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Where content meets technology

Feb 08, 2010

Developers and Designers

A few months ago I read Lukas Mathis' through provoking essay "Designers are not Programmers" where he makes the case for a separation between designers and developers. To summarize his argument, thinking about implementation details distracts the designer from the user and results in applications (and websites) that are easy to build but hard to use. He makes a very thorough case (you should definitely read the full essay) but something just doesn't sit well with me. In my practical experience, I find that teams are more efficient when roles overlap and people understand what is happening outside of their silo. Here are some reasons why:

  • A designer is often faced with lots of options of how to solve a user problem. When it is a coin toss between two solutions, why not choose the one that is easier to implement and apply the time and effort saved to something that really needs the additional complexity?

  • The static tools that pure designers use (e.g. photoshop) have no way to express interactive functionality. All the details that the developer needs to know need to be captured in some sort of specification that can never be complete and is usually out of date. Making the developers wait until the specification is done is inefficient.

  • Good software cannot be achieved by brilliant designers alone. It takes iteration and feedback to get it right. A cold hand-off between the designers and developers lengthens the iteration cycle (so you get fewer of them in a fixed amount of time and budget) and creates more of an opportunity for information loss.

In an ideal world with infinite time and money (and omniscience too), it might be better to have designers whose minds are unencumbered by knowledge of implementation details. Anything that they dream of can be implemented... with enough time and resources, of course. But I don't live in that world. In the world I live in, product managers and publishers have to make lots of compromises. They also need to be able to react efficiently to correct bad design decisions so that the product (or website) can continually improve. For that, you need an agile team that solve problems directly. this means staying out of a designer-only loop.

The most effective teams that I have worked on have all had a talented front end developer that can rapidly design in DHTML (leveraging javascript libraries and CSS) and knows enough server side scripting to make most user interface changes unassisted. With this mix of skills, it is truly amazing how quickly a small team can get a product in front of users where it can be improved by feedback.