9 min read

Working with PMs: A Q&A with Whitney Hess

I am so happy to post the first of what I hope to be a series of project management-related interviews with web development professionals. To me, a lot of what we do as web project managers relies on an understanding of what our team does on a daily basis, and how we can ultimately help them to achieve their project goals. My hope is that these interviews will offer some insight on how project managers can facilitate great work.

First up: Whitney Hess. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Whitney over the past year. Not only is she a great person to work with, but she’s a friend who offers great advice and perspective on what we do. She’s not just a highly regarded experience designer; she speaks, she blogs, she writes, and she tweets with the best of them! I knew she’d be great to talk to, because she has provided some great feedback to me on the subject in the recent past. And really, in a way, Whitney gave me some inspiration to start this blog. So, without further ado, here is the interview. (Settle in, it’s not short.)

Tell me about what you do. What is your specialty?

I am a user experience designer and an independent consultant. I work with a variety of clients, from agencies like Happy Cog to start-ups like Boxee, and major corporations such as Hearst. I have been independent for coming on two years this August. Prior to that, I worked for a financial software company called Liquidnet and interactive agencies Digitas and Tribal DDB. My background is in Human Computer Interaction. I have a Bachelor's degree in Professional Writing and a Master's in HCI from Carnegie Mellon University.

Tell me why you love what you do?

I started off as a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon, but realized quickly that I didn't enjoy programming. The programming was tedious and did not have the impact nor the purpose I was looking for. I love to write and communicate ideas and concepts.. I became involved in the Professional Writing major and when I discovered Human Computer Interaction program, a lightbulb went off over my head. I realized this was what I was looking for. It's a way to put people at the center of the process and focus on the human being instead of the programming language or platform.

Since then, I have been passionately devouring everything on the subject. I  have been lucky enough to meet the people I studied in college. I've had the opportunities to explore, travel and represent myself as a practitioner in the space and continue to be inspired daily by the great minds and hearts in our field. People have been generous with time and knowledge, and experience. I think there is something inherently good and caring about the people working in UX, because we have an empathy for the users we are helping to design for. That empathy, caring and compassion for what it means to be a human being, the want to make peoples’ lives easier through the use of technology at home and in the workplace, and the ability to make lives easier is an element that many UX professionals bring to their professional lives and their friendships.

I can't imagine doing anything else with the rest of my life. As I continue to grow in my practice and my personal life, and gain greater insight in my strengths and weaknesses, the thing I look forward to the most is to see how I am able to expand the breadth of situations, contexts and problem spaces where my skill set will apply. I have been trying to discover ways to get offline more and spend more time with people in order to challenge myself in a new way and explore more about people and less about the technology. I'd like to put the focus where I think it is meant to be and find ways to translate those experiences back to technology. That has been my current passion.

Which, of your projects, are you most proud of? Why?

Hands down, the one that we worked on together: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website redesign project. Never in my life did I think that I'd be able to work for an organization with the skills that I have and do what I love for an organization whose purpose is as personally meaningful to me.

As adults, we tend to separate those things that are realistic for us to make money on, and what we are passionate about. The fact that, at an early stage in my career, I have been able to combine my passion for my profession and my history as a Jew, a woman, a human being on this planet living in world that is feeling the repercussions of the Holocaust...there are no words to describe how it feels. To have been a part of it, personally makes it more important than any paycheck or accolades ever possibly could. The 3 months I worked on the project doing user research and writing personas and use case scenarios were emotionally taxing and difficult professionally, but having the smallest possible impact on it was a dream come true. It will be hard to find one that is as personally meaningful.

On working with project managers:

How often do you work on project with a PM?

I do two types of projects: I can be brought in to bolster an existing web development team at an agency, or I take on projects as a sole consultant in an organization to help them redesign a product. I always expect a PM to be on a team at an agency and I am expected to be my own project manager on the projects that I do independently.

Do your projects run any smoother with a PM involved?

Without a doubt, when I have a good PM on a project, the results of the project are infinitely better. Projects are usually more effective and more fulfilling than they are without one.

We can always learn, which is why I want to talk to people like you. Share some experiences where the PM focus has been "off."

I have recently have been on projects with PMs who didn't follow-up on conversations with clients to conform with what was heard and don't validate. We got to a point where the team moved forward, assuming that validation had occurred, and when we went back to the client with a solution, it turned out that we had gone down the wrong path. It wasted our time, the client's time and it made our team look unprofessional.

Other things that are killers: not communicating scope ahead of time and being wishy-washy about the timeline and deliverable expectations. It can, in many ways, be difficult to recover if you don't have a PM who gets everyone on the same page early and builds a rapport with everyone on the team so they know that he or she is on their side. It's important for a PM to make everyone on the team feel important to the success of the project. I've been on projects where there can be political issues or personality clashes, and I have worked with PMs who preferred communicating with some team members over others and it created disharmony on the team and as a result, the project/product suffers. The opposite experience is one where a PM makes everyone feel valued and treats everyone equally, and communicates well and frequently. That has made a significant difference on the whole mood and absolutely the whole project.

