This Project Rocked! That Project Sucked!

What We Learned Measuring Designer Satisfaction To Keep Our Best Talent


Admit it. Some projects are better than others.

Sometimes, you get magic. Everything clicks, team chemistry is maxed, and you all —designers and stakeholders, together—make something you’ll reflect on nostalgically for years to come. This project rocked!

And, sometimes, you don’t. You lament a friction-filled arc with a disengaged client assigning things that don’t challenge you or your unaligned team. You make things that are…bleh. Whatever. That project sucked!

Satisfying Work is Essential

At EightShapes, Dan and I are grateful for every client that trusts us to help them. But we try to avoid sucky projects and provide satisfying work for ourselves and our staff. In 2006, we set out to work with clients that valued and understand UX, which we believe correlates with satisfying projects.

As we’ve hired a diverse legion of designers, we refined and hardened that belief to:

EightShapes must provide work that staff find enjoyable and intrinsically meaningful to serve clients best and retain the best talent.

In late 2012 and early 2013, I read Daniel Pink’s Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us amid a period of challenging work. The book helped me understand satisfaction as it related to what I do every day. In the book, he states:

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”
Daniel Pink, Drive

Pink separates extrinsic rewards (such as compensation or punishment) from intrinsic satisfaction that leads to the autonomy, self-determination, and connectedness. The separation nudged me to consider the intrinsic satisfaction we pursued for own work, and extrinsic forces (beyond compensation, health insurance, and the basics) that influence satisfaction.

What about our work makes it rock or suck? How do our projects, our clients, our team, and our own individual needs relate to whether we are satisfied with and rewarded by a project?

Setting Up a Project-by-Project Survey

I designed and deployed a recurring, end-of-project questionnaire to connect satisfaction to the myriad of wants and needs we have as designers, such as an engaged client, exciting project, opportunity to hone our craft, and team with great chemistry.

Primary Response: Project Satisfaction

The survey is grounded in a satisfaction score, with a first question inquiring “I found the project…” and a response scaled from 0 to 10.

Satisfaction scale (from 0 = Extremely Dissatisfying to 10 = Extremely Satisfying)

As a business owner, manager, and project lead, I’m hoping for scores 6 and above, am curious if scores emerge in the 4 to 5 range, and am downright driven into action with anything lower.

Related Project, Client, Team and Individual Factors

Additionally, I sought to understand what other factors are correlated with satisfaction, such as:

  • Did the project stay fresh?
  • Was the project well-defined with achievable goals?
  • Was the client adaptable to the change our work triggered?
  • Did the client protect us from “internal noise” in their organization?
  • Did I create quality work I can share with people outside the company?
  • Did I have ample time to explore the problem space?
  • Did our team lead trust us to make decisions?
  • Did our team provide mutual feedback and discuss decisions effectively?

I brainstormed many factors like those above, got feedback, and organized a final set into four groups describing project, client, team, and individual pursuits. The initial 2013 survey, as well as 2014 and 2015 versions that followed, served ~30–40 factors for respondents to complete.

Each factor was written to the positive sense (agreement corresponded to a positive outcome) and measured on a near-Likert scaled from 1 to 5.

Factor agreement, for one of ~40 questions on the survey

The Complete Survey

Initially, the survey felt somewhat daunting. Light introductory fields (client, project, name, satisfaction) and a couple open-ended responses were followed by a litany of project, client, individual and team factors.

Most recent complete survey design, managed as a Google Form

However, staff grew adept at completing it fairly quickly, encouraged to do within 10 minutes or less after each project around 8 to 12 times annually.

You can view the survey as a Google Form.


Distributing the Survey

As each project concluded, I amended my end-of-project checklist (close Harvest timekeeping, archive github.com repo, etc) to include sending each team member an invitation to complete the survey by the Friday prior to the project’s retrospective.

Project satisfaction survey invitation template

I collected data for over two years, collecting more than 50 responses in 2013 and over 100 more across most 2014 projects.


Satisfaction Survey Says…

We’re Usually Satisfied, and It’s Improved Over Time

Over a two year period, designers tended to be satisfied by most projects, with the a majority of projects scoring a 6 or above.

Additionally, year-over-year, we found that:

  • average satisfaction improved year-over-year (though assuredly not because of the survey itself, but perhaps influenced by what the survey’s instantiation and data revealed),
  • somewhat dissatisfied experiences (4s and 5s) diminished, and
  • very dissatisfying projects were rare.
Satisfaction responses compared across 2013 & 2014, with average score per year superimposed

Some Clients Satisfy More Than Others, Let’s Pursue Those!

Satisfaction scores across clients aren’t surprising, reflecting the mood we’d already sensed on a project team. However, designers don’t necessarily have visibility on what it’s like with other clients. So they observe how our leaders pursue and justify new & recurring business relative to what the survey makes clear.

Satisfaction by client and score, ordered by descending average satisfaction

Additionally, individual responses varied within a client, especially larger clients served by many designers across many projects.

Even in recurring clients, we watch for stinker assignments and establish reasonable boundaries for what projects would be good or not for our team.


Individual Scores Merit Merit Management Attention

Just as important as our clients, we take a look at how individual designers respond. We paid attention to two signals: low and highly variable scores.

Satisfaction scores by staff member

As surveys rolled in over the year—and particularly at annual review time—we’d check in with people like #7 and #15 above. Some people are hard to satisfy, while others found themselves in a rut. The survey triggered useful discussions to ensure that they were OK and we weren’t losing them.

