Photo by Rasmus Andersson

How to Work with Designers

A Cheat Sheet for Engineers and PMs

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass
7 min readAug 15, 2013


Once, a long time ago, I was a product manager. Then, I was an engineer. For the past seven years, I’ve been in design. Every single day, I work with people in all of these roles. Every single day, I find new ways to appreciate the responsibilities, challenges, and art behind each of these three pillars of product development. For all the engineers and PMs out there wondering how to crack the strange, retina-sharp, helvetica-typed world of design: this is for you.

To speak the language of designers, stop talking about metrics and start talking about users.

More often than not, these aren’t too far off from each other. For example, you might be talking about setting a goal of optimizing conversion rate on a registration page by X%. Said another way, what you’re trying to do is to remove the barriers that make it hard for users to sign up for your service. But see, the language here matters. Make it easier for users to sign up vs. Optimize the conversion rate on the sign-up flow. One approach speaks to the value for the end user. The other approach focuses on what the company needs to do to be successful. Designers generally think and operate in the mindset of the user.
Other translations:
Can we increase the click-through rate on this button? => How can we make sure users know about this sweet new feature and that it’s easy to use?
We need to not tank metrics with this change => We need to make sure this change doesn’t make it harder for users to do the things they want to do.
Let’s pump up the viral coefficient => Let’s encourage users who like and enjoy this feature to share it with their friends.

Designers have different strengths. These strengths should be applied to the right problems.

Designers are different. Even a class of ‘all-star’ designers would think about problems differently. This is because design encompasses many things, including:

  1. Visual design: typography, contrast, hierarchy, and the good ol’ does it look good? falls into this category. Do your eyes fall on the right things? Are the details crisp or are they sloppy? More importantly, does the visual design work together as a system?
  2. Interaction design: is it easy and clear to for a user to do X? Is the navigation system robust? Do transitions and animations feel satisfying and make the app feel more intuitive to use?
  3. Product design: does the design successfully solve a problem? Is the thing that is designed useful? Does it have a clear vision? Does it contribute value?

Some designers are mind-blowing at visuals but not as experienced in interaction design. Some designers are brilliant product strategists but their design execution is weaker. There are incredibly difficult problems in each area of design, and having the right designers working on the problems that are well-suited to their skills is critical. You cannot swap one designer for another and expect to get the same outcome on a project. Generally, you’ll need all of the above for a strong design. If you can only have one designer on your team, it’s better that that person is a generalist rather than exceptionally good at any one area but weak in the others. If you have a team of designers, then having more specialized designers may work.

The more senior the designer, the more abstract the problem they should be solving.

To break it down more tangibly, let’s look at some examples of levels and appropriate responsibilities:

Designer Lvl 1: Design a form that lets people edit their profile. Pretty scoped—assumes there is a profile, and that the solution takes the shape of a form.

Designer Lvl 2: Design the best interface for users to edit their profile. The solution could be a form, could be a WYSIWYG inline editor, could be a modal window.

Designer Lvl 3 (broad): Design a system for editing across everything—profiles, posts, settings, etc. Now we’re not just profiles, but the editing system should be flexible enough to work across the entire app.

Designer Lvl 3 (deep): Design a way to get users to want to update their profiles. Here, the questions the designer is asking is why should users update their profile? And when? And how to best convey the value proposition?

Designer Lvl 4: Design a solution to increase the authenticity of users among your app. Maybe editing profiles isn’t even the right thing to focus on for our ultimate goal, maybe a peer-review system would be better.

Designer Lvl 5: Identify the biggest product problem with your app/company/site and design a solution.At the highest level, the best designers drive the vision for a product.

Put another way, a senior designer will be highly generative with ideas and solutions if they feel a deep ownership with the product vision and strategy. Conversely, if a senior designer is given a junior-level task (like ‘design a form’) but feels that a form is entirely the wrong way to go about solving the problem, then they’ll probably be deeply unhappy with what they’re doing, and possibly not do that great a job either. This tension here is the source of many a morale woe with design: the more senior a designer, the more frustrated they’ll be if they do not fundamentally agree with the vision or strategy of the product.

The more time a designer spends with other designers, the better the work (and the designer)

Critique, and designers giving other designers feedback is one of the most important and effective tools for improvement. If a designer is working alone and never showing their work to other designers, it’s pretty much guaranteed that their work won’t be as strong as if they were engaging in regular feedback sessions. This is why designers should be encouraged to sit with other designers during the developmental stages of a project (when ideas are free-flowing and designs still rapidly changing) and only be encouraged to sit with engineers during the execution phase of a project (when the biggest pieces of the design are settled and it’s more a matter of implementing it.)

A lot of what designers value and strive for in their work is hard to measure.

That is because a designer’s goal is a quality experience—not just in one aspect of the app, but throughout their entire experience, and not just short-term, but also down the road. As an example, let’s talk about clutter. Qualitatively, everybody generally agrees that tons of clutter is bad. But at what point does adding one more thing become ‘too cluttered?’ It is impossible to quantify this. It is also unlikely that the addition of that one extra thing will result in your users fleeing right off the bat. But slowly, like ocean tides whittling away a rocky cliff, these additions add up until one day, your users see your site as cluttered. Then, some other app will come along that seems fresh and simple and tackles the same problem as your app. And at that point, it is already too late.

Similarly, designers will often push for consistency between different parts of an app or system. This may seem overly fastidious, since at a per-feature level, if the flow for uploading photos is coherent, shouldn’t that be enough?

The problem is, users don’t just upload photos. They’re probably also uploading videos. And if the way they upload photos and videos is markedly different and designed completely in a vacuum, that’s pretty confusing. Users will probably have a harder time uploading photos and videos. Just imagine if the File menu existed in a different place for every app—sometimes in the top left, sometimes in the top right, or bottom or wherever. That would be a nightmare.

Now, it’s true that sometimes a designer’s balance of what’s important can be off. Designers have a tendency to overvalue an individual’s experience and undervalue an entire population or network’s experience. Similarly, designers may use their own experiences as a compass for what to focus on, when in fact they are not the target demographic. (Of course, I am painting some pretty broad strokes here—obviously this does not apply to every designer.) But the fact of the matter is, it’s often hard to point at short-term quantitive metrics that will go up and down due to a design change. Things like user trust, comprehension and clarity, long-term sentiment, and delight—those things may be positively affected by what a designer is pushing for but not easy to quantify with numbers.

The most direct path to a designer’s heart is to care about the details.

Seriously, want to send hearts fluttering ablaze with joy and delight? Implement a mock with every pixel in place. Set a high quality bar that doesn’t permit jankiness. Go the extra mile to get a small design detail right. Or spend an extra night building something for the express purpose of delighting a user. Every single designer I know loves to work with engineers and PMs that value design—would gladly give up nights and weekends just to sit together and make stuff happen because everybody believes in it, and everybody on the team just wants to build some really useful, really stellar, really next-level shit.

Read the next installments in this series: How to work with PMs: a cheat sheet for designers and How to work with engineers.

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Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.