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Research-Directed Design Methods: Project Definition

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Sarah Horton, author of Access by Design: A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers, shows the importance of restraint in approaching a new website design project. Project success depends on defining the project purpose and goals before diving into wireframes, navigation, and especially visual design.
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The TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition recently came to the sleepy Upper Valley of New Hampshire, where I live. Within a week, the Marshall family of Lyme, NH would be living in a brand-spanking-new house. It may be the hinterlands, but property taxes are surprisingly high in this area; therefore, despite widespread excitement and support for the project, some viewers wondered, "How do families on this show afford the inevitable increase in property taxes?" I hope that the show's producers have taken the long view in addressing such issues when making design decisions about the houses they build.

This question serves as a good reminder to us: For web designers, it isn't enough to give clients the website of their dreams. Our task is to design in context, with a clear understanding of the ongoing commitment that the client's resources can bear. No good comes from designing a website that cannot be sustained after it's built.

My article "Research-Directed Website Design" made a case for using research methods such as listening and observation to inform website design decisions, but design research begins long before mockups, prototypes, and wireframes. It begins with strategic discussions leading to a project definition statement, which articulates the purpose and goals of the project and establishes available resources. Understanding the opportunities and constraints of the environment is essential to providing sustainable design solutions.

The key research component at this project phase is stakeholder interviews. But before you sit down at the table with people who may have a narrow[md]and sometimes vehement[md]stake in the project, arm yourself with the language of strategic design.

Strategic Design

When presented with a design challenge, most of us want to roll up our sleeves and start right in with the fun part: coming up with ideas to bring the project to life. This activity often happens in the initial planning phase, when both designer and client start discussions with specific ideas about the shape and form of the website. But if we start by focusing narrowly on tactics, we "can't see the forest for the trees," as the saying goes; we can easily design a "solution" that doesn't solve the real problem, or that proves to be unsustainable over the long term.

To define a project well, we need to start by thinking broadly about purpose and goals, and then focus on strategies and tactics. Understanding and differentiating between these elements is essential to developing an effective project charter:

  • Purpose: What purpose does the product serve?
  • Goals: What outcomes does it need to achieve?
  • Strategies: What approaches will help to realize the goals?
  • Tactics: What activities will help to realize the strategies?

To illustrate the differences between these four elements, let's consider a simple example: the humble teakettle. Figure 1 shows OXO's Good Grips brand of teakettle. First we'll determine this particular model's purpose, and then we'll imagine a few goals, strategies, and tactics employed by its designers.

Figure 1 OXO is a leader in the design of universally usable products and tools. With a tagline like "Tools you hold on to," OXO clearly employs design research to ensure that all its products are easy to use, for all people.


  • Fill, carry, heat, and pour water safely


  • Demonstrate OXO's commitment to universal access
  • Demonstrate OXO's commitment to quality
  • Sell OXO products


  • Make kettle easy and safe to operate, even for people with mobility and sensory problems
  • Use durable materials that will withstand heavy use over time
  • Design the device in a way that makes it easy to clean
  • Create a visually appealing sleek and modern design


  • Fashion a large handle that's easy to grasp
  • Use heat-resistant material for the handle
  • Make the handle serve as the lever to open and close the spout
  • Employ a whistle and visible steam to indicate that the water is boiling
  • Make the kettle body from stainless steel
  • Give the kettle body and handle smooth lines and curves
  • Provide different color options with enamel on the kettle body

In this example, the purpose explains why teakettles exist and how they're used. The goals are the drivers behind OXO's particular design approach and desired outcomes. The strategies are the approaches that OXO takes to ensure universal usability and quality[md]and to sell products. The tactics are specific design decisions and specifications.

Now let's examine how the project design elements we've just considered for teakettles apply to our own design area: websites. This type of strategic planning is critical to success for any kind of project, and it's highly unlikely that any one individual has the depth and breadth of knowledge needed to articulate all of the elements of this model. The only way to cover all these bases is through research, starting with stakeholder interviews.

Stakeholder Interviews

Stakeholder Interviews

Stakeholders came in many shapes and sizes, depending on the project: business owners, senior executives, communications and technology professionals, customer service representatives, and so on. The stakeholders are responsible for making business decisions and/or are affected by those decisions. While users certainly fall into this group, this phase is really about defining the project's purpose, business goals, target audience, and success metrics. No matter how popular it is with users, a website won't see the light of day if it doesn't satisfy the needs of the client.

Leading stakeholders through the project-definition phase may require a firm hand. Stakeholders may bring to the table specific technologies and design approaches that work for other sites, and that they want to emulate:

  • The site must use Flash.
  • No more than two clicks are needed to get anywhere on the site.
  • All of the important site content must be "above the fold."

In these initial meetings, it's not uncommon to be handed a design sketch, sometimes crudely drawn on a napkin (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Stakeholder interviews might occur over libations of some sort, with the client offering a home-page layout sketch like this one. This type of input should be considered as a suggestion, not a solution, and can serve as a jumping-off point for more goal-oriented discussions: "Why do you want a smiling face on your home page? What outcome do you hope to achieve?"

