Design and Technology, Sitting in a Tree…

This post was originally posted on the Adaptive Path blog.

One constant that has stood the test of time in new media/technology projects has been the tension between designers and developers. There have been very few places I have worked where this tension was not one of the central issues holding back teams from generating successful final products. We, as a community, have tried countless ways to alleviate this issue, but it continues to persist despite our efforts. Sadly, I feel this issue stems less from process (although that can definitely exacerbate the situation) and more from a company’s culture and organizational approach. The seamless integration between design and technology is becoming increasingly vital to a product’s success. Up to this point, a lot of subconscious time and energy is put into the segmentation of designers and developers, but what we should really be doing is working to blur the lines between the skill sets. The companies that will thrive moving forward are the ones that resolve this tension. With that in mind, what can both designers and developers do in their everyday process to create a more mutli-disciplined approach that still works within a company’s structure?

Resist segmentation

From a business perspective, it feels good to be able to create an A,B,C/1,2,3 list as to how a project will be accomplished. Many firms deal with design and technology as if they are self-contained/unrelated entities and resource teams accordingly. Considering how intimately related design and technology are in today’s new media projects, this division can often be detrimental to a project’s success. I have worked on many projects where there was a noticeable gap between design and technology. The normal process would be for the designers or developers to come up with an idea and then float it by their complementary group to get an up-or-down vote. This had the potential to produce results that exhibited “seams” – where one could almost visibly see where the work of one group ended and the next group’s work began. Design decisions need to be collaboratively made along side technology decisions (and vice-versa) to erase those seams. Even if a project is scheduled in a linear/waterfall structure, advocate for short and yet constant round-tables. These sessions will not only give team members of every role an opportunity to provide their specific perspective, but it allows potential red flags to be raised early on.

Kill the camps

I have never worked at a company that would actively discourage team members of different disciplines to work closely together. However, I have worked at plenty of places that didn’t expect it. In discipline-segregated environments, it is common to see the different groups have lunch separately and generally interact separately. This inevitably creates camps, which quite often generates a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The best projects I have worked on fostered environments where everyone sat down together and had their work be dictated by what needed to get done. There was significantly less importance placed on a team member’s official role/job description. A developer would open up Photoshop and help edit some images. A designer would gladly write some HTML or CSS as much as they felt comfortable. Every team member had their role at the end of the day, but the most important role they had was to lend whatever skill they had to help move the project forward.

Frame your work in the larger context

Nearly every team member on a new media project has an impact on user experience. The creation of a website is a perfect example – it is obvious that UX and visual designers impact the user experience of the site, but few people acknowledge that developers have an equal impact. The responsiveness and stability of the website is going to have a tremendous impact on a user’s general reaction. In my experience, when one group made decisions (intentional or unintentional) that has a negative impact on another group’s work, it almost always had a detrimental effect on final product’s overall user experience. Our work, regardless of what we do, does not exist independently. Try not to frame the quality of your work within the confines of your role. It is important to view how your work will integrate with all the other pieces of a project. Ultimately, the user experience of a project is dependent on how all the separate pieces fit together.

Treat everyone as problem solvers

Design problems and technology problems do not always need their respective practitioner exclusively to solve them. It can sometimes be a little off-putting to have team members of different disciplines suggesting solutions in your “field of expertise”. However, we have all experienced how an outsider’s perspective can inject fresh air into a group’s thinking. Many of the problems trying to be solved in the new media sector are not cut-and-dry design or technology problems. Therefore, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to approach these issues in a one-dimensional manner. I have found it very helpful to abstract a problem, whether it originated in the design or development process, and ask as many colleagues from as many disciplines how they would go about solving it. I have almost always been presented with an idea that I had not even considered due to my self-imposed tunnel vision. When you are stuck on a problem, try asking someone for help who your suspect has a significantly different point of view.

Expand your own horizons

In a such a heavily cross-discipline environment like new media design, teams need members who are willing to learn and work outside their traditional job descriptions. It is a given that team members need a strong core skill set to be successful, but that isn’t enough. Team members need to be genuinely interested in all pieces of the product creation process and willing to put thought and effort into those other pieces. This is helpful for three reasons. First, if a person has a strong understanding in what all their fellow team members do and how much thought and effort goes into what they do, a greater level of empathy and respect can begin to form. Second, understanding a team’s full process to get to the final product will begin to implicitly influence their work. Team members will be able to make decisions which will pay dividends five steps down the road. Third, by better understanding the full process, better decisions around trade-offs can be made. A developer will likely know that the path of least resistance technologically in a particular area could hamper the user-experience and conversely, a designer will understand where to pare back areas of a design to account for better performance and function stability. From my experience, the members with the broadest knowledge bring some of the most multi-dimensional ideas to the table. It is good to be an expert in a particular field, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few other tricks in your sleeve.

To conclude, we are all naturally multi-dimensional people. Very few, if any, people will naturally look at problems from a totally one-sided viewpoint. For the sake of efficiency, one-dimensional, super specialist type of thinking has been fostered in the workplace. However, if we want rich, multi-dimensional products where design and technology feel seamless, our internal cultures, roles and processes need to reflect that.

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