Justin Baker

@justindesign

Developers are the Most Underrated Designers

Successful, functionally-rich products incorporate developers into the entire product lifecycle

One of my biggest gripes with the modern product lifecycle is the forced compartmentalization of specializations. If I am being hired for design, then that should not mean that I am a design God who can magically turn every business objective into a successful feature on my own. My domain expertise may center around design, but I also have about 8 years of experience doing product marketing and writing.. which you wouldn’t glean from my title. I also ‘code’, though I wouldn’t remotely call myself a developer. I’ve also done sales, business development, and support.

My point: most techies have a diverse set of experiences and skills that can add value to multiple specializations, not just their core competency.

The Developer Handoff

The same goes for developers. Developers are not just implementers of ideas, they are the originators and catalysts of ideas.

The most wasteful product lifecycle has a notion of a ‘handoff’ to development — whereby design, business, and product do all the research and feature design with an explicit handoff to engineering.

This initial handoff typically has three purposes:

  • Specs — Devs are tasked with speccing and conducting a feasibility assessment of the proposed designs.
  • Timelines — Devs must spec a timeline for build, testing, and deployment that meshes with the business’ goals.
  • Implement— Devs must build and implement the designs.

Consequences of the Handoff

The handoff may seem like an efficient, linear step in the product lifecycle. But, the modern product lifecycle is not a linear process — it is circular, iterative, and dynamic. So, what are the human implications of this handoff?

When they are not involved in the design process, devs can feel:

  • Disconnected from the rest of the team and from the ideation phase.
  • Unappreciated because programming is hard and good programming is harder, yet they had little say in the overall product scope.
  • Uninspired because they aren’t able to harness their product and life experiences to creatively problem solve from a feature perspective.
  • Burnt out due to having little control over what they have to implement and having to implement feature sets that they do not truly believe in.

Developers as Designers

Instead of the handoff, we should be incorporating devs in the entire design process, from ideation, to sketching, to prototyping, and to implementation. This doesn’t mean that we should force devs to storyboard concepts and conduct extensive user research, but they must have a seat at the table.

The design-minded developer brings the following:

  • Functional perspective — what functional frameworks do we have available? What unique tools can we harness? What toolkits do we have to work with?
  • Constraint framing — what technical constraints does the project have from a systemic perspective? Can we really handle the implementation of an advanced animation for our millions of users? How will certain things possibly impact system performance?
  • User perspective — devs are people too and represent a unique segment of the population, so use their perspectives and ideas to inform how the product is delivered.
  • Generally great ideas — devs have transformative ideas. They are extremely intelligent and creative problem solvers (that’s their job, after all).
  • Bluntness — this is one of my favorites. Devs tend not to sugarcoat feedback and tend to challenge ideas upfront. They demand that you explain the ‘why’ and ‘how of an idea, and not just give superficial feedback. This bluntness helps drive creative conversation, not hinder it.

Overall Benefits

For developers and the product, itself, the benefits can be transformative:

  • Engagement — When devs are engaged in the entire process, they understand the ‘why’ behind all of the decisions and not just the ‘what’. They understand the user stories and the business objectives.
  • Ownership — When your ideas are heard and incorporated into the actual design, then you have an ownership stake in the product. The more owners a product has (from an ideation perspective), the more people are directly invested in a positive outcome.
  • Better product design — By involving design-minded developers early in the product dev lifecycle, the overall product is better and more comprehensively designed.
  • Faster delivery — A more engaged developer, who was able to highlight the system constraints and caveats during the design phase, is less likely to be forced into unforeseen complexities.

Main Take-Away

Developers are intelligent problem solvers — that’s their job. The more you incorporate them into your design process, the better your product will be and the faster it will be delivered.

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