hard but necessary

It seems self-evident but it can be difficult to split a workload into bite-sized chunks, especially in product design when you might be building a whole end-to-end system. Every aspect of the design is a moving part that requires the same amount of consideration. Tackling one design challenge can feel like opening a Pandora’s box of subsequent issues and dependencies, when thinking of the product holistically.

But the truth is projects have limited time and resources and often a designer has to make a judgement call that may have repercussions to deal with at a later stage. Breaking workloads down into smaller tasks helps clear your mind, reduces your anxiety, ensures you focus on finding a solution (albeit temporary), and allows other team members to understand the situation. A skillful designer can align their view of a project at the macro and micro level and alter their approach to suit the needs of the project.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
– A wise idiom my Dad taught me growing up

Design frameworks will help you move quickly

The well-known Lean UX approach was purposefully derived from Agile methodologies to help mitigate issues with time and budget constraints in product teams. Lean UX allows designers to work in iterative, rapid cycles to validate design concepts quickly with a view to incrementally create a minimum viable product (MVP).

Designers short on time should also consider focussing on creating an interactive design system or leveraging an existing one. I’ve personally found a detailed design system accompanied with simple wireframes can be a great way to clearly communicate an experience to a team without getting bogged down in visuals that may block other team members from their work.


Crunch time is usually temporary

Thankfully working in software means nothing really lasts forever. Once crunch time is over and stress levels subside, a product team can make much needed incremental improvements to a digital product.