Successful cross-collaboration within tech-teams from a Designer’s POV

How to navigate challenges and foster successful seamless cross-collaboration between designers and developers within well organised and structured product teams that thrive in doing so.

Cristina Tulcidas

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My very first talk about 6 years ago, at the very early stages of my career in product design for the Geek Girls Portugal community, was about the importance of cross-collaboration between designers and developers, which I also wrote a supporting article for that you can read here, and 5 years later, I still stand by that statement irrevocably.

But first let me re-introduce myself.

Hi there! I’m Cristina ❤️‍🔥

Inspired by growth and humanity, emotional intelligence, mental health and love. A life-long learner and advocate of inclusivity, diversity and equality, I am always humbled by the wisdom and kindness of others.

For the past 10 years I’ve navigated the realms of agencies, international technological companies and startups. And one of the observations I’ve made throughout my experiences, is that designers tend to fall into either one of two team setups: a tech / product team or a crafts team.

The difference between a tech team and a crafts team

Even though the distinction between the two is not clear-cut, and the interpretation is open to the organisational culture and industry practices, generally speaking, the main characteristic that may differ between the two is the scope of expertise.

In tech / product teams

The scope of expertise for individuals working within tech / product teams may imply:

  • A broader focus, where individuals have diverse technical skills across various domains within the technology spectrum of software development and product design;
  • And a greater range of skills across a span of different technical areas, as well as the ability to wear multiple hats.

In craft teams

While in craft teams, the scope of expertise if more focused on:

  • Skill specialisation and expertise in targeted domain(s);
  • A higher degree in a given topic, subject or particular discipline;
  • Ownership and micro-management capabilities.

Having experienced working on both types of environment, in both cases I observed that the success of a product or experience, was not dependant on your teams setup even though it may certainly influence how faster you reach success, as in tech / product teams their tends to be less of a gap in the cross-collaboration of all individuals involved than in craft teams, but overall, the fundamental aspect that determines success for product development within teams is cross-collaboration.

My personal hypothesis after working as a product designer is both tech / product and craft teams.

As I started the saying in the beginning of this article, I strongly stand by that statement of the importance of cross-collaboration, especially between designers and developers, and nowadays I even say/defend it with more confidence, because I’ve been able to gain more experience across the different team settings and environments. However for some reason, and even though it’s more than half a decade later, the majority of companies still fail to understand and implement this.

The key to building successful products in a team that thrives in doing so, is determined by the seamless cross-collaboration between designers and developers within well organised and structured management

The dance between designers and developers comes with many hurdles, but ultimately it does drive the results that agencies, startups and corporations all strive for but fail to achieve.

An effective collaboration is akin to a harmonious dance, where each collaborator contributes with their unique skills and perspectives:

  • Designer bring creativity, user empathy and a keen eye for aesthetics;
  • While engineers contribute with technical expertise, problem-solving abilities and a detailed understanding of implementation constraints.

So what happens when designers and developers aren’t sitting in the same room? Working in a pair-designing / programming atmosphere? When the processes implemented don’t foresee or promote cross-collaboration? Or when there is simply just a lack of communication between the different craft teams?

I believe I can speak for myself as a designer, and for my fellow engineer colleagues when I talk about the struggles and challenges that are intricate for the success of a product / experience and team environment / productivity / results when this lack of collaboration is practiced.

The challenges

Before moving on to explain some of the challenging points, I’d like to talk about an incident where I personally experienced this when I was collaborating with a startup that operated under a craft team setup. Note that we did not have a product manager that mitigated each teams requests, nor did the craft teams have a responsible person to micro-manage these requests, which meant each individual from any craft team had ownership to determine the features they wanted to improve and develop, and create the respective tasks to make it happen. The scenario of the incident I experience is: one of my fellow engineer colleagues created 5 tasks simultaneously which needed some design work to be developed. I wrapped up all 5 tasks within the deadline I provided and shared in the designated company channel that the designs for x and x task were done and ready for implementation. Up until this point, it seems like everything is going smoothly right? That is until one of the stakeholders and co-founder asked why I had been working on x task with x subject when the co-founders had discussed said issue 6 months prior and decided that they could not move forward with the desired solution because they had not reached a unanimous consensus over this subject and some technical constraints and usage implications. More than having spent a couple of days working on something that was actually not applicable, I was frustrated for being asked why I had worked on this subject and tried to understand what I could have done to avoid having created this situation. However, looking back, I had not created this task. If I had, I would have most likely needed to check the roadmap objectives and OKR’s or with the leading management on the status of this feature subject.

So what was the actual issue(s) that happened in this situation?

Misalignment of goals and objectives

  • Client and project misunderstandings
  • Solutions that don’t meed the intended purpose / needs

One of the biggest challenges faced for the lack of cross-collaboration between the different parties involved is defining clear objectives without everyone’s line of expertise: incomplete or unclear requirements (like what happened on the experience I shared) may cause the team as a whole to misunderstand the client or project specifications, which can lead to the development off solutions that do not meet the intended needs.

