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Here’s What it Takes For Designers and Developers to Truly Collaborate

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Dec 12 2018

Picture this: You’re three weeks deep in a digital product build, under pressure to hit a launch date. You’re in the zone, typing out tasks and churning out features. But in the chaos, you start to lose sight of why these features matter. You pause, push back from your desk, and ask the team, “Wait, why are we building this feature again?”

As an interaction design director at IDEO, I’ve seen teams fall into this trap countless times. Once you jump into building a product, it’s easy for the intricacies of features, backlogs, and bugs to take priority over the human problem you’re trying to solve. When I’m guiding multidisciplinary teams through product development, my goal is to anchor the user at the heart of the process, from ideation through implementation.

Here are some tips for helping design and development teams work better, together—and for keeping the user top of mind from concept to launch.

1. Let big needs inform small tasks

As a team transitions from design into build, it’s inevitable that the focus shifts to practical details. Most development teams that I’ve worked with use some version of an agile process. Teams identify a set of features to build in short sprints. These features are then broken down into even smaller bite-sized tasks. For example, in a digital build, tasks could include “a user can rotate an item” or “a user can skip a step in on-boarding.” When you're working at a level this granular, it’s easy to lose sight of deeper human needs.

One way to prevent this is to articulate and make visible the user goals that your team is trying to achieve. In a recent sprint, we identified our goals as, “Help users collaborate and share, inspire users to create content, and provide relevant advice.” The product manager wrote this statement on Post-its that she stuck to each team member’s monitor. Throughout the sprint, it was always visible and top of mind, and our team would constantly refer to it in conversation. We used it to prioritize our work as requests crept in to tweak features; if a request didn’t support the user goal, it was cut.

2. Make digital work physical

In addition to keeping user needs top of mind, it’s critical to also keep an eye on the holistic experience. When your team is moving quickly through sprints, there is a risk that it will build one group of features and quickly move on to the next without making a connection between the two. At a larger scale, product teams are often organized around features (such as check-out, product page, or search). If these teams don’t communicate, and no one owns the full experience, it creates a confusion for customers.

This is an instance where tangible visual reminders can be useful—in making your digital work physical. During a collaboration with an agile team, I recognized that we were losing sight of the full user journey for our product. I hunted down a large foam core board, printed out all the screens we had designed, and arranged them into user flows. The engineers were baffled by my paper-based technique, but it gave us view of the full experience. We scribbled on the printed screens, added sketches, and continually tacked up new versions. As we went deep on building certain features, we made sure to look across the system to ensure consistency.

3. Prototype while building

A common pitfall among product teams is to jump to a single solution and then tweak details through usability testing. This type of testing may reveal how a user best engages with an interface (do they expect to click or swipe?) but it may not prove that a feature meets core needs.

It’s beneficial to keep prototyping with users through implementation to ensure that the team is continually building the right thing. Take a few hours or a few days to throw together a quick prototype (with paper, a prototyping tool, or code) to de-risk the process and potentially save hours of development time (not to mention budget).

I worked with an online retail team that wanted to build a new feature that would respond to shoppers' desire for more targeted recommendations. The team had jumped to a solution based on the best technical solve—a feature attached to the user profile that mimicked a closet with drawers.

While the virtual closet was an easy tech solve, I questioned whether the complexity met the need. The team took a few days to do lightweight testing of multiple concepts. They discovered that shoppers actually preferred to receive tips while shopping. Eventually, we landed on a simpler solution that not only saved hours of development time, but created an experience that customers actually wanted.

4. Create one team

The best way to remain human-centered is to create a healthy overlap between design and development teams. Merging methods and rituals can be a messy process, but ultimately, it’s worth it. Engineers become open to creative problem solving and designers are willing to be more flexible with their ideas when they understand what it takes to build them. In the best case, a multidisciplinary team is located together in one space, and a designer can simply roll their chair over to an engineer to chat. When this is not possible, we do our best to make remote teams feel connected, in one case setting up a video “wormhole” between designers and developers in different cities.

Beyond co-locating, it can be surprisingly useful to intentionally create a shared culture and team identity. I came around to it after seeing many teams with awkward beginnings eventually bond around shared identity, jokes, and rituals. One project that I worked on brought together designers and developers from three different companies. They were tackling a mobility challenge, so they aptly named themselves “Mötormouth.” They devised a back story about a ‘90’s metal band, printed sweatshirts, and even took a break during a grueling sprint to take band photos. By the end of the project, I was convinced that this wacky band identity helped a diverse group work effectively as a team.

The best digital products are the ones that solve a human problem. And the best digital design teams are the ones that keep that human at the center of their process, from early ideas through final build. By combining disciplines, prototyping often, and allowing the user to guide decisions, teams set themselves up for success. And along the way, it's important to not neglect play—it may seem extraneous, but it’s the glue that bonds teams around a common purpose.

Illustrations by Cassandra Fountaine

  • Kim Cullen

    Design Director, IDEO San Francisco
    As a Design Director at IDEO San Francisco, Kim Cullen provides guidance to a community of interdisciplinary designers that ranges from deep systems thinkers to code tinkerers to visual designers. She supports teams in creating their best work while partnering with clients to help them understand and engage with the creative process.
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