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How to manage changing requirements in product design

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

October 07, 2022

An eye for detail, heaps of creativity, technical knowhow — product designers wield a wide range of skills. But if there’s one skill they need above all, it’s flexibility. You need to think creatively, but also critically. You need to work independently, but also as part of a team. And you always need to be open to change. Because, in the ever-changing world of digital design, nothing is ever set in stone. Throw clients and their changing requirements into the mix, and you’ll quickly see that being agile is pretty much a core qualification. Easier said than done, right?

Well, yes and no. With a little bit of organization and a whole lot of communication, you can absolutely master the art of being agile in your product design work. Let us explain how…

Why do project requirements change?

Change happens for a whole host of reasons. Maybe, the client wasn’t sure what they wanted from the start (top tip: a formal project scope document can help you avoid this). Perhaps, they changed their mind along the way. Or maybe, they didn’t anticipate certain challenges that came up during the design process. Whatever the reason, changing requirements are often inevitable in a design project.

The good news is you’re not expected to just roll with the punches and accept these changes without question. In fact, it’s your job to negotiate with clients and stakeholders when requirements do change. After all, these changes can have a big impact on your work, both in terms of the time it takes to complete the project and the end results.

What is Agile in product design?

So, how do you go about handling changing requirements? The most effective way is to use an Agile approach.

In a nutshell, Agile is all about being adaptable and responding quickly to change. It’s a collaborative way of working that involves regular communication between everyone involved in a project — from the client to the designers to the developers. And remember that change isn’t a bad thing. Getting early feedback from customers and stakeholders means you’ll waste less time and money on costly design changes further down the line.

Agile helps you gain feedback from customers sooner rather than later, reducing costly fixes and improving the chances that the end product will satisfy client needs. It also gives teams the space and confidence to take risks and innovate based on customer feedback, without potentially sacrificing large amounts of time and budget.

Agile working practices are typically broken down into two main methods: Scrum and Kanban. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Scrum in product design

Scrum is all about breaking a project down into small, manageable chunks, or ‘sprints.’ Sprints typically last between two and four weeks, and each one has its own specific goals. Once a sprint is complete, the team comes together to assess what went well and where there’s room for improvement the next time around. This routine review process means everyone involved is always on the same page.

Kanban in product design

Kanban is a slightly different approach that’s all about visualizing your work. Using Kanban, you’ll create a ‘board’ with the tasks organized in chart format. Team members can move each task to different stages as they progress and complete work. This is a great way to manage complex design projects, as it provides a clear overview of tasks and deadlines. Kanban boards also make it easy to see when a task is falling behind schedule, so you can quickly address any issues.

Tips for implementing an Agile approach in product design

First things first: make sure everyone involved in the project understands what Agile is and how it works. In a team of experienced product designers, this might seem like a bit of a “well duh” exercise, but it’s actually essential for ensuring everyone is on board with the way you’ll be working. Once you have buy-in from everyone, you can put your Agile plan into action.

We’re not going to go through the process step-by-step here, but we are going to share some top tips for product designers. Here are the essentials:

  1. Communicate: establish regular communication channels between the people involved in the project. This could be anything from daily stand-ups to weekly check-ins. The important thing is that everyone knows when and how to communicate.
  2. Manage: a properly managed sprint review meeting makes it easy to share information and address issues like bottlenecks, supply holdups, and general development feedback.
  3. Stay adaptable: things will inevitably change as the project progresses, so it’s important that you’re able to adjust your plans accordingly. This might mean making changes to the scope of the project or altering your timeline.
  4. Use the backlog to set development priorities: the backlog is a prioritized list of all the tasks needed to finish a project. It’s an essential tool for any Agile team because it helps everyone understand what needs to be done and when. As the product designer, it’s your job to manage the backlog and ensure it accurately reflects the current state of the project. This involves regularly reviewing and updating the list as things change.
  5. Organize work into sprints: design sprints are short, time-boxed periods (usually around two weeks) during which the team will need to complete specific tasks. They’re a key part of the Agile process, as they help to keep teams focused.
  6. Create user stories to break down features: user stories are short, simple descriptions of a feature from the perspective of the person who will be using it. They’re a helpful way of simplifying complex features into manageable chunks and making sure everyone understands design and build requirements.
  7. Get feedback early and often: as we mentioned before, getting routine feedback is an absolute must. There are lots of ways you can collect feedback, so it’s important to find a method that works for you and your team. This could be anything from conducting user testing to holding regular review meetings.
  8. Make it continuous: finally, one of the most important things to remember when using an Agile approach is to integrate continuous feedback into the process. In other words, you should gather feedback from clients and stakeholders as much as possible and use it to inform the way you’re working.

