What You Need To Ask Before Starting A Product Design Project

   Customer Experience

As designers, our new projects often start at the request of a client, another colleague, or management. It’s tempting to dive right in, but asking the right questions at the start can set you up for success. On the other hand, asking the wrong questions, or not asking enough questions, can delay or derail the project. Over the years, I’ve curated a list of questions I find useful to ask when starting new projects. These questions help me understand the project’s success criteria, history, dependencies, and risks. One caveat — they are designed for an introductory call that should last no longer than 1 hour. Later in the project, we run workshops to dive much deeper into each of the following topics. So, without further ado, here is the list:

Intros

Can you tell me a bit about your role at your company?

Why ask this question?
This helps you understand how the people you’re talking with will be involved in the project, as well as what type of information they will know more intimately. Also, a side note — make sure you introduce yourself and your team as well.

Problem Statement

Can you tell me a bit about the problem you’re trying to solve with this project?

Why ask this question?
If you don’t ask this question, more often than not your client or colleague will simply jump into explaining how they want to solve the problem. But this doesn’t give you the background you need to provide an impactful solution. By asking this question, you turn the conversation to the problem. Asking this question also starts to set the expectation that you will work with your client or teammate as a partner, rather than simply as an ” order-taker.” Too often we fall into the trap of doing whatever our clients or bosses ask us to do. Our job is to bring new solutions to the table and test risky assumptions that others might be blind to.

Also, this question helps us understand what stage the project or business is in. If your client or stakeholder struggles to describe the problem, that means they don’t fully understand it yet.

Who are you solving this problem for?

Why ask this question?
To create an innovative solution, we also need to understand our users’ characteristics, quirks, skills, pain points, and mental model. This usually requires research, but asking this question at least helps us understand who we need to talk to. The answer to this question also provides context to everything you learn about the existing or proposed solution moving forward.

Company Stage & Project Goals

How do people currently solve the problem?

Why ask this question?
Do not skip this question — it’s incredibly important for two reasons. First, it helps you understand what stage the project is in. If your client or colleague can’t answer this question, answering it should be one of your first priorities. Which leads us to our second reason why this question is so important. If people are not currently trying to solve the problem, then they won’t pay you money for your solution, or go through the trouble to find out about it. If this is the case, then you have to tackle the difficult task of convincing your client/colleague to pursue another problem to solve.

How do you want this project to affect the health of your company, as a business?

Follow Ups
If the person you’re talking to isn’t sure how to respond, you can give them some examples:

  • Increase revenues
  • Decrease costs
  • Increase profits
  • Increase retention
Why ask this question?
Stakeholders expect most design projects to positively impact the business. Asking this question clarifies exactly how they want the business to be impacted so you can research, design, and prioritize accordingly. For example, if increasing retention is the main goal, you will want to research why retention is not currently as high as expected.
Asking this question also helps you understand what stage the company is in. Are they focused on engagement at this point, or growth?

What would you expect a satisfied user to do in your product(s)?

For example, for an e-commerce website, you would expect a satisfied user to make a purchase and receive their item on time.

Why ask this question?
How many times has a stakeholder asked you to ” improve the user experience” or ” make it pop” ? Both of these goals are subjective. By asking this question, we steer our project goals towards tangible product metrics that we can measure.

What does a user have to do for you to consider them an active user?

For example, instagram might consider an active user to be someone who posts at least once per month. Meanwhile TurboTax would consider someone who files their taxes once per year to be an active user.

Why ask this question?
Again, this is about establishing your success criteria early in the project. Rather than focus on how often people login, we focus on what those people are actually doing in the product. Because someone who logs in but does not actually achieve anything will not be satisfied. Also, this question helps us understand what kind of product we expect to be designing. Is it realistic to expect users to use the product every day?

How do you currently measure engagement?

Why ask this question?
This question is about understanding what stage the company is in. If they can’t answer this question, or if they focus on vanity metrics like site traffic or social media likes, then they aren’t ready to focus on growth yet. Instead, they need to focus on strategy to measure and increase true engagement.

If they do measure engagement, you’ll now have a baseline measurement. This way, you’ll know exactly how much engagement improved as a result of your design decisions.
As a side note, if the person you’re talking with can’t answer this question, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else at the company who can. If you get a non-committal answer, don’t hesitate to ask to be put in touch with someone who might know the answer more definitively.

How important is it for your users to refer other people to use the product or sign up?

Why ask this question?
By asking this question, we understand the team’s approach to acquiring new customers. Do they have customer acquisition budget allocated, or will they rely on virality? Every time a user refers another user, that’s less money the business needs to spend on acquiring new users. If the business doesn’t have budget allocated for customer acquisition, but customer acquisition is still a goal, then you’ll want to think about how your design can support virality. You’ll also want to think about measuring viral coefficient and viral cycle time.

