Product Design Lessons

Mastering Design Feedback  |   Lesson #57

Tips to Kick Off a Project Successfully

Learn to start a project by asking smart questions

Projects begin with a fair amount of ignorance. We don't yet know our client's business. They don't know design. Solving both problems begins in the kickoff meeting: a frank sharing of information during which both sides work to define the problems we face. We ask questions. We explore the landscape. We find our bearings and set goals. We do not solve problems — that comes later.

Successful kickoffs provide the foundation for a plan on which to move forward. Here's what to ask in a terrific kickoff meeting.

1. Question everything with a positioning statement

We start by asking questions of our clients. But not just any questions.

  • Who are your competitors and audience? This softball question doesn't often get the answers we need most, but it helps us learn the environment in which the product will live.
  • How would you explain your product to a grandmother? People with life experience, but little technical knowledge, are an ideal audience for distilling the purpose of the product.

Try it

Find someone non-technical — maybe even your grandmother. No, seriously. Explain your project in one sentence. Then — and here's the kicker — ask them to restate your statement in their own words. If they're way off, you need to rethink your position. Which leads us to…

2. Avoid marketing-speak with a positioning statement

If we leave a kickoff meeting with anything, it's a definition of the client's product or service. This is such common sense that we've met clients who already have one. Unfortunately, their statements are sometimes built around marketing more than definitions. To paraphrase one such statement:

"We want to strategically position ourselves for better customer outreach with a site that educates people."

Well. That's about as empty as whitespace.

It doesn't matter if the product will use the latest JavaScript libraries, CSS3 animations or trendy graphics. Forget technology for a minute and ask practical questions, starting with how does it help people?

Sounding like a press release is hard when you're being questioned. So we replied with, "what's the benefit to end users? To yourselves?" And we came up with something better:

"We will educate people with informative news articles to expand awareness of our role in the community."

Or, as one person in the room eventually said:

"We will put our business in a better light."

A good positioning statement does at least two things: First, it explains the product's benefits. Second, it gives us something to aim for. It's a goal and a promise in one sentence, plus the idea distilled to its core.

(To get English-geek on you for a minute, notice the lack of adjectives and the verb "will put." That and "is" are keys to great positioning statements.)

(Also note the absence of passive voice, commas and run-on sentences. But I digress.)

Try it

Writing your own is simple, but not easy. Before you read more, take five minutes to fill in the blank: "Our product/service is _______ ."

3. Identify business goals — what's real benefit?

Another pointed question: "You're investing time and money into this. What's in it for you?"

Pitting clients against their budget is more subtle than it appears. With a little thought, people may also ask, "what do you want to get out of our relationship?"

If our client doesn't know the answer, we keep asking. We need those answers. Sometimes they come out in worksessions.

Once we had to understand biomedical company. Their product addressed complicated, technical topics about which we knew nothing. But our questions kept things simple.

Try it

Get a calendar. Mark today's date. Find six months in the future. Ask your client what victories they want to celebrate on that day.

4. How will the design be implemented?

There's an old saying: "Know thyself." Updated for digital product design, "Know thy client's platform." The loftiest ideas will remain ideas without the technical savvy to make them reality. Follow up a positioning statement by asking your client:

  • What are your technical limitations?
  • What will be your biggest hurdle when implementing this?
  • What devices and browsers does your target audience use?

If possible, ask them to back up the requirements with analytics or a quick call to their web host. A week before launch is a bad time to discover the need for, say, IE7 support.

Your question checklist

To sum up, here seven questions with which we routinely kick off a project.

  1. What do you admire about your competitors?
  2. How does the product or service help people?
  3. If you have to sell it on only one feature, which would it be?
  4. Where do you see product in six months? Two years?
  5. What are your plans for implementation?
  6. How would you explain your product to a grandmother?
  7. What makes this project worth your time, effort and money?

Above all, keep asking why. Why are we doing this project? Why do we need that feature? Why should it work that way? Why should people use our competitors' products or services instead of ours?

Kickoffs are about understanding where our clients are, what will make their product or service invaluable to customers, and what we can accomplish with the tools and time at hand. So — any questions?

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.