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How to Work with Designers

A Cheat Sheet for Engineers and PMs

Julie Zhuo
Aug 15, 2013 · 7 min read

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.

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

  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.

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)

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

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.

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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The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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