Asking this question also helps you understand your client or stakeholder’s maturity. For example, let’s say they don’t know what constitutes an active user or what their current engagement levels are. Or perhaps users aren’t engaging with the product as much as they would like. In this case, focusing on virality is premature — you’d just be funneling users to a product that people abandon.

Do you track these referrals in any way right now? If so, how often do users refer other users? How often are those referrals accepted?

Why ask this question?
This question is again about establishing a baseline, specifically for your viral coefficient. Disclaimer: if the team is focused on validating their problem or increasing engagement, then virality should not be the main topic of conversation during your kickoff meeting.

Is there anything else that needs to happen for you to consider this project a success? By when?

Why ask this question?
This is the catch all question — it’s an opportunity for the client or stakeholder to voice any other goals or expectations they’ve yet to voice. Plus, for every goal we capture, we want to understand the timeline for that goal as well.

Existing Work

What work have you already done for this project?

Why ask this question?
You may be tempted to discount or abandon any previous work, because you weren’t involved in it and don’t know how valid the results are. However, this generally doesn’t go over well with the stakeholders that did the work. Plus, you really can’t know unless you review the work that’s been done. In the worst case scenario, you’ll learn a little bit from the previous work, but still have a lot of gaps to fill in. In the best case scenario, the work will be reliable, unbiased, and ready for you to run with.

What were the key learnings?

Why ask this question?
You’ll want to dig into this question much deeper later, but this question will give you the learnings that are top of mind for your stakeholders — the surprising things they didn’t expect. Also, like many other questions listed here, it helps you understand the integrity of the work that’s been done to date. If your client or stakeholder can’t easily answer this question, it means they haven’t learned much from the work they have done to date.

What do you know about your customers today? How did you collect that information?

Why ask this question?
Imagine a client asks you to design and build a better ATM. You don’t ask any questions about the customer — you just go ahead and build an ATM that fixes the common problems you and your client have when using ATMs. But later you find out your client’s main customers are people with motor impairments. Your new ATM is now basically useless. This is a contrived, extreme example, but it highlights the importance of understanding who your target customer is. You’ll want to do more research on this than just asking your stakeholders, but asking them is a good place to start. Doing so will uncover gaps in their understanding. Asking them how they collected their information about customers will unearth assumptions or biases.

What metrics do you currently track?

Why ask this question?
Metrics help us understand if the design decisions we make are delivering our expected outcome. For example, we might track engagement levels as a leading indicator of retention — if users regularly engage with our product, they are more likely to renew their contract when the time comes.

By asking this question, we also start to understand the client or stakeholder’s maturity level in regards to product strategy. If they are not tracking any metrics, they are likely relatively low maturity. This also means that any metrics you want to track will require development or integration time, which should be taken into account for your project timeline. If they’re tracking vanity metrics, like page views or social media likes, their head is in the right place but they are just executing in a risky way. Because these vanity metrics don’t predict or impact business outcomes like revenue, retention, or cost.

Do you have existing requirements or a product roadmap? If so, are the requirements prioritized?

Why ask this question?
Many people don’t view requirements definition as a designer’s responsibility. Despite this fact, designers often find themselves having to lead requirements definition in order to move forward with their project. Because we can’t design anything if our team hasn’t agreed how we want to solve the problem at least at a high level. So knowing if requirements have been defined already will help us decide whether to set aside time for requirement gathering in the project plan.
We also specifically call out prioritization here. I talk more about this later, but we often work on projects where the timeline is fixed, so scope must be flexible. This means certain features will not make it into the first iteration of the design. So having a prioritized list of requirements tees us up to make decisions on what gets in and what doesn’t.

Are there any relevant deliverables or artifacts you can send me to review?

Why ask this question?
Again, this question is about gleaning any amount of useful information you can from the work that’s already been done. When asking this question, be sure to provide examples of what you’re looking for: personas, journey maps, branding and style guides, user feedback, or research findings.

Team & Roles

Tell me a bit about the team I would be working with. What are their different roles?

Why ask this question?
This is the first step to understanding each contributor’s role and responsibilities on the project. It helps you understand which skills you and your team need to bring to the table. For example, if the client or stakeholder will provide an entire content team, you might not need to find a copy editor.

Who else do you plan to collaborate with outside of your team?

Why ask this question?
This question is mainly about semantics. Whoever you’re talking with might not consider important stakeholders to actually be part of their ” team.” But we know that those stakeholders need to be included in the design process to avoid late round feedback.
When asking this question, I like to ask about the involvement of three teams specifically: marketing, content, and research. Let’s discuss each one, starting with marketing. The roles and responsibilities of marketing and UX/product design often overlap. So if both teams will be involved in a project, it’s important to clearly outline which team will do what to avoid too many disagreements or redundant work.

As for content — many stakeholders or clients often underestimate the importance of content to a product’s success. They get distracted by the prospect of a new UI or usability improvements. But in the end, content is king for most products. Asking this question is a gentle reminder that, yes, someone needs to write the content. And if content isn’t ready before you design the UI, you can expect more rounds of revision.

