Don’t cold scope: a case for the Design Needs Assessment

by Jayne Hetherington

At Fresh Tilled Soil, we begin most projects with a two-hour meeting we call a Design Needs Assessment. It’s a casual meeting between Fresh and our potential client that happens even before project scoping. From a project management perspective, this is a dream. It helps us write better, more comprehensive Statements of Work, using client language as the base.

But that’s not why we do it. It can be scary and uncomfortable to work with an outside partner, so we want to do everything we can to holistically understand your environment. Becoming an extension of your team means creating a shared understanding of all the problems you experience and how you work as a company. We really do want to embrace your dirty laundry.

After years of these meetings, here are the critical questions we’ve found need to be answered before we scope your project:

What do you want out of our engagement?

I don’t mean deliverables. Even more important than “what are you trying to build?” we want to know: What questions are you trying to get answered? Who are you trying to please (both internally and externally)? Outputs are flexible; vision and goals are not.

How could we screw this up?

Identify your fears, and then tell us. Do you think that we’re going to focus on the wrong thing? Say that out loud – it will help all of us.

Then, identify your biases. “Bias” has a negative connotation, but they’re real, and they affect both how we approach your project and how we communicate with you. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. If you tend to see everything through a marketing lens and don’t understand technical feasibility, tell us that. It’s not your job to hold every role. Let us know how to talk to you.

Are there any “voices in the shadows”?

In other words: Who has skin in the game but is too busy to show up to meetings? When the CEO shows up to the final design review after missing the multiple conversations leading up to it, his feedback will only exist in a vacuum. We want to identify these stakeholders up front and make sure their voices are heard throughout the process, not at odd intervals.

At a Design Needs Assessment for a project that recently wrapped up, the marketing director mentioned that we MUST talk to Joel, to which the product owner responded: Who’s Joel? Joel (a customer support rep) ended up being a key voice in shaping the product direction and understanding target customers.

What keeps you up at night?

Understanding what you value helps us define our approach. Our job is to address your anxieties head on. Don’t bullshit us; we won’t bullshit you. Honestly, a big part of our role is to help you sleep better while also designing and building your product. During another recent Design Needs Assessment, the client mentioned offhandedly that their in-product messaging read “like a ransom note.” Content audit and revised conversion flow were duly added to the priorities list.

Show us the list of things you jot down in a state of panic at 3am. We’ll tackle those first.

Although the Design Needs Assessment may seem like an extra step and an extra meeting, it truly does make the entire engagement moving forward happen more efficiently and effectively. Figuring out why we’re all gathered in the same room in the first place goes a long way in making teams on both sides more productive.

About Jayne Hetherington

Jayne started her career as an adjunct professor teaching mass media, digital studies, and media theory classes while also working as a project manager at...