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How to Kick Off a Web Design Project Using ETR’s Proven Method [With Free Template]

Shannon Ruetsch,

Head of Experience Design

Not so long ago, before ExpandTheRoom went distributed, I would start my workday with a commute that took me down the Westside Highway along the Hudson River. At 46th Street I would pass by the awe-inspiring USS Intrepid aircraft carrier which is moored there and hosts the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Every time I saw this enormous vessel, I wondered to myself how something like that is ever built. Where do you start? How did they know which two pieces to put together first? In many ways, kicking off a sizable web design project can feel the same way.

Whether it’s the birth of a completely new digital service or the wholesale redesign of an existing one, knowing where to start can be a dilemma. Left unsolved, this problem can lead to a sort of mission paralysis that hinders an organization from being able to take the first steps of a long journey. Worse yet, it can cause organizations to put the proverbial cart before the horse and start designing solutions to problems that have not yet been fully defined and articulated, let alone strategized.

Like every organization, we at ETR have wrestled with the problem of how to effectively kick off design projects. We often come into initiatives during their very formative phase when there is a collection of great, but nebulous ideas floating around among a group of project stakeholders. Over the years, we’ve refined a set of tools and techniques that have consistently helped us wrangle the flurry of early-stage project initiatives and distill them into the initial insights we need to plot a strategic course forward.

For us, knowing where we want to go requires that we first know where we’ve come from and, more importantly, where we currently are. To do this, we almost always kick off projects using an exercise from our toolkit called Purpose Context Success. Borrowed from the world of service design, this half-day workshop is aimed towards gathering every project stakeholder we can reasonably include in one room, video conference, or some combination of both. As the name implies, we focus our efforts on capturing the high-level purpose and goals of an organization, understanding the larger context in which they exist, and defining how we will recognize project success.

Step 1: Define Purpose

Articulating how an organization at large defines its overall purpose helps us make sure that the project we design, big or small, new or refurbished will be in the service of that larger purpose. We deconstruct purpose into five components:

  • Goals: What are our high-level goals as an organization? Where are we going? What do we want to become?
  • Values: Who are we as an organization? What do we stand for? What are our collectively held values?
  • Needs in the Market: What unmet needs exist that we seek to address? What pain do people experience that we seek to remedy?
  • Users: Who are the people we serve? Do we serve them equally? Which are the most important users and customers, the ones we need to serve most urgently?
  • Value Proposition: How do our goals and values allow us to meet the needs in the market and provide incomparable value to the users we serve?

Step 2: Understand Context

For us, understanding context is about establishing a clear picture of the current domain in which the product or service we are about to design and build will exist. This begins to give a sense of the playing field: How is it shaped and contoured? Where are the boundaries? What features can we use to our advantage and what obstacles could pose a problem? Context breaks down like this:

  • Trends in the Market/Domain: What are the current trends that could have a positive impact on the project we’re about to build? More importantly, what trends could our product or service positively impact?
  • Competitors: Who currently offers a similar product or service? How are our intended users and customers currently addressing their unmet needs and pain points?
  • External Threats: What are the external, often uncontrollable forces that have the potential to create problems? Which of those forces is exclusive to our domain or market and our product or service offering?
  • Internal Barriers: What are the things that could throw a wrench in our initiatives from within the organization? Answering this question honestly can require a bit of bravery, but mapping out potential speed bumps will help us approach them with caution or avoid them altogether.
  • Differentiators: What is our secret sauce? What is the thing that gives us an unfair competitive advantage, the thing that would be really hard for a competitor to replicate? How can we break away from the pack?

Step 3: Outlining Delivery & Success

The last group of questions gets at the heart of how we intend to deliver our product or service to the world. It frames who the organizations' contributors are and what they will need to contribute to meet the objectives and grow the business. Most importantly, it’s in this section that we define some high-level, measurable metrics that will let us know if we are on course.

  • Delivery Channels: How will our product or service be delivered to users? What channels are best to acquire new customers?
  • Contributors: What groups, internal or external are going to be critical to the ongoing delivery and growth of our product or service? Who are we dependent on to make this all happen day-to-day?
  • Contributions: What contributions are key to delivery? What assets and artifacts need to be produced by the contributors above?
  • Success Metrics: What are four, high-level and measurable indicators that will tell us we are successful in meeting the goals we defined in the very first step of this exercise? How do we plan to capture them? How do we plan to be accountable to them?

Every organization will experience working through the Purpose Context Success exercise differently. Some of these questions will be easier to answer than others. Sometimes, teams will not be able to formulate a satisfactory answer to a section. That is valuable in and of itself. It points to assumptions that need to be verified or unknowns that need to be made known. We can then turn our efforts towards figuring out where we need to look and who we need to speak with to get the answers.

What we know for sure is that this exercise is almost always a good place to start. Whether the organization is big or small, whether it’s a brand new start-up, a new business offering within an established organization, or a reboot of an existing product or service, establishing a common lexicon and a shared set of starting coordinates sets the foundation for a project that is rooted in an organizations’ core mission and purpose.

We've included instructions below on how to conduct this exercise with your own team. We’d love to know how it works for you or answer any questions you might have about it.

Purpose Context Success Canvas Instructions

  1. Download the free PCS canvas here and print all three pages to poster size. We usually print them at 36” x 48”. At that size each section can accommodate a good number of standard-sized sticky notes. If your team is remote, you can also import the canvas to a virtual collaboration tool like Miro.
  2. Gather as many client stakeholders as you can in a room. The more people that can be there in person, the better. This is a rare opportunity to have all of the different voices you’re likely to hear from throughout the course of the project together. Plan for around two hours to go through the canvas.
  3. Assign someone from your team to lead the workshop. Assign another person as the scribe. They will be capturing what gets said so the leader can focus on the workshop.
  4. As the workshop leader, be mindful of keeping stakeholders on topic. These types of discussions can digress quickly. If someone makes a noteworthy comment that is off topic but relevant to another topic on the canvas, just ask your scribe to capture it in the relevant topic section.
  5. Once you have filled all of the sections of each canvas, you might want to go back through (time permitting) and start to prioritize some of the answers you collected. For example, you might find that the client has a dozen different competitors. It might be helpful to rank them in terms of similarity in product or service offerings, etc.
  6. Sometimes, you will go into this type of workshop having already spent a good deal of time with the client during the proposal process. In this case, you might consider pre-filling as much of these canvases as you are confident with. The workshop can then be dedicated to validating/invalidating what you pre-filled and filling in any gaps rather than starting from square one.

Shannon Ruetsch

Head of Experience Design