IBM Design
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IBM Design

Designers & developers: what we want each other to know.

The norm: a rupture between designer and developer.

Are we beyond repair?

In the software world, developers ask: “How do designers spend their time? Do they care about feasibility? Why do 10 pixels matter?” On the design side we hear: “We need to solve user needs, not to build features haphazardly!” Blame gets tossed around and consequently we deliver inferior products to customers. In this article, I’ll share things that developers and designers expect from each other as counterparts on a team, focusing on five topics from the perspective of a designer (me) and a developer who learned to work well together. Hopefully our conversation informs your relationship with your team, improving how you deliver value to customers. Let’s meet both parties before we discuss the five topics, and enjoy some GIFs along the way.

The Developer: Steven Zhang
I’m a first generation immigrant who grew up in the southern side of the USA. A Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology made me a loud and proud engineer. My mind is always wandering towards the next set of problems to solve taking me down rabbit-holes of thought. I’m currently an architect in the IBM Hybrid Cloud portfolio focused on UI development. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

The Designer: Esteban Pérez-Hemminger
Husband, bass player and pun-loving designer. I’ve got a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and Graphic Design, from my homeland in Puerto Rico, and a Master’s degree in Communications Design from Pratt Institute in NYC. I’m obsessed with solving problems and helping people communicate better with one another . I’m a Design Lead in IBM’s Hybrid Cloud organization. Let’s connect on LinkedIn.

Help me, help you.

1 : Value

How is your value measured, and how do you measure your counterpart?

Steven: As a developer, I prove my value to the company by being innovative in solving client problems through technology. For me, development’s main goal is to implement a solution that is informed by design research and customer requests. Ultimately, my success is measured by whether I solve my customer’s problems and by the technical elegance of my implementation: is it efficient, scalable and secure? I rely on Esteban’s team to help translate the needs of our clients into user experiences that I can turn into code.

Esteban: Like Steven, I’m measured by helping users do their job better. If the product looks and works perfectly but users are unable to accomplish their tasks, then my team has failed and our jobs are on the line. As a Design Lead, I’m also measured by my team’s engagement with peers and stakeholders. I measure Steven by his transparency when working together, how much he cares about solving user needs over delivering features, and the quality of his code implementation.

Weepeeee!

2 : Blockers

What are your biggest blockers?

Steven: My main blocker is a lack of product vision. Since my job is to implement capabilities that help solve the problems our clients face, I need well-defined problems I can translate into a solution. As a development lead, I participate in cross-discipline meetings to align our vision for the product we’re building. The importance of this alignment goes without saying, so if our organization is misaligned, developers can’t proceed and I fail to have a positive impact on the business.

Esteban: Lack of fiber in my diet. But in terms of work, if Steven is focused on delivering value to our users, my job is to advocate for them. This means I can’t do my job without knowing what we need to do for users and why we should do it. When our team’s vision and roadmap is unclear — or when they change constantly — users suffer for it. And that drives me nuts. I need Steven’s team to become advocates for users, and not see that as a responsibility solely for designers. It’s a job for all of us.

A typical Thursday meeting.

3 : Prioritization

How should both of you prioritize work?

Steven: I split my attention between making architectural decisions and writing code. My priority is solving immediate customer problems like: high severity defects and production issues. But, these are influenced by the organization’s direction as defined by our project managers. I expect Esteban to understand that my priorities reflect the overall business needs and that him and his team should prioritize their work accordingly. Given the insights that they collect, through research, I want designers to be part of those prioritization discussions.

Esteban: I would add that design, development and management need to have a single prioritization map not multiple. That prioritization needs to be informed by two factors: 1) the value the “thing” we’re working on provides to the user, and 2) how feasible it is for the given time frame. With that said, based on research, we sometimes need to blow up the time frame and re-evaluate it. So, I split my time between wireframes, user flows, and bringing people together to agree on the aforementioned priorities and milestones. When the vision is agreed upon, I prioritize my team’s tasks with tools like ZenHub, Mural and Slack gifs to my team to keep my sanity.

Replace Yoga with Software.

4 : Expectations

What expectations do you have of your counterpart?

Steven: I want interactions with designers to be respectful and productive, and expect them to bring clarity to how each individual fits into the big picture deliverable. I don’t want either of us to have preconceived “solutions” in mind when working with each other. While we all need to have an idea of how to solve problems, we can’t discount the fact that neither can create a great product alone. Instead, the two parties bring different sets of insights that are important for the success of a product. I want Esteban’s team to give me a deeper understanding of the intent behind the user experience they created.

Esteban: I second the need for respect as the experienced design professionals we are, and would add having clear goals for the engagements we have with each other. Because I respect people’s time — and hate when people waste mine — I provide context and agendas for the meetings and working sessions I organize. On implementation, I require development’s utmost attention to detail and their appreciation of the research efforts that led us to final specifications. Ideally, as we work together, our roles should go out the window as designers and developers become equals working to address user needs from different perspectives and complimenting each other’s ideas.

We all want this feeling.

5 : Satisfaction

What brings you satisfaction in your role?

Steven: My professional happiness comes from being part of a team that is committed to realizing a shared vision across design, dev and management. While it is important for developers to meet deadlines and deliver features, what is key is that my team work together to build things that matter to our customers. Ultimately, that sense of community and purpose keeps me hungry and drives me to improve at my craft.

Esteban: Like Steven, I’m happy when the team is engaged on solving user needs. I’ve seen the difference in a product’s quality when people are invested in user outcomes and in each other versus when they’re indifferent and distant. I believe a team’s energy gets translated into their products, and that users can smell discord a mile away. I love watching recordings from our usability tests. Hearing feedback, the good and the ugly, from our users shows the value of research and wakes people up when they think our product’s perfect.

Pshhhhhhh.

Conclusion

Are we now a big happy family?

Through writing this article we learned we’re here to help the other work with less pain, not to cause discord or create unnecessary arguments. This isn’t to say we don’t disagree on approach and implementation, cause we debate margins, padding and interactions all the time. But, these things can be overcome when we align on why we’re doing something and how it will help customers. We both want project management more involved in agreeing and staying honest to a product’s vision and delivery roadmap. Only then can design and development focus on what we’re good at, our expertise, and work together to deliver experiences that are: useful, usable, engaging, meaningful and beautiful. Getting there is definitely not beyond fixing.

*Special thanks to Tom Waterton, IBM colleague and Content Designer, for making these thoughts make sense.

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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