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Finding the middle for designers and developers

Oh the age-old ‘should designers code?’ debate again. Nope! I pushed the matter further last night at Pivotal’s Extreme Roundtable meetup in LA. I asked, ‘how involved should designers get into code?’ and ‘Should developers design?’ In a room of 7 developers, the latter surprisingly got the most votes.

It all comes down to finding the middle and meeting there. It’s challenging for developers when a designer is thinking too high level in abstractions or too low at implementation details. Having conversations at the wireframe level, the middle, lets both parties have fluid discussions about product and implementation. It also gives the opportunity to try something out before going too far down a path that has a dead end.

When designers get too far in the ahead, the product owner gets too committed and excited about an idea that’s still just an idea. If they devs aren’t involved early in the process, product owners are sometimes “so juiced” on the idea that they’re disappointed or frustrated when implementation is expensive or ends up not being a good direction. It’s important for the three teams: design, development and product to be exploring ideas and communicating throughout the process.

However, designers who know a lot about code and implementation can be a dangerous constraint. It’s important for designers to understand how code works, but not be a barrier in ideation and generation phases. Let us not forget blue-sky design. One developer said, “sometimes they come up with really expensive ideas that are hard to implement, but it’s worth it because the design and user experience ends up being excellent!”

It’s a toss-up about whether or not developers should design or make product decisions. In some regards, they leave that up to the designers, which can be frustrating if the designer is blocking and not able to make quick decisions during development time.

Developers do have a lot of experience with implementation and should speak up what they’ve built before. It is ok for them to talk about where a design path may lead, because it doesn’t always lead to fairy tale ending. Devs should feel comfortable telling designers, “I know your expectations for this layout [or interaction]. It doesn’t play out how you think it it will. It doesn’t usually go the way you want.” They should of course propose some alternatives or explain which part doesn’t work. It can be frustrating for a designer to hear that, but that’s why it’s so important to start conversations at the wireframe level.

The developers last night said they like the idea of designers coding–if their code is good enough. It’s more important designers understand how code works to inform discussions and decisions.

What do you think?

  • It might really be a matter of realizing one’s skills, interests/passions and experience, rather than trying to fit some expectation that these questions imply. For example, as much as I would love to code, I know I’m better off partnering with a developer whose expertise can both build and provide feedback on feasibility/usability issues from their perspective. I thrive on that synergy.

    I also know that I’m not the type of person that likes digging into other people’s stuff—in this case, a developer’s code—so having that mutual respect for each other’s role, skill and personality is very important to me. That said, there’s definitely great value in knowing enough of each domain’s “language” in order to have a stronger understanding and thereby create better stuff. So maybe we should be looking at how both parties can quickly achieve synergy, which again will depend on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • David Varvel

    Amen. Wireframe checks between designers and developers are some of the most productive conversations that I’ve ever seen, for all the reasons that you mention. Even if the designer is an amazing coder, it’s important to get the perspective of someone who lives in the guts of the product on a daily basis. Talking about wireframes also helps the developers get a better sense of how designers are thinking, which can be extraordinarily helpful when it comes time to implement things.

    Also as you called out, mutual respect is crucial through every step of the process. An abundance of mutual respect is one of the reasons I love working at Pivotal Labs. Products are always better when the designers and developers realize that they’re all on the same team.

    Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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