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Why communication between developers and designers can be poor and how to fix it.

Big and small companies in the tech industry share one similarity. I can tell you this with confidence because I have worked for companies as big as EA and as small as being the first employee. This likeness I’m talking about comes from communication issues between developers and designers.

Before writing this piece I did some research to see what’s out there about the topic. I found little on why this happens, but a lot on “steps to improve it” or “ideas on how to communicate better”. But, to give you a good solution I must first introduce you to the problem. So let me tell you my perspective on why communication between designers and developers can be poor.

I want you to picture yourself studying Computer Science. Think about some of the classes that form the curriculum. You probably find yourself thinking about math and physics right now. Right? Below are some of the classes you can find in a Computer Science program:

Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science

Data Structures


Modern Physics

To study these subjects you need to deal with rational thinking, X + Y = Z. Communication here is black or white, there is no in between.

In contrast, picture yourself now studying Interaction Design. Think about the classes that form the curriculum. You probably find yourself thinking about typography, color theory and interface design. Next are some classes that you can find in an Interactive Design curriculum:

Interface Principles

Brand Strategy

User Experience + UCD Innovation

Creative + Art Direction

In an Interactive Design program you talk about why a typeface evokes a novel feeling or how certain colors can change the mood of a design. Even though, there is math and science behind why these events happen, your communication tends to be more philosophical.

Basically, developers communicate more rationally, left brain and designers more philosophically, right brain. I think that we can find the main reason why issues exist when we look at the communication problem from the perspective of how we think inside each field. Let me show you a conversation I overheard between a designer and a programmer on a team I led so you can see what I mean:

A programmer requested a designer to remove some “extra” text and numbers on a screen for an app we were designing and coding. The designer asked why? and the developer said that they had no use for the user. The designer explained that they were created to stress the layout of the screen and to orientate the user; But, the programmer thought they were pointless if the users couldn’t do anything with them. Who’s right or wrong? How would you solve this issue?

After 10+ years in the industry I can tell you that they are both right and both wrong. They are both right because they are coming up from their own individual perspective about what’s good for the user. But, they are both wrong because they both didn’t back their point with user research.

You now know the main problem, left brain vs right brain. You also saw a real life example. Now, let me tell you 2 ways to fix this communication issue. Avoid anyone telling you anything differently, all you need are these 2 principles in place:

1. Users first.

You want everyone in your organization to think and start with users first. Avoid just saying it. Mean it and take action. Create a Human-centered design process that fits your organization — I’ll cover more about this in another post.

If you find yourself in an argument between a designer and a developer or if you are a designer arguing with a developer or the other way around, you want to finish the conversation by saying that the best way to move forward is to test it with users. Just talk to people around your office or at a coffee shop that meet the target audience of your project. Show them your wireframes, userflow, mockups, prototype, etc. and ask the question or show them both options and see what they prefer, A/B test.

All you need is 3–5 users. Don’t believe me? Read this article by Jakob Nielsen from Nielsen Norman Group — — Life changer, I know. You’re welcome.

When you put users at the center of your products and services you remove subjectivity from the design and development process. Communication becomes objective and egos go out of the door.

2. Developers and designers must learn each other’s languages and rules.

You need designers that speak “engineering” and developers that talk “design”.

Hire designers that know how to code and developers that are passionate about user experience or interface design. At the very least, hire people with the will to get to know each others language and rules. Also, I suggest you have a Lunch and Learn process where designers and developers explain their craft to each other. If you are a developer or designer, push for these two suggestions to take place between your organization.

True magic happens when both designers and developers respect and encourage each other to create the best products and experiences for users. You’ll find designers and developers coming up with better and faster solutions when they know a little about each other’s craft. Also notice how there’ll be a bigger friendship and harmony between the two worlds. You can thank me later.

If you go to live in an other country, China, Brazil, London, etc. you need to learn their language and cultures to thrive. It’ll be selfish, and you’ll probably fail, if you try to force your own language and rules, the same happens if you are a developer or designer. You need to have at the very least the will to know each other’s languages and rules. Also, know that like Bob Dylan says “you gotta serve somebody”. Put your users first to remove subjectivity from the design and development process and to kick egos in the butt.

I look forward to hearing your stories and your approach to solve this problem.

Simon VieiraComment