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A PM’s Guide to User Experience

What is User Experience Engineering and Why Should PMs Care?

The term “User Experience” or UX goes back to 1990s, but recently it has become increasingly popular.

With Capital One purchasing the lead design firm, Adaptive Path in late 2014 more and more businesses are turning to fields of Design and Usability. And they do so for good financial reasons. When applied correctly, UX methods reduce an organization’s risks, help manage the scope creep, and improve ROI.

Today’s UX has grown past its original applications in product design and website development. It is now a standalone discipline with a clear set of methods and a wide spectrum of applications – from enterprise applications and industrial equipment to consumer products and mobile apps.

Why Should PMs Care About UX?

Unless you’re developing an internal component of a bigger system that has absolutely no user interaction, the truth is, your team is already using UX tools, and they do so with various degrees of knowledge and confidence, producing various results. 

This article will help you get the most of your time spent on this activity and point out some common pitfalls.

You’ll understand the key UX activities, their goals, deliverables, and what kind of outcomes you should expect. 

I will also discuss the degree at which each of these activities is affecting your risk breakdown structure, your schedule, their typical durations, and typical manpower requirements.

Key UX phases and activities

Here’s a list of the top 7 key UX activities that are most relevant to Project Managers:

1. Stakeholder Review. This is a series of one-on-one interviews with key stakeholders and project sponsors. Yes, this is something you normally do as part of Project Initiation, only this time you focus on user experience.

2. Usability Review. A set of baseline usability tests of your sites or software. This is done if you’re looking to improve an existing site, product or app. 

3.User Interviews and Observation. These are exactly what the name implies – when you interview your users to determine their needs and goals. These can be done in-person or remotely, scheduled or onsite. 

Observation, not surprisingly, is when you observe users as they interact with sites or software in their normal daily environment.

4. Persona Development. Personas are fictional characters that represent key categories of users. Thinking from their point of view helps us make better decisions and makes it easy to validate user needs, motivations, and tasks.

5. Task Analysis and User Journey Maps. Task Analysis helps uncover the scope and complexity of a given user’s or group’s needs for an application or site. Journey Maps then help condense this data into a compelling visual summary, making it easy to analyze.

6. Prototyping and Wireframing. The meat and potatoes of UX process, where the findings from all previous steps are fleshed out in a life-like interactive application mock-up. If done right, this and the next activity, Usability Testing, is where the most benefits and risk reduction are taking place.

7. Usability Testing. Another potent risk-reducing activity that helps catch problems early on, without having to spend a lot of time and resources.

These activities fit into four phases, that help you gain knowledge, plan, apply, and quickly test your insights.


Let’s look at each phase in more detail.  I will start with Prototyping and Testing phases because this is where most of the projects will realize their biggest and quickest wins.

Prototyping and Wireframing

Think of a working prototype. What comes to mind? 

“A minimum set of functions that is sufficient to make the product useful for its target audience,” right?


This is what Lean and Agile methodologies are teaching we should build in each of the project phases, but this is not a prototype. 

Even if you’re asking a developer only to build the UI layer and have users inspect it before continuing with middle tier and database – you’re asking for too much. These real life prototypes take too long and cost too much to develop. People get attached to them and will be reluctant to change, even if there’s a good reason. Clients are then stuck with less than optimal implementation, valuable time is spent on costly updates, and many useful features are never discovered because the time is spent on building and updating these heavy ‘prototypes.’

Wireframing offers a great alternative. A wireframe is a quick mock-up that represents the layout and, often, some of the key functionality of the screen. It’s simple enough be produced in minutes instead of days or even hours – yet it’s close enough to the real thing to be lifelike and fully convey the features and the meaning to end users. (See screenshot below)


You could use Visio or specialized tools like Balsamiq or Axure, that we like to use – to quickly create these and string them together. 

Now not only could these be updated really quickly, but any changes can also be made on the fly, right during a meeting with a client – so they can instantly see the effect of the changes they’re requesting – and make adjustments right there and then.

And because wireframes are so easy to produce, it is now feasible to prototype 100 percent of application screens and even link them together, so when you click on attachment link in the wireframe above, Edit Attachment wireframe actually comes up, and real lifelike testing becomes possible.

Now this is a real chance to curb potential scope creep and realize screen flow problems, missing functionality and inconsistencies. If you’re missing a feature, you’ll know it immediately, in your week 1, when the budget is still intact, and you still have the time to make adjustments. 

Most ‘conventional’ implementations discover missing features and inconsistencies much later in the project, resulting in major rework, schedule slips, and budget overruns. Yet all that was needed to spot these is simply have your business users look at the prototype. 


I hope you’re beginning to see the value of employing UX processes and activities in your projects. We looked how using wireframes instead of conventional ‘heavy’ prototyping could reduce project risks and make estimating and planning a whole lot easier. And I can also personally attest to multiple million dollar savings realized when wireframes helped clients uncover major opportunities for improvement.

I’ll be writing some follow-up articles to continue exploring these time-tested processes of using wireframes for finding missing features, confusing and redundant functionality. I will then explore the processes and the tricks of quickly ‘extracting’ the true domain knowledge from your users, the knowledge that they just won’t be able to explain even if they really wanted.

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