Design for the unshiny.

Designing developer tools is fun, too. You should try it.

Designers are fascinating. Each and every one of them has a unique skill-set, area of expertise, experience, and yet most of them want to work on the same kind of projects. What Jeff Domke calls “shiny products” in his great piece “I only work on shiny products”. Glamorous products that will look great on their portfolio.

Almost two years ago, I went on a quest to find a second designer for the Parse team. Finding good designers who aren’t already busy building things isn’t easy, but as it turns out, finding one who’s excited about designing developer tools is even harder. I’ve talked to a lot of talented designers, and most of them had the same reaction when I explained what Parse was doing. “Hum, yeah, that’s cool. By the way, have you heard of that new coffee place in the Mission?”. They all ended up either joining another team at Facebook or another company, to work on a “shinier” product. Developer tools were just not appealing enough.

Anything can be shiny

Now here’s the thing: developer tools can be “shiny”. Like any piece of software, they offer room for beautifully crafted interactions, gorgeous illustrations and iconography, and minimalistic interfaces. The problem you’re trying to solve is different, the ways of solving it are similar.

Developers are people. And just like anyone else, they appreciate well-crafted, easy to use software that provides an amazing user-experience. One thing we often hear from Parse users (who are mostly developers) is how easy and nice it is to get started with Parse. They often mention that our quickstart guide gets them started in minutes, and our documentation is some of the best out there. Or they tweet about some little details we add to the experience. Since the very beginning, the Parse team has been focusing on simplifying mobile development, and offering beautiful and easy to use developer tools. The fact that we got popular in the developer community, and that our users keep pointing out the simplicity of our tools and the attention to details, demonstrates that developers care about great tools, and appreciate us going the extra mile when crafting the experience.

As designers, our job is to take a hard problem, and find its best solution. The problem can be “How can we make sharing photos on mobile simpler?”,
but it also can be “How can we help developers build apps faster?” or “How do we help developers understand what’s right or wrong in their apps?”. All of these problems have millions of possible outcomes, and the process of finding the best solution remains the same.

Identifying the problem. Identifying the constraints. Finding ideas. Saying no. Designing wireframes. Designing Mockups. Experimenting. Prototyping. Implementing. Shipping. Communicating. Iterating. This is what you do when you design the next Snapchat or Square. It’s also what you do when you design the next AWS or the next Google Analytics. Different problem, same process.

Overlooked problems

This goes beyond developer tools. My girlfriend Claire is busy designing business interfaces at Fliptop. My friend Maykel is busy designing Business Tools for Instagram. Margaret leads a great design team that builds amazing advertising interfaces for Facebook. After working on apartment search at Lovely, Kerem is now rethinking healthcare delivery at Omada Health. Those probably don’t precisely correspond to the definition of “shiny products”. Yet they’re fascinating, challenging, rewarding products to work on. They belong to undervalued industries, and actually offer designers a chance to have a much bigger impact.

These are great examples of designers who decided to dedicate their precious time rethinking these complicated, often ugly and hard to use user interfaces, to make them functional and beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love shiny products too. I spend way too much time on Tweetbot, Messenger, or Rdio. These products are amazing and inspire us all every day. My point is that given the state of the product design world in 2014, (most) designers are very fortunate to be in a position where they can decide what problem they want to solve next. And as a community, we should encourage some of them to also try to tackle these complicated, often-overlooked problems.

Designing developer tools is fun too. You should give it a try.
Start designing for the unshiny.