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Avoiding the Dreaded “Swoop-and-Poop”

By Paul Hebert

Published on September 8th, 2022

I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite terms: “swoop-and-poop” refers to when you’re nearing the end of a project or task, and at the last minute, an important stakeholder swoops in and lets you know that you’re on the wrong track.

I experienced this frequently early in my career and found it really frustrating. I’d spend days or weeks creating a design I loved, only to find out at the last minute that it wasn’t working, and I needed to step back and start over.

It was easy for me to blame the stakeholder for this situation: “My design was great. Why didn’t they get it? They were missing the point. Their concerns were overblown. Why didn’t they say something sooner?”

But, as I gained experience, I realized I had it backward. The stakeholder and I were both working towards the same goals, and they had important context and perspective that I was missing. As a designer, it was my job to make sure I was listening to them early in the process and incorporating their knowledge and expertise into the final design.

I could avoid the vast majority of swoop-and-poops by changing my process and collaborating closely with project stakeholders.

When working on a client project, it’s essential to know all of the people involved in the project. In the past, I’ve worked closely with one or two client contacts only to discover at the end of the project that their boss had the final say on what we were building, and they had different concerns than my contact.

Establishing everyone involved in the project is crucial, so you can share updates with them and get their feedback throughout the process. Ideally, this should be discussed during the project kickoff. If you’re not sure who your stakeholders are, you should ask other members of your team or your client contacts.

Once you know everyone involved in the project, be sure you’re communicating directly to those stakeholders when possible. It’s your job to ensure they have the relevant context when designs are shared, and direct communication can avoid miscommunications or lack of context.

Important stakeholders are often busy and involved with several projects, so it may not make sense to bother them with minor day-to-day updates. But it’s important to check in with them regularly. Providing high-level updates directly will ensure they have opportunities to provide feedback and build a rapport that will make communication easier throughout the project.

One of the best ways to collaborate with stakeholders and take advantage of their expertise is to include them in early design sessions. Including everyone in discovery meetings and early sketching sessions has several advantages:

  • You start the design process with knowledge and expertise you wouldn’t have otherwise.
  • You start forming collaborative relationships early on in the process.
  • You make sure everyone feels heard.

When working on design projects, it can be hard to know when to share updates. I often worry that if I share too early, my work will feel un-polished, or folks will reject my ideas.

But rejecting ideas is an integral part of the process. If an idea isn’t going to work, I’d rather find out before I’ve spent time fine-tuning and polishing that design. It can be scary to share early work in progress, but if you don’t, you may waste time pursuing bad or impractical designs.

Early in the process, you should generate as many ideas as possible. When brainstorming or sketching, ideas are cheap. You can quickly explore them without spending time polishing them. Sharing lots of ideas with stakeholders will help you quickly understand which are worth pursuing and which are not.

An illustration of a blue funnel. Lots of colored shapes are going in the top, but only gold stars come out the bottom.

I like to view this as a funnel. You think of tons of ideas that go in the top of the funnel, but only the best ones come out the bottom and get turned into mockups or prototypes. If you don’t explore and share lots of ideas up-front, you may be halfway through the design process before the best design concept occurs to you. Then you have to circle back and start over.

One potential downside of early sharing is that people may not know what type of feedback is helpful. If you share rough sketches, you probably don’t want to hear feedback on the quality of your drawing or the color of the pen you used. When sharing mockups or prototypes, you probably don’t want to hear that the stock photo you used isn’t correct, or “what the heck is this lorem ipsum gobbledegook?”

A Slack screenshot saying "We've generated a lot of great ideas and gotten some really helpful feedback. I'd like to explore the ideas outlined above in the browser to test how interacting with them feels. I'll be prototyping the individual use case demos as well as how they can be combined into a single interface. Before I started prototyping, I wanted to give y'all a chance to provide feedback on these ideas. So far these are all rough sketches so we don't need any nitty-gritty feedback, but high level thoughts would be really helpful: 1. Do these use case demo concepts seem compelling? 2. Do any of these seem impossible to pull off with existing APIs? 3. Would you highlight different controls or options? 4. Are there other high-level approaches to these use cases you'd prefer to see explored first?"

By being clear about what is a work in progress, what ideas you’re exploring, and what you need feedback on, you can ensure you’re getting helpful feedback and not wasting your stakeholders time reviewing aspects of the work that aren’t ready for feedback.

It’s essential to provide context about the work you’re sharing. But the most effective way to provide that context will differ from client to client and project to project. Sometimes meeting in person or over a video call to share your designs is the most effective. Sometimes a slack thread or a Google doc works best. A video walkthrough or a slide deck may work best for other projects.

Ask your collaborators how they would like to communicate when you start the project. If you’re still struggling to get the feedback you need, experiment with different communication tools or observe how your client communicates.

Finally, it’s important to remember that you’re all human beings working towards a common goal. If the process feels combative instead of collaborative, that’s a red flag. You need to back up and determine how to change the relationship, so it’s healthy and collaborative.

That’s part of your job as a designer. And if things aren’t working, it’s your job to fix it. Or find someone to help. You’re all in it together, after all.

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