Designing on a Budget: The value of good UX

Identifying priorities

Before even beginning to plan a “budget-friendly” roadmap, a design team must already have a definition for what is considered “budget friendly.” That definition can vary between clients and projects and depends heavily on what the key stakeholders are looking for. It’s even possible for two similar projects to have identical budgets, but have priorities that are allocated differently within each of them. In other words, what’s valuable to some may not be to others, and discovering those nuances needs to happen up front so you’re not constantly designing outside of goals throughout the project.

Ideally, product ownership will have already identified the team’s strengths and built a solid direction around that before a project even gets to you as a designer. If not, it probably means they aren’t quite familiar with the capabilities, and thus value, of their design team, or perhaps they didn’t communicate that effectively to the client/stakeholders. This can happen a lot with new teams or outsourced teams. But let’s say we’ve identified our strengths and we have a solid roadmap going into the project. From there, product ownership is here to keep you focused on what matters to the project. It’s then part of the designer’s job to ensure the value of their work is being communicated through the proper channels so it can be understood by decision makers.

Being an advocate for best practices

Explaining your design decisions effectively is critical in helping ownership and stakeholders support those decisions. You can come to the table with the best design possible, but if you stumble through your presentation or fail to connect certain lines of reasoning, it will be hard to sell people on it. On the other hand, if you’ve managed to communicate in a way that helps people see the potential impact of what you’re trying to sell, you’ll be much more effective in gaining trust and productive feedback.

When stakeholders understand and support your vision, it can open a lot of doors. It can potentially mean more work and more budget. More budget can mean more design freedom, which can in turn mean more value. This cycle creates that symbiotic relationship with business and design that we all strive for as creatives, because it allows us to continue doing what we love – and doing it in a fulfilling way, because if we’re creating value then we’re helping people.

Adapting to MVP

In some situations, there is no choice but to reduce the originally proposed design scope, no matter how much value we’re removing by doing so. I’ve been part of projects that went completely according to plan, with accurate estimates and every member doing everything right, and we still needed to pivot a bit to stay aligned with budget. It can be frustrating when change happens, especially if you’ve already begun visualizing a project going a certain way.

I find it can be helpful to reframe “cuts” as “redefined objectives.” Talking about it this way with your team seems to get everyone on board with an exciting new challenge, rather than stew in the disappointment of an unrealized goal. This can help everyone be a bit more critical and objective of decisions that the team previously supported, but are no longer feasible.Β Of course, the methods of redefining objectives is very relative and specific to the project, but in some cases the best people to find those methods are the designers themselves. They may even already have ideas or prior iterations ready to go, and if not, they can probably arrive at some pretty quickly if given the opportunity.

Some stakeholders may, even subconsciously, view designers as wild creatives that need to be “reined in” – or even battled – to stay within budget. I’ve personally found this to be a counterproductive and patronizing approach.Β While more junior designers may need a little guidance and practice to learn how to work efficiently, many mid-to-senior level designers already know the realities of budgetary restrictions and are flexible enough to empathize with the empathize with the budget requirements as well as the user.

Balancing product goals with business needs

For a UX designer, budget cuts can be quite a challenge, since our jobs often revolve around our ability to explore and iterate. Design teams can become strained if there hasn’t been enough reflection and communication for everyone to be able to understand the reasons for budget cuts. Morale can plummet if designers are left struggling to understand where their focus should be and why.

It would usually be the job of the Product Owner or Creative Director to keep the team on track, creatively speaking, with project goals that may change over time. (While UX is empathizing with the user, the PO is also empathizing with the budget!) With experience, designers can learn how to prioritize many tasks on their own, especially as they become senior and gain access to a bigger seat at the table. When that’s the case, POs and CDs may be a bit more freed up to communicate more consistently with each member of the team, allowing everyone a more targeted insight to how the project defines success. This means they have a huge impact on how well a team can work effectively within a budget.

Learning how to put aside your ego to let go of certain ideas when necessary is a pretty useful skill in life in general, but as a designer I believe it’s even more important. I think this is something I still struggle with from time to time, because I feel responsible for advocating what I feel is a good User Experience – especially when I’m working on a small team. Thankfully, as I become more aware of it, it’s become easier to separate myself from my work so I can find the balance between budget and quality.