I specifically ask about a research team because, in my experience, it’s something that clients and stakeholders often forget to mention. Plus, running a project with a bunch of design generalists, who can do research but also design solutions is very different than collaborating with a dedicated research team. Working with a research team is very valuable and powerful. However, because the roles are more discrete, you need to build plenty of opportunities to collaborate into your project plan. In other words, plan to get designers involved in research and researchers involved in designing solutions. Otherwise, your team won’t fully capitalize on research insights.

Who will be the primary decision maker? Who else might have a prominent role in making decisions?

Why ask this question?
This sets the expectation that there should be a product owner who has the final say on tough decisions. Having this product owner is important because it saves your project from devolving into design by committee. We often need to make bold decisions to stand out from our competitors, and putting everything to a vote tends to mellow out your design decisions.

What is your team’s availability for this project?

Why ask this question?
I’ve made the mistake of assuming that a client will be readily available at all times during a project. But, in reality, this is hardly ever the case. Most people are juggling multiple projects and won’t be able to devote their full time to your project. Understanding what level of commitment you can expect will help you set expectations for when the client should be available. It will also help you understand what kinds of collaborative activities you can schedule. For example, if your client will only be spending about 8 hours a week on your project, it will be difficult to schedule a 3 day on-site meeting to do project discovery.

How do others on the team feel about the project goals we’ve discussed thus far? Are they on board? Why or why not?

Why ask this question?
Often, we’ll start a project only to find out several weeks in that many of the stakeholders didn’t believe in the project to begin with. They haven’t bought into the project’s value for end users or the business. In such a case, it helps to know this from the beginning so you can manage those stakeholders appropriately. It also helps you prepare for an uphill battle, meaning you should build extra time into your schedule to get buy in from stakeholders and address feedback from dissenters.

Competition & Inspiration

Who are your strongest competitors?

Why ask this question?
Okay, I cheated a bit on this one. Strictly speaking, you could wait until after your kick off call to dive deep into a discussion about competitors. That being said, if you have some extra time during your kick off, knowing your competitors can give you a head start on gathering inspiration. The answer to this question also gives context to the next question, which you 100% should ask during the kick off.

How is your product or service different from the competition? What makes it unique?

Why ask this question?
This is another question that helps you understand your client or stakeholder’s maturity when it comes to product design. If they’re asking you to design a product, but they don’t know what makes the product unique, then you need to spend time discussing unique selling points and testing your ideas.

Risks & Dependencies

What do you see as the biggest risks for this project?

Why ask this question?
You want to know about any risks that could stall progress on your project so that you can monitor them and keep your clients and stakeholders updated. And, in many cases, you’ll be able to mitigate these risks before they become problems.

Do you see any dependencies between this project and other projects?

Why ask this question?
If you’re blocked by another team, you need to escalate the issue. Even if the other team remains a blocker, at least your client or stakeholder knows it wasn’t your fault.

Scope

Every project has a scope, time, and cost. For this project, if you could only choose one of those to be flexible, instead of fixed, which would you choose?

Why ask this question?
First, let’s unpack that statement with a few examples. If we have a deadline we must meet and a fixed team, then scope must be flexible. In contrast, if scope and time are fixed, then cost must be flexible so we can hire more people or purchase new tools to move faster.

Clients and stakeholders want to build every feature before their deadline at a cost lower than you quoted them. But that’s impossible. This question sets the expectation that you’re not a magician with a time machine and infinitely deep pockets.

Recruiting

Will we have access to your customers to perform user research?

Why ask this question?
If the answer is no, you have another uphill battle to fight: time to convince your client/stakeholder that the benefits of user research outweigh any risks they can fathom.

Who will handle recruiting users for research?

Why ask this question?
This is more of an expenses and resourcing question for consultants. If your client expects you to recruit users, consider building in cost to compensate these users.

How long do you think it will take to recruit around 10 users?

Why ask this question?
Only ask this question if your client plans to recruit users themselves. Knowing how long it will take to find users will inform your project timeline.

Front End

What devices and operating systems are you targeting?

Why ask this question?
Some clients or stakeholders won’t know the answer to this question and might be looking for you to help them decide. However, if they do know, this gives you an opportunity to delve into how they made this decision. Is it based on actual usage data or market data, or based on assumptions and the path of least resistance.

Has your team made any decisions on tech stack?

Why ask this question?
The front-end framework used to build your product will dictate some constraints of your design.

Timeline

When are you looking to start?

Why ask this question?
This is, regrettably, a question I often forget to ask. Without an answer to this question, you’ll be unable to build a project proposal or timeline.

Wrap Up

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that we didn’t cover?

Why ask this question?
This is your catch all question that gives your client or stakeholder a chance to voice any concerns or questions. Because, although this list of questions is pretty exhaustive, new questions will continue to come up throughout your project.

The great thing about lists is that they’re easy to add to. Let us know in the comments about your favorite questions to ask when kicking off a new project.


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