What is the best thing a PM can do for you?

A good project manager makes the team look wonderful and makes the project and its outcome better; a bad project manager makes the team look bad, the work product terrible, and wastes the client's time and money.

What's the worst thing that has happened to one of your projects as a result of poor, or no project management?

I had the worst incident at an agency where the project manager did not clearly communicate client expectations with the team and failed to send me very important documentation that affected my work product. I was not involved in any kickoff meeting and was not given any requirements, so I was at the PM's mercy. In the end, I looked ill-informed and amateur to the client, who asked to take me off of the project. Ultimately, I was set fee, fired, whatever you want to call it. They said, "Sorry, this is what the client said" and they did not defend me or recognize what I was told. It affected my reputation with the client and turned in to a very unpleasant situation, and all a result of poor PM.

How do you communicate best with your team? (phone, email, Basecamp) Why?

I am verbal person; I like phone and in-person, and I like video chat (note: this interview was filmed). I think that people come to decisions faster over the phone, not in email. I definitely I don't do well in Basecamp, because it is just chains and chains of emails. I get lost in the messages, and am never sure who is CC'ed, and there are easy slip-ups with who you are sending them to and who can view internal posts. I understand that Basecamp is the best in PM tools, but I find it difficult to collaborate on. I prefer it be used as a repository and an accounting of decisions made, rather than a collaboration tool. Otherwise, I end up feeling disconnected from the team. Especially as I work remotely; it can be hard for my morale.

Do you ever find it difficult to communicate with your team remotely?

I don't find it difficult to work remotely. I have a lot of initiative and am responsible for myself. I get in trouble remotely when I have to mail back and forth with someone instead of chatting. I worked with Boxee where the development team is in Tel Aviv. There was a lot of collaboration that was needed in early stages of the project, so I went to Tel Aviv and we accomplished 3 times as much as I would have on my own or through email. It's important for me to get in the same room with my team and feel the energy.

On to the specifics...

What sort of background information do you need before you get started on your work?

Set me up for success early on. I want all documents that have ever been passed through the project negotiation process, I don't care if they are no longer relevant, just mark them as such and let me know, because I want the full history. I want the scope, background on why it was scoped. And if I wasn't involved in scoping, I want to know why. I want to know about the schedule and any dependencies. What is the end date we are meeting and why are we meeting it? (Is there a printed publication to coincide with the launch, is venture capital being raised, is there a launch event?) I also want to know who the key decision makers in the org are, and any incidents, political issues, or sensitivities that the PM has discovered in the process of defining the project.

What is a realistic/standard approach for timing on your deliverables?

Every project is different with UX, so it is a conversation the PM should have once they know what the goals and constraints of the project are. I think that, especially for UX, there is not one way to do anything. You have to have a conversation about the dependencies. The PM can help me to communicate expectations while understanding who needs to be in the room for some conversations. Having conversations upfront help the PM to help set the right expectations and make sure they know what is going on. That really helps me to focus on the work at hand, and not the expectation management.

Is there a potential for any additional, outside costs being incurred with your work? (buying new software, reserving research space, etc.)

I am not a believer in formal, clean-room usability testing. I don't really believe in the formal testing environment, because it takes people outside of their element and I don't think it brings great data. Other people work different ways; it's not a sweeping generalization. It's just the way I get the best results and I communicate that long before I sign onto a project.

Incentives for user research participants is up to the client, and I support providing an honorarium if they want to offer them. It always comes out of their budget, so it's not something I need to bill them for.

One thing that PMs have to work with me on: travel costs. When I travel to another city, I need to bill for it. It affects the project budget, so I always copy my PM. And, when it comes to schedules, I am in synch with my PM. They keep the metaphorical train running.

Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you want to add?

I can't say enough how a good PM is to the success of team collaboration; the result is in the final product. You can see the synergy of a team just in how well the thing works. That synergy is fostered by the PM.

As a project manager, you have to a be a therapist and counselor, a magician, an accountant, and in many ways a pinch-hitter for a lot of different specialties.  Sometimes you have to fill the gaps on the team itself: draw-up some wireframes, write some code, do some copy writing. You have to be a renaissance man or woman in order to be a great PM. And when you have a good PM, you know you will succeed and you can feel it right away.

PMs get slighted; it's a thankless job, because it is not one of the skills that is translated in a direct way for a user to see. But they can experience it.

** Thanks so much to Whitney for working with me on this first interview. She spent a good amount of time with me on this, and I am so excited about the results!