How Well Do Your Design and Development Teams Really Collaborate?

The two disciplines often work on parallel paths, but nurturing cooperation will deliver greater value.

Written by Bansi Mehta
Published on Jan. 24, 2021
How Well Do Your Design and Development Teams Really Collaborate?
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Design and development are two sides of the same software development coin. As far as cliches go, this one has to be right up there with all the other rather obvious ones.

And yet, these two disciplines tend to function on parallel paths in the creative process, resulting in multiple feedback loops and limited creative possibilities.

When all is said and done, collaboration between design and development teams is imperative. By unifying their approach and process, the result is a stronger product, which then delivers greater value to the stakeholders.

With both sides coming from disparate schools of thought, collaborations between designers and developers can seem unfathomable. However, it is just a matter of acknowledging the common goal both pursue — building that excellent product — and finding ways to come together to create it effortlessly.


Let Developers Enter the Design Bubble Early on

The dysfunction in the process begins when lines of distinction between design and development are drawn right from the project’s start. Working in isolated silos ends up doing a world of harm to the final product because, by that time, both parties have a grip on their version of the product and disagreements ensue.

This gap can be bridged with collaboration at the stage of project commencement, which results in multiple perspectives and shared ownership. Frequent check-ins between designers and developers help the project move at a neat pace by removing communication and interpretation bottlenecks later on in the process. It will also help both sides maintain a shared vision of the product.


Dear Designers: The Developer Is Also Your User

Designers are habituated to keeping user needs and pain points in mind when envisioning the product experience. They would also do good to extend the same level of empathy to how developers will consume their designs and design documentation.

Keep in mind that the end user never interacts with the designs. They interact with the final product, which is invariably built by developers, based on the design documentation provided by designers.

Just as designers run research with end users, they can conduct interview sessions with the development team at the start of a project to understand their preferences, journey, and pain points, and devise documentation that delivers on their needs. The interview can answer questions like the frequency, level of detailing, channels of delivery, and striking a balance between written and visual documentation.

By adapting the design workflow to accommodate the needs of the development partners, the creative process can run more smoothly and efficiently.


Make the Most Out of Agile

As godsent as agile may be, it still cannot promise the delivery of a truly engaging and useful product. It can solve problems effectively, but it cannot ensure that the right problem is being solved in the first place. This is why agile development combined with design expertise is used by many product teams to get the maximum juice out of the creative process.

With design identifying the real problem to be solved, the team can implement the agile process to incrementally enhance the solution over time, using user feedback and business needs.

A core tenant of the agile process is having a log of prioritized work items in one shared place that the whole team can access and have a say in their prioritization. It goes a long way in creating a cohesive team full of members who are personally invested in the work to be done.

With teams working in the same physical location, this can be done on whiteboards; for remote teams, tools such as Jira and Basecamp can come in handy.


How Does Better Designer-Developer Collaboration Pan Out in Reality?

Sharing skill sets and understanding each other’s discipline is key to ensuring efficient working practices among the teams. This is also an opportunity to level up and learn some of the other discipline’s “language.”

Here’s how an ideal collaborative process would function:

Stage 1: Project Kickoff

Project kickoff can commence with a call comprising all members. Once the teams are acquainted with each other, a group can be formed on a project management platform. This can be used to ensure accountability with checklists and deadlines clearly assigned to each stakeholder. It helps in keeping both sides in the loop about the progress of the project right from the beginning.

Stage 2: Research and Synthesis

Data gathered from the research phase is what lays the groundwork for all future decisions and directions.

It would bode well for designers to share initial directions based on user research with developers. This helps them see where the design decisions are coming from and helps in defining the scope and limitations more clearly.

Stage 3: Ideation and Design

This phase is mainly centered on the designers, however, the development team can provide UI component libraries (if available) to make sure that the basic elements follow a consistent pattern.

This will help the design team to focus on creating workflows and navigation patterns to build an appropriate user experience. Periodic consulting with the development team will ensure that the ideas or sketches created are feasible. This also keeps the development team stay in the know about the coding requirements.

Stage 4: Prototyping

Once the designers have the mock-ups ready, they can make use of prototyping tools such as InVision, Axure, or Sketch, which allow for a functioning version and share it with the developers. This helps in ironing out any issues before the mock-ups can be shared with the project head or the client.

Stage 5: Design to Development Handoff

With the design and development teams being on the same page since the project kickoff, the actual handoff is smooth. Any issues arising at previous stages are ironed out before moving ahead.

In this stage, the design team can propose the design specifications like typography and fonts, row and column layouts, spacing, user flows, and more. The developers can review those specifications and carefully implement them in the coding.

Stage 6: Building and Testing

With the development team getting to have a say in the prototyping stage, the design team also has to be involved in the building and the post-development quality assurance phase. This ensures that the designers’ vision is maintained and any issues are resolved collectively.

Stage 7: Post-Launch

Software products are never really done, which is why it might be necessary for the design and development teams to continue their collaboration to fix the post-launch issues that invariably arise, at least in the initial days. It would also greatly help both factions to review their project, celebrate their wins, and learn from mistakes — it only helps them to polish their craft.

You may have noticed that there’s a clear thought running through this entire process: Communication at every stage. If developers are in the loop right from the beginning of the creative process, it gives the designers a fair idea of what is needed to accurately transform their vision into reality. Conversely, when developers take over closer to launch, they need to keep the designers involved so that the UX on the final product stays close to the original.

On their own, both designers and developers can take active efforts to learn more about development and design, respectively. Ultimately, the goal is to approach the creative process in a holistic way rather than each sticking to their own area of expertise.

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