Designing Under Pressure

Designing Under Pressure

Inevitably, you’ll eventually run into a situation where you have to deliver a task under an entirely unfeasible deadline. Your company or client will ask you to do a lot within an uncomfortably short timeframe, and you’ll be using a program you’ve never used before. If you don’t manage this properly situation from the beginning, you’ll be creating the perfect recipe for disaster.

I’m writing this because I’ve recently encountered this situation where I had to develop a website within an incredibly short timeframe.

I’ll skip the dirty details that got us to this point and explain the situation I had to go through.

We had just “re-re-designed” the public face of our main website and needed to deliver it by the end of September. Our developers were not able to focus on the website since they were overbooked. A marketing consultant offered to take care of the website’s execution but backed out after he realised he couldn’t execute the required design within two days like he initially claimed.

I was next up on the chopping block. The CEO asked me to check out Webflow and assess whether or not I can execute the project within its platform. I’ve never used Webflow before this project, so I couldn’t give a proper answer until I had time to understand what it had to offer.

I taught myself to code HTML/CSS/JS previously, so I wasn’t going in blindly. I knew how to structure a website and how to make sure I’ve optimised a website for performance, accessibility, best practices, and SEO.

After I’ve explored Webflow, it became clear to me that I could at least deliver the main website pages, but not the dynamic pages such as the blog or product listing pages.

It’s time for our very first point.

1) Embrace the sense of impending doom.

It’s ok to panic for only 5 minutes. When you’ve finished panicking, get yourself together and shift into full-gear.

2) Assess your situation

What are the tools you’ll be using? What is the timeframe you have to deliver? Get a proper understanding of the conditions you’re working with and be honest with yourself.

Can you submit all the deliverables within the expected timeframe? Or can you only comfortably deliver a specific set of the deliverables? How many hours a day can you commit to the project?

More importantly, do you have all the content you need to execute your work?

When you’ve answered these, go ahead and make a list of deliverables and highlight ONLY the ones that you know you can deliver.

Now is the time where you have to be honest with yourself and what you’re capable of delivering.

In my situation, I gained an understanding of the application I’ll be using, and I knew how I structured the website’s design previously. I knew I could comfortably deliver all the static pages within 4-5 days, with the bulk of my time dedicated to creating a header and designing a mobile-responsive pricing page.

3) Manage expectations

After you’ve understood your situation, you need to talk to the stakeholders and explain to them the deliverables, and what you can deliver. Now is not the time to gloat or sell yourself. You’re in a tight timeframe, and you need to be serious with your stakeholders. They have money on the line, and you have your reputation on the line as well.

A good rule of thumb when giving a timeline projection is to always multiply your expected delivery time by 1.5. What this rule means is if you think you need three days to deliver your project, then you need to ask for 4.5 days. You’ll have given yourself in the process leeway in case you can’t submit what you thought you could.

I had 0 experience with CMS, database management, or anything to do with dynamic content except for my blog. I knew how it worked in theory but it was never within my scope of hands-on work. I made it a point to explain that I cannot deliver the product pages and the blog pages because it was out of my knowledge level.

It is incredibly vital to make it clear that the clients cannot request any sudden design change at this point. Any change requested must extend the deadline - You should not pay the price for someone else’s cold feet.

If you have any concurrent projects, be sure to manage expectations in those projects as well. In my case, I was also working on the company’s platform’s new UI/UX and their new website builder. I knew if I had to undertake this project, I would have to put those projects on pause. You need to be brutally honest, don’t try to appease anyone, because if you fail to manage expectations, the blame will lie solely on you.

4) Create a task list

Don’t hit the ground running just yet!

Make a task list to manage your timeline and project requirements. List out your tasks in order of difficulty, then create another list in order of importance.

Merge these list to understand how your workflow should pan out.

In my situation, if I had not created a task list, I’d have been jumping between pages, and I’d have left something out in the process. I had well over 30 pages to create, so a task list was vital.

Project management is critical in these situations.

5) Measure twice, cut once.

This quote is an old carpenter’s adage, and it always applies regardless of the timeframe. If you only measure once and cut wrongly, you’ve wasted your piece of wood, and you’ve wasted precious time trying to shape the woodblock again.

You might feel rushed for time, and that a first draft is a waste of time, but I must highlight how important it is to make sure you produce the first draft.

Your first draft will teach you how to implement the design accurately and cleanly, and you’ll be a lot more efficient and systematic in your second round.

Avoiding the first draft is going to set you up for design inconsistencies or silly mistakes that you could have easily avoided. Don’t refine your first draft, but instead use it as a sketch to create a precise workflow.

The first draft will also reveal limitations or issues within the design. For example, I initially told the company that I cannot deliver the navigation bar the way they wanted to - I wasn’t sure how to do it. I eventually figured it out when the first draft showed me that it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

If there are necessary design pivots at this stage, you need to talk to your stakeholder immediately to explain the situation to them.

6) Cut once.

Execute. Be systematic, now is not the time for pivots in the design process. You should be laser-focused at the end-goal.

7) Review

Make sure you haven’t made any silly mistakes or missed something by mistake. It’s not that the client or stakeholder doesn’t care or understand you’re under a strict timeline, but they are expecting complete work.

8) Overdeliver if you can

When you’ve gotten into the workflow, and you’ve delivered the minimum requirements you promised, you’ll often find that you’re able to overdeliver.

If you find yourself with time on your hands, then this is the right time to overdeliver. The reason I specify you never tell your clients that you plan to over-deliver is that if you tell them what you can overdeliver, and fail? They’ll think you’re sloppy. If you manage their expectations and overdeliver by a longshot? They’ll be impressed, and if you can’t overdeliver? They won’t be disappointed since you’ve already managed their expectations.

In my case, I found myself able to deliver the entire website, and had ample time to understand how to get a blog and product page up and running on Webflow.

9) Submit deliverables.

I don’t have much to say here.

Make sure you submit everything nice and clean, and in the right format!

Final Thoughts

I tried to be as general as I can to encompass as much of the design field as possible. For most parts, what I’ve written down applies at the very least to Architecture, Graphic, UI (but not UX), and Web design.

Manage your client/stakeholder’s expectations, and be honest with your abilities and timeline. The second you fail to do either of these, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure, the onus is on you to communicate what the client should be expecting in a tight if not unrealistic timeframe.