A designer, even with some basic knowledge can’t possibly consider the extent of technical implications and implementation constraints, which create many issues in the back-and-forth feedback loops that arise in craft teams for example, whereas a developer in turn, doesn’t often consider the empathy paths of the whole user-experience, which can lead to overlooking scenarios where user-journey implications may be of relevance.

Communication gaps

  • Ineffective problem-solving
  • Project timeline delays

Not cross-collaborating in planning discussions, brainstorming sessions and workshops together prevents the team’s ability to solve issues efficiently and effectively, ultimately delaying the time taken to identify and rectify issues, misunderstandings and project objectives which brings up my next point.

Roadmap setbacks

  • Lack of clear understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • Neglect / duplicity of tasks

Timely feedback is crucial in the tech industry. And when team members are not actively engaging with each other or sitting in the same room, the lack of communication and misalignment of objectives fosters an environment where team members are not clear on the understanding of their roles and responsibilities, which in most cases, results in tasks being duplicated, shipped without proper insights, or completely neglected.

Last but not least…

Adaption to changes

  • Decrease in motivation and morale
  • Increased resistance and confusion

In the dynamic field of technology, changes are inevitable and most likely a daily challenge. Without proper collaboration and communication, lack of motivation is certain to creep up within a teams individuals especially in remote setups, which end up causing low morale and a decrease in productivity, that ultimately just makes it all even harder to manage and adapt to, fostering feelings of resistance and confusions.

Together however…

This cross-functional synergy of seamless collaboration leverages each other’s strengths to be more time-efficient and create more user-centric solutions. And the benefits of this cross-collaborate environment speak for themselves:

Improved efficiency

  • Designers can push the boundaries of creativity, while developers ensure the feasibility of the proposed solutions.

Clear communication

  • Minimizes misunderstandings of goals and timelines;
  • Promotes a clearer understanding of project requirements, goals and timelines decreasing team dynamics challenges and roadblocks that teams may encounter throughout the process.

Process speed

  • With better views on the solution requirements and clearer communication, feedback loops are tightened, fostering a quicker iterative process that will lead to continuous and faster improvements, allowing teams to adapt to changes more efficiently, reducing the likelihood of bottlenecks and delays, ultimately speed up the process.

Better management

  • A shared vision within all team members involved in the development process of a project / feature, enhances collaboration by promoting a clear understanding of the responsibilities and the scope of the project, enabling the team to prioritise, plan and execute with excellence.

By blending these sets of skills, this cross-collaboration is not only beneficial for building cutting-edge and user-centric products, but absolutely essential to drive teams to successfully thrive in doing so.

In more practical terms, what this does is:

  1. Builds trust that together, they deliver better and faster iterations, promoting a longer sense of success and drive for productiveness at work
  2. Strengthens the relationship between team-members, which make them more likely to help each other solve complex challenges at work, but also in the more personal aspect, make people more likely to support and uplift the spirits of colleagues who may be going through difficult times
  3. And finally, it nurtures the positivity in team culture. Fostering cross-collaboration creates a sense of community, and a more supportive atmosphere, which increases job satisfaction, boosts morale, and ensures that employees feel part of a larger mission, contributing to an overall happier work environment.

So whether you’re a designer, an engineer, a manager, a stakeholder, or an individual that is working in the tech industry, think about how you can help your team build better cross-collaboration if you think it could make a difference for better in your work environment, and help drive your team to success!

On a second note, if you’re still reading this article and I haven’t bored you yet, while I still have your attention, I’d like to take this subject to a different point and end this article with an important question.

Throughout my career as a designer in general, I have many times found myself wondering if I really love my job. At times, it has felt really frustrating, unpleasant and unforgiving… It took me a while to realise that it’s not actually doing my job that creates this feeling, but having the constant need to explain to peers, bosses and teammates the value of my work and it’s R.O.I. And in the past year, where I shared this feeling with other fellow designers, I realised it is a common feeling among us working in the tech industry.

This spiked my curiosity and consequentially I stumbled upon an article that provided some really cool insights and interesting data that supports the understanding into this, which you can read here.

According to a study conduced by Matej Latin, which you can read about in the article I share above, 77.5% of companies fall under the low UX/design maturity levels defined by the NNG (Norman Nielsen Group).

If you’d like to understand this metric, you can find the link to the NNG quiz on this slide (https://forms.nngroup.com/s3/Maturity-Quiz).

But what I want to focus on is how this data tell us that UX/Design maturity remains a huge problem in the tech industry and is one of the biggest reasons why designers leave companies and aren’t able to properly excel at their jobs. I wonder if this applicable for managers? Marketing specialists? Engineers?

Do you also have the sense that you have to constantly prove the value of your work?

For example: if you’re an engineer, do you have to prove the value of software development to your company? If you’re a manager: do you have to justify product management to your stakeholders?

I have the sense that it seems like it’s only designers who are somewhat expected to prove their value and justify the worth of their work.

Ultimately, why is it that companies are so design-immature and don’t understand or question what designers do? Thank you.

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