Product design is hard. There are a lot of different things that should be taken into account when crafting a product. Even for a simple project, it’s almost impossible to keep all the project details in the head. The situation gets worse for more significant projects — when a few different people (or groups of people) working on a project simultaneously this creates complexity. Hopefully, it’s possible to solve the problem of complexity by preparing a project plan. In fact, creating a project plan should be one of the first things a project leader should do when starting a new design project.
In this article, you’ll find highly practical recommendations that will help you create a solid project plan. We’ll also review a popular tool project managers can use — Dropbox Paper.
This is a sponsored post.
What is a project plan exactly?
The word “plan” comes from the Latin word plānum which stands for “level ground.” The word represents the first stage of a growing process.
A project plan, according to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), is: “…a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” In simple terms, it’s a document that supports the product design and development work.
Why each team needs a plan?
Product plan is a strategic document — it makes it easier to create a course of action that will help a team go from objectives to the final solution. Below are a few things a project plan can help the product team with:
- Defining assumptions
- Facilitating communication among team members and project stakeholders
- Documenting the approved scope and cost
- Scheduling baselines
Building a solid project plan is one of the most critical steps in making sure your project gets completed on time and on budget.
When should you create a project plan?
Product design process typically consists of three main phases: research, design, and design validation. Many product teams make the same mistake over and over again — they skip a research phase and go straight to the design phase. They jump straight to the Photoshop or Sketch in the attempt to create a pixel perfect design. Pushing pixels is simple, creating great user experience is hard. That’s why way before starting with comps, it’s essential to make sure your team has covered every instance of the project and prepared a plan. A project plan should be one of the first deliverables created for the project.
How to create a project plan
It’s very difficult to prepare an effective plan for design project because there are many different things should be taken into account. While project plans come in many different shapes, sizes, and formats, a good project plan provides answers to following five questions:
- Why do we start working on this project?
- What are the deliverables that are expected of a team?
- Who is involved in the project?
- When planned activities need to be done (planned releases/deadlines for deliveries)?
- How does a team get from start to finish?
1. Project goals (Why)
Creating a context should be one of the first things to do when starting a new project. People involved in the project needs to have a clear answer to the question “Why do we work on this project?” That’s why each project plan should contain information on why the project was started in the first place and what are the main priorities of the project.
Here are two points that should be included in every project plan:
- Provide a brief overview of a project (short brief of the project background) and links to related documents team members can read to understand what’s the project all about. The goal is to make a design intention as clear as possible.
- Describe the objective and main priorities of the project, and document the priorities in a numbered list. Priorities should be specific. Avoid vague objectives such as “Improve usability of sign up form,” make each objective specific “Reduce the bounce rate for sign up page on 50%.”
2. Major activities and deliverables (What)
Identify all activities required to deliver this project. Sequence those activities in dependencies and priorities. This information will help you identify the resources needed to handle those activities.
Project plan should also communicate the deliverables that are expected of a team. You need to break an objective that you’ve defined in the Project Goals section into deliverables that have to be provided for this objective. It’s important to understand that deliverables are not just a product scope (e.g., wireframes, UI specification), they can also be a project scope (e.g., a questionnaire for stakeholders interview, a summary of usability testing reports, etc.). Deliverables also should be sequenced in dependencies and priorities.
3. People involved in a project (Who)
Who is involved in the project, and what are their roles? The plan should also contain information about assignments (people to produce deliverables).
It’s also important to specify dependencies that need to be considered (both internal and external dependencies). Internal dependency is a situation when one team member depends on another (for instance, the engineering team needs a UI specification to implement a design, designers are responsible for preparing a specification). An external dependency is when a team needs to collaborate with people outside of a team (e.g. when a product team needs to conduct a testing session to gather feedback, and this session depends on the test participant).
4. Timeline (When)
Timeline defines how long it’s going to take to get this project done. It’s essential not only to set key dates but also make sure everyone knows when everything’s due.
When it comes to setting a timeline, there are a few things that are worth remembering:
- It’s possible to create a high-level schedule of the project based on the information gathered from stakeholders interview and global project goals.
- Don’t set strict deadlines for all activities. Not everything needs to have an exact deadline. Try to provide precise deadlines only for the major activities and milestones.
5. Team strategy (How)
Team strategy helps to understand how a team plans to get from start to finish. It can include the following information.
- Team’s global activities (information about daily standups, brainstorming sessions, design review meetings,etc.)
- Design approaches/methods (e.g. design sprints, guerrilla testing, etc.)
- To-do list of duties for different team members.
- The information on how you plan to measure progress. Defining key performance indicators (KPIs) is vital.
What helps to create a stronger plan
Conduct research before creating a plan
Research is a core part of the overall design process. A solid project plan is created after you’ve done research. You need to find:
- Your users’ goals. Have a solid understanding of the user’s needs and expectations. Keep in mind that users needs are not the same as user wants.
- Your business goals. Understand who your stakeholders are and what do they want to get out of the project. What are their fears? What drives them?
A project plan shouldn’t be a document that’s available exclusively for management or stakeholders. All team members should have access to the document. It’s extremely important to create a collaborative workspace that helps team members share ideas.
Review a plan together with your team and stakeholders
After a project plan is finished, you need to share it with your team. Designers and developers should review a plan together and question all unclear moments. The feedback you’ll receive from this discussion will help you to iterate and perfect the plan.
A project plan should also be reviewed with stakeholders to ensure that everyone (both your team and clients) has the same understanding of what needs to be done.
Remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect project plan
Creating a product is always about embracing uncertainty. No matter how good you invest in planning, there’s always a possibility that you miss some details. Don’t think of your plan as something that guarantees success. “If we just follow the plan, we’ll succeed!” This will give you a false sense of security. You need to be flexible and be ready to adjust your plan according to the real situation.
What tools to use to create a product plan?
There are a few strong reasons why cloud-based text editors are suitable for creating project plans:
- People are familiar with text editors. The experience is very easy to get on with. Users won’t need to spend extra time learning how to use them.
- Text documents are flexible. It’s possible to create a format that will work the best for your project.
- The latest version of a product plan can be available for all team members. No need to install anything on your computer. All important information is available at a glance.
- Gather all information in one place. When important information is distributed among many different channels (e.g. emails, reports, presentations, etc.) this can cause fragmented knowledge. A team should work together in the same doc in real time, add comments, and always view the most recent version of a plan.
Dropbox Paper allows you to create new documents in the cloud. Most online document editing tools are pretty much the same in terms of the features they provide, but, Dropbox Paper’s interface is more focused on collaboration. Paper delivers some helpful features such as to-do’s and has a nice feature of task assignment (as a user, you can simply tag a person using @).
The tool is also more media-focused experience. Using Paper, it’s much easier to add embedded videos or change a format for images.
If you’re a seasoned product designer, most probably you’re using the same types of docs over and over again. But pulling one together — finding the last doc, making a copy, stripping out the old project’s info can be tedious. Dropbox Paper has an excellent feature for this case — the ability to turn any doc into a shareable template. Having a template comes handy when you start a new project. If you want to see a real-world example of project plan created using Dropbox Paper read the article How to write your own UX plan.
Many product designers believe that creativity and planning can’t live together. That’s not true. In reality, design is more science than art. To create a product that will be designed according to user needs, product development requires structure. It only happens when a team works according to the plan. Project planning will help you create a course of action that will help you go from objectives to the final solution.
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