How to manage user expectations in digital projects

How can digital project managers manage user expectations in software development projects? Which tactics are successful to avoid unrealistic expectations while balancing the needs and requirements of the users with the project’s timeline and budget?

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Consider the implementation of a new technology or platform. As business consultants, we often get the feeling that after a round of workshops, suddenly an elephant is expected to be pink, have five legs and dance the funky chicken. While initial excitement is high, expectations quickly become unrealistic. Perception turns into reality: the new software is expected to solve all existing (user) problems and to make their life incredibly easy.

It’s undeniable that a key challenge for a successful project implementation lies in managing user expectations, whether we’re speaking about a new digital platform, website or content management system. If a project seems over-promised and/or under-delivered, then users will be unsatisfied with the resulting software solution, thus jeopardizing its future adoption. But it’s not always an easy job for digital project managers to balance expectations from idea generation up to launch.

We’ll look into four specific tactics project managers can employ to counter this important risk and successfully manage their end-users expectations.

1. Involve users throughout the project

During all stages of the project: problem definition (the “why”), business analysis (the “what”), requirements analysis (the “how”), user acceptance testing, preparing launch, and even after the go-live.


  • Listen to the users: they know their business best and can provide actionable insights that no business documentation can.
  • Appoint key users: limiting the number of users involved allows the project to move quickly, decisions to be made rapidly and getting stuff done more productively.
  • Look for “ambassadors” within the users’ community: they can sell/pitch the product at any time within their teams and quickly grasp common frustrations. They are your eyes and ears!
  • Work with the users, not at them: this is the only way to get their buy-in from the very beginning.

Your client’s end-users are your end customers. You will avoid building a product that nobody wants to work with!

2. Be honest

Even when you have ‘bad news’ to deliver, you should bring them sooner rather than later. It goes without saying, but make sure to communicate clearly and avoid making grandiose promises.

Listening to the users doesn’t mean you need to implement everything they ask for. This is where managing expectations is especially important: don’t promise what you cannot deliver! If you don’t know, say you don’t know, but come back on it once you do. And if something is just not possible within the boundaries of the project (e.g. technical feasibility, budget, customization options), explain why and communicate the reasoning behind the answer.

As in our own personal relationships, customers appreciate when businesses are upfront with them. Having a realistic idea of what’s going on in the project is also key for team members involved to manage their expectations appropriately. Besides that, owning up to any concerns or problems that may arise (and working on solving them) demonstrates your commitment to the project and gives your client more reasons to trust your company.

3. Always prioritize requirements

This is typically done before the project enters into development phase. The problem definition with its key success factors together with the business requirements actually already tell you in some way which are the priorities. Once those priorities are set or confirmed, they can be defined on a more detailed level as well (the user requirements).

There are a bunch of software requirements prioritization techniques - simple voting, the MoSCoW method, minimum viable product (MVP) vs non-MVP exercise, and so on. Choose the technique that best fits the type of project. It is during a prioritization exercise that the toughest discussions are held amongst your business stakeholders, as the result will define what possibly becomes at stake if circumstances change.

So everybody understands what the focus should be in case some project parameters change (e.g. budget, resources, time or others). And from my experience as a consultant, believe me, they almost always do! The most important to retain is that all project team members know what is key, what delivers most value and what is rather nice to have (in a first phase). And that a consensus on that should be reached to avoid discussions later on.

4.  Ensure the project vision is shared

What if you would ask five project members or end-users why we are doing this project? What is the main goal of having this product implemented? If you’re expecting the same answer from all five, well, stop dreaming, as in reality this is not always the case. Everyone should be well aware of problem definition from the start so that it’s acted upon all throughout the project.

A common goal gives guidance to people and provides a meaning to their daily activities at work. Or in other words: people need a vision and leadership. The same counts for digital projects. Users want to know why they need to spend time on getting to know a new product or have to highlight what is not working properly. They want to understand why some features were not delivered. If that vision gets lost underway, team members might lose their motivation or perform activities which are not in line with the project’s main goal. So time, resources and money is being spent which could have been spent otherwise.

The longer the project takes and the more people get involved in the project, the harder it might become to ensure a common goal or ‘vision’. But it’s a true ingredient to succeed in managing user expectations.

End note

Are you about to kick-off a new digital project? Or are you acting as a business or functional analyst in an ongoing project? Then a sanity check about the end-users’ expectations is never a luxury. You might ask yourself "What if I notice there is a gap between the project deliverables and the end-user expectations?". Remember: be honest from the get-go. People love to see that their feedback is taken into account. Time for some action, I would say!

Published on    Last updated on 01/07/2019

#Digital Strategy

About the author

Katy Willems is Business Consultant at Amplexor, based in Belgium. Specializing in Business Process Analysis, she focuses on capturing all the business and functional aspects of projects and translating them into solid technology solutions. Katy has over 5 years of project experience when it comes to delivering a solid business or functional analysis report.