More curiously, some staff (such as #7 and #10) were wildly all over the map. It can be challenging to manage designers on the extremes, with the severe distinction drawing attention to the negatives and also impairing their relationship with teammates on less satisfying projects. Others like myself (#14) might just be hard to please.


Specific Factor Reveal How We Can Improve

Visualizations Reveal Patterns and Signals to Probe

One of the favorite visualizations I prepared displayed factors (for example, strong client vision) within groups (clients) as columns, individual clients as rows, and factor averages in each cell. The staff loved this visualization, rich with detail and highlighting such a range of good and bad.

Grouped factors (such as Values within Client as columns) by Client (rows), with Factor average per cell

Big clients (#3, #5, #6) all indicate strong individual and team factor scores. Despite the variety afforded by small projects and shorter client engagements, our teams tend to find their best rhythm and individual opportunity in deeper client relationships.

In contrast, lower scoring clients (#7, #8, #9, #11) were all newer clients. Notice lower, whiter individual and team scores and prevalent red in client and project categories.

Lesson: It takes time and patience to get to know each other, both between EightShapes and client as well as within the EightShapes team itself.

While these broader patterns are important, our staff quickly zoomed in on clients they’d worked and hunted for signals, like:

  • An extremely satisfying client engagement (#1) that nevertheless was poorly defined (by both parties) for an indecisive client that lacked vision.
Lesson: No client or project is ever perfect.
  • A big, admired client with interesting projects (#5) served by a high-performing team that nevertheless was showing cracks by lacking individual rotation across clients (1.9).
Lesson: Beware complacency and openly discuss rotation even on high-performing teams.
  • One of our senior leads notice a lower-than-expected score for team routine. Recognized during group discussion, the leader marked it as an area to improve via his personal development plan.
Lesson: Leaders aren’t perfect, and can lead by modeling how they can improve.
  • A bottom client (#11) filled with low, red scores, reflecting a disempowering, vision-erratic, absent and indecisive client that was led by a revolving door of project owners. However, notice the contrast of strong individual and team scores.
Lesson: Despite chaos, a team can rally to achieve something they are proud of and then move on.

Do Well Where It Matters

Correlate Satisfaction with Factors To Know What Does or Doesn’t Need Attention

After 2013's first year of data collection, compared satisfaction with the myriad factors that could influence. I calculated correlations, drilled into groups, and explored data deeply.

One money visualization was plotting each factor’s agreement score (y-axis, “How Are We Doing?”) against its correlation with project satisfaction (x-axis, “How Much Does It Matter”). This relationship reveals how much a factor like team chemistry matters to how satisfying a project can be.

Two-by-two plots reveal quadrants where factors should be more or less of a concern.

  • The upper right revealed how EightShapes is doing well on things that matter. That year, we were especially strong at team chemistry and feedback, cultivating our individual technique, and working with trusting, appreciative clients.
  • The lower right quadrant is particularly important, highlighting poorer performance on things that matter. In 2013, we found ourselves in a rut of too-much design system work that some designers felt limited freedom to innovate.
  • In the lower left quadrant, we may be performing poorly on things that don’t matter (as much). Sure, some didn’t work with new clients or use new activity types (that they’d never done before), and no client was sponsoring persistent research. But none of those factors correlated with satisfaction strongly, so not areas we focused on changing.

Foster Individual Relationships

Teammate Connections Are Critical

An introductory, open-ended question “What were the aspects of working on this project that you found particularly satisfying or rewarding?” yielded countless comments citing teammate love.

Many personalized shout outs about satisfying projects with a teammate or two

Our staff valued not just working on different projects but also different people. Furthermore, they reveled in the enjoyable moments and personal growth they experienced due to those connections.

Over the years, status meetings and one-on-ones consistently yield comments like “When do I get to work with [so and so]?” and survey responses reinforced that staff rotation to maximize exposure to other good people was visible and desirable. In strong teams, satisfaction can originate not from the success but from working together to get there.


Incorporate Satisfaction into Deeper Post-Project Routines

Early Survey Returns Led to Expanded Post-Project Practices

Over the survey’s two years, we began to adjust and prune survey factors, routinely distribute results to lead(s) and manager(s), and enable staff to tie results to annual performance development plans.

In particular, satisfaction data was influential for subsequent project retrospectives we’d began to conduct routinely. Prior to the retrospective, I’d extract project responses, transform and format them, and send the PDF to team members to prep for the meeting.

Project-specific satisfaction data (as PDF) extracted, transformed and highlighted as an input for retrospectives

The artifact exposed open-ended responses and revealed where members experienced the project in different ways. Even the sample above exposes disagreement, with negative view (column 1), a neutral view (column 2), and a positive view (column 3). While the artifact wasn’t an agenda, the data improved project reflection and suggested discussion topics.


My Big Takeaways

How I View Clients, Teammates, and Myself Differently

There’s no doubt I look at projects and teams differently. I’ve softened my starker focus on delivering deep, promised quality to clients based on early project promises (such as a statement of work). And I’m now equipped to seek, launch, and run projects based on what I value most (the survey factors).

I’m also more in tune with individuals I manage and team members I direct, yielding an unexpected reward. During our December 2014 year-end meeting, many EightShapes designers mentioned my influence as a project leader and mentor. They didn’t know it, but I was touched by something I’d not heard in such density before.

Maybe, just maybe, my career isn’t about yearning to be a great designer. Instead, maybe it’s (also?) about helping craft a rich and rewarding environment for my company’s projects and clients in which our designers can thrive.