These ideas are important to note, but they address problems that haven't yet been articulated. Some probing into the motivation behind these requests may lead to more appropriate and effective solutions. In short, stakeholder interviews are essential to understanding business needs, project goals, and available resources. However, for a successful outcome, the designer can't just do whatever is requested by the client and stakeholders.

My CIO, who began her career as a librarian, offers this excellent advice. When people come requesting a specific solution (in her case, often in the form of specific hardware or systems requests), respond as a reference librarian would. For example, when approached with a request for access to a large number of data collections, a good reference librarian doesn't simply point the client toward the resources. Instead, he or she asks questions: "What are you trying to accomplish with all this data? What argument are you trying to support? How does the data relate to your work?" The result of this interaction may be something other than the 20 hefty volumes initially requested; in all likelihood, it will also produce a better outcome.

When meeting with stakeholders, the key is to listen, take notes, and (most importantly) ask the right questions. Often, you can learn the most about business goals by asking very specific questions, such as these:

  • What does the website need to accomplish, and why?
  • How are you currently doing the work of the proposed website? How well does that approach work for you?
  • What do you hear from users about your current services?
  • What questions are you getting on a regular basis?
  • What user requests are you getting?
  • How will you know if the site is successful?
  • Once you have this website, what changes do you anticipate in how you do business?

Also ask about the opportunities and constraints of the environment. A dynamic website is like a living creature. Who is responsible for its care and feeding? Will more people (or fewer) be working on the site in the future? What's the technical environment, and what are the plans for its future? What risks and obstacles do you see in your environment that may affect the success of this project? Who in your organization will be most strongly affected by this project?

Sometimes it's useful to sit down with stakeholders and review similar websites. For example, if the project is to redesign an investment website, looking collectively at competitor sites is a good way to "take the pulse" of the organization. This practice can be risky, as it's possible to get stuck on a specific approach, and it encourages a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality[md]which actually may be the motivation behind a requested website redesign. However, done right, these sessions can be informative, because they're so concrete. Properly facilitated, and with plenty of interrogation ("Why do you think that approach works? What does it accomplish? What does it say about the company?"), comparative review sessions can be hugely helpful in defining project goals and success metrics.

You may not need to engage users in the project-definition phase, as its focus is on defining business goals and resources. However, you may turn to user research if you determine in the course of your research that the suggested approach isn't going to fly with the target audience. For example, with the OXO teakettle, offering temperature controls in order to refine the hot-water experience may not be popular with users, particularly if doing so affects the kettle's universal usability.

One of the best functions for user-centered design in the project-definition phase is to disabuse clients and stakeholders of their notions about what will make their product successful. In this case, it may be useful to add focus groups or field studies to acquire user data, helping stakeholders to see that their ideas may not hold water with customers.

Foundational Elements of a Project Charter

Foundational Elements of a Project Charter

A project charter is a concise statement of the goals of the project, along with details about its execution. In the beginning of the project, the charter serves as a guide, charting the course for the project and defining its endpoint. Throughout the design process, the charter serves as a touchstone to help keep the project on target. At the end of the project, the charter provides confirmation that the design decisions made along the way were the right ones, and were guided by strategy. In addition to project definition, the project charter provides details about strategies, tactics, timelines, technologies, budget, and ongoing maintenance.

At the completion of stakeholder interviews, you should be ready to draft the beginnings of a project charter with these basic elements:

  • Purpose: What purposes does the website serve?
  • Goals: What outcomes does the website need to achieve?
  • Target audience: Who is the primary audience to be served?
  • Success metrics: What will happen if the website achieves its goals for the target audience?

For the sake of illustration, let's return to OXO. A redesign project for the OXO website might look something like this:


  • Learn about and purchase OXO products.

The OXO website currently appears to be geared toward current OXO customers. The site is sparse and somewhat uninspiring. If you happened upon the site from a Google search for potato peeler, you might not know about OXO's design philosophy, or how truly awesome OXO products are.

For a redesign project, OXO might want the website to appeal to new customers as well as helping current customers to find exactly what they need. The new website's list of goals might look like the goals for OXO products, but with an emphasis on reaching out and getting new customers:


  • Demonstrate OXO's commitment to universal access
  • Demonstrate OXO's commitment to quality
  • Sell OXO products
  • Increase awareness about OXO and OXO products
  • Enlarge the OXO customer base

With the focus of the redesign on getting new customers, OXO probably would want to prioritize its target audience as well.

Target audience:

  • New customers
  • Current customers

There are several ways in which we can measure the success of such a redesign in achieving its goals.

Success measures:

  • More new customers
  • Increased sales via the website
  • Increased sales in stores
  • More mentions of OXO in the media

Clearly, not all of these results can be attributed to website redesign. Website sales and the number of new online customers can be directly linked by the design, but the link is more tenuous for increased sales in stores, or media mentions. However, these elements are still worth measuring before and after the redesign, as the website is likely to have an impact.



There's much more to website project definition and planning, and I can't say enough about the importance of strategic planning for successful outcomes. For more, read the section "Developing a Project Charter" in the online Web Style Guide, and consider developing a charter of some form for each of your website design projects. You and your clients will be more successful, and the Web will be a better place for it.

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