How to manage changing requirements

So, you’re on board with Agile, and your project has begun. Now, how do you actually cope with changing requirements when they come rolling over the horizon?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Every design project is different and will therefore require a slightly different approach when it comes to managing changes. That said, there are some general principles you can follow to help you through the process.

Communication is key

The first and most important thing to remember is that communication is vital. Whenever clients, developers, or other stakeholders suggest a change, you need to be clear about what this means for the project. What impact will it have on the timeline? The budget? The project scope? These are all important questions, and if you don’t answer them, you’ll soon find yourself in stormy seas.

Not only that, but you also need to be clear about your own position on the proposed change. Do you think it’s a good idea? A bad idea? A necessary evil? Remember, you’re the expert here. The client is likely to value your opinion, so don’t be afraid to voice it!

Regular communication is the key to keeping everyone on track. Whether it’s through face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or email updates, make sure you’re regularly checking in with everyone involved in the project.

Be proactive, not reactive

Whenever possible, choose proactive project management over a reactive approach. In other words, don’t wait for changes to happen before you start thinking about how they might impact your work. Instead, try to anticipate them. This might seem like a difficult task, but it’s actually not as hard as it sounds.

A good way to do this is to keep a close eye on the project plan. As we mentioned before, changes to the requirements often happen because the client wasn’t quite sure what they wanted from the start. By regularly referring back to the project plan, you can avoid misdirection by flagging any areas where there might be potential for change. Then, you and the client will have a chance to discuss the best way to handle these changes before they’re in play.

Be flexible

Of course, being proactive can only get you so far. There will always be times when changes come out of the blue. The most important thing in these situations is to roll with the punches and try to make the best of the situation. You might have to make some last-minute changes to your design or work extra hours to get the project back on track. Whatever it takes, try not to let curveballs throw you off course.

Stay organized

From the beginning, get a clear understanding of what your goals are and who is responsible for what. A project plan is your friend here.

Your project plan should outline the goals of the project and the tasks involved in achieving these goals (top tip: use a Gantt chart to track progress). It’s also important to assign responsibility for each task, so everyone involved in the project knows what they need to do.

Once you have your project plan, make sure you stick to it. This might seem like an obvious point, but it’s often difficult to do. Remember, the whole point of Agile is flexibility and adaptability.

Use change requests

A change request is a formal process for requesting changes to the project requirements. Although this might sound like a lot of unnecessary paperwork, it’s a very useful tool for managing changes and documenting them.

The main advantage of change requests is that they force you to stop and think about the implications of any proposed updates. This gives you a chance to assess whether the changes are truly necessary and consider how they might impact the rest of the project.

Change requests also help keep everyone on the same page. By getting everyone involved in the decision-making process, you can avoid misunderstandings and make the whole team aware of changes being made. Of course, requests can be time-consuming, and they’re not always appropriate for small changes. But when larger or more complex changes loom, use change requests.

Don’t be afraid to say no

You’re not obliged to agree to every change that’s suggested, nor should you. If you think a proposed change is unnecessary or will have a negative impact on the project, don’t be afraid to say that magic word.

Saying “no” can be difficult, especially if you’re worried about upsetting the client. But it’s important to remember you’re the expert here. You know what’s best for the project. Sometimes, you need to trust your instincts. If not immediately, clients will often appreciate your professional guidance down the line. You’ve got this!

Be prepared to negotiate

At times, you won’t be able to say “no” to a change outright. In these cases, it’s important to negotiate.

Try to reach an agreement that satisfies everyone. Be willing to compromise on some of the details, or agree to make some changes now and others later. The important thing is to reach a solution that works for everyone involved.

Use tools to help you collaborate

From project management software to diagramming tools like Cacoo, there’s an array of tech out there to help you collaborate, plot your project’s path, and manage changing requirements as they arise. And because a lot of these platforms work online, your team can collaborate with ease, whether you’re a tiny group or a giant organization spread out across the globe.

Final thoughts

Like bad briefs and wishy-washy clients, changing requirements are a fact of life for any developer. When it comes to product design, using an Agile approach is often the best way to manage changing requirements. That’s because the methodology is built around change. It makes change an integral and welcome part of the process, which helps you embrace a flexible mindset and create a better product that’s more in line with client needs.

To set your project off on the right foot, give Cacoo a try. Create wireframes, project timelines, product roadmaps, flowcharts, and more, all in real-time. And when changes come in, as they undoubtedly will, all you need to do is hop into your design, edit it with a few clicks, and share it with the wider team in seconds. No lost versions, no missed notifications — just seamless collaboration, whatever life throws at your project.

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