EightShapes, LLC is a user experience design firm specialized in web sites and web applications.

Want to Produce Sexy Design? Visualize a Project Plan

I find it surprising that, given the wide range of very specific deliverables we produce, I’m most consistently complimented on my project plans.

Spreadsheets & Dependencies Aren’t Engaging

I recently attended a WebEx meeting where a team of 8 stared at a project plan spreadsheet for an hour. The spreadsheet organization was simple: activities as rows, each with columns for name, responsible person/team, start date, and end date. But the arduous discussion took forever and achieved little. The problem?

You couldn’t see the plan.

Oh, sure, everyone was watching their WebEx (and emailing, IMing, and maybe even taking in the latest YouTube sensation) and put up with the spreadsheet. Maybe most folks didn’t even realize their lack of productivity and didn’t know any better. But I sat in my chair, phone on mute, cursing the lack of efficiency and threatening to stab my eyes with Sharpie pens as a preferred alternative. Since self-inflicted blindness is a bad thing, I instead opted for EightShapes Unify, laid out the entire plan they’d formulated in two minutes, and sent it to everyone via email with a declaration of “Can we look at this next time? I’m guessing things will go faster.” The response, beyond a mild irritation at my lack of tact, was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

The format of my EightShapes Unify project plan is, not surprisingly, a gantt chart. Activities are bars, deliverables and other events are icons, all laid out on an x-axis grid depicting a periodic passage of time (usually, weeks or days).

But, and it’s a big BUT, my project plans come nowhere close to the rich, deep information conveyed through a typical Microsoft Project plan. Ah, those rich, interconnected dependency lines connecting activities and resources. Estimates of hours spent, percent allocation per resource, the list of project management goodness goes on. All glory to the deeply thought through plan? Hardly. But it’s those expectations that keep many a UX designer away from planning, scared or even annoyed with the complexity. In fact it’s a designer that should be able to most effectively, simply, and quickly communicate a plan via a picture.

Tell Your Plan’s Story with a Picture

No matter who you are, it’s most important to tell the project’s story from a high level: what are the big tasks, how long will they take, and when can other expect the most important deliverables. You’ve got to get people on board with the big picture first, especially with a focus on proving you’ve got your act together for what’s coming up next.

It’s not like a project plans must be a sophisticated, detailed works of art. Far from it. But my project plans elicit reactions of “that’s so beautiful!”,”wow, a sexy project plan”, and nearly instant understanding perhaps because they are visual and simple.

These plans are about gaining alignment and getting started, not exploring detailed dependencies and creating a maintenance headache for the lifespan of the project.

That’s the goal: gain enough credibility that you and your team know how to tackle the problem and have a plan to solve it. A well-communicated plan via a simple yet effective visualization gets you there, and even engages and empowers collaborators to begin to project their own impacts and responsibilities too.

Creating a Project Plan with EightShapes Unify

Fortunately for us, and you, creating a project plan visualization is actually quite easy. Here’s a video that demonstrates it in just over three minutes.

Want to use the most recent library (including background timelines of varying length)? Download the latest library as of this writing.

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Comments (6)

  1. Marcellus says:

    my week is saved – interesting blog here

  2. Elise says:

    Thank you for stopping me from torturing my coworkers with a spreadsheet… or, MS Project.. shudder…

    You guys rock :)

  3. mp says:

    We did something very similar, but on the wall with stick notes. It definitely helped give the timing of project activities more perspective.

  4. Ginny Williams says:

    Nice to finally land on the island of “those who get it”. Alignment, agreement, and a starting point – that’s all a good team should need to get going.

  5. Judy Murdoch says:

    Elegant, useful, and concise. So happy to have discovered y’all. And I really appreciate how you make your templates available.

    I’m excited to be putting these to work.

  6. James Nutter says:

    The two most important project aspects this helps with is: establishing a “shared” understanding and “shared” expectations.

    Thank you for making this possible!


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