Frank Lloyd Wright’s quintessential achievement is Falling Water in Brandywine, Pennsylvania, a beautiful edifice that transcends nature and architecture. The building’s tranquil façade obscures a rocky development process. Fearing collapse of some of the larger portions of the porches, the owner contracted an engineer to look over the structural aspects. The engineer noted there was not nearly enough support to keep the balconies up. When the owner brought this up to Wright, he was incensed that his genius was questioned, and refused to work on the home further until the engineering firm was dropped. Before that was done, extra support was still added to the balconies by the engineers, which saved the balconies from immediate collapse when the construction supports were removed.
This story illustrates the importance of two aspects of any project: the design and the development. Of course, it would have been better had both parties been able to collaborate without arguing, but both were nonetheless invaluable in creating what is still considered the best all-time work of American architecture.
Much like an architect relies on an engineer to approve, correct and change their designs to meet safety and structural guidelines, a UX designer relies on developers to bring their proposed solutions to fruition. Gone are the days when a design was tossed “over the wall” to the dev team. In an era of agile development, true collaboration is essential. If a designer is creating beautiful sites in a bubble, then the solution will only be partially formulated but never realized. If a developer is coding in sprints without the designer, they are merely writing production code that will not solve core problems.
Collaboration between UX designers and developers can be very fluid — there is no “rule book” — but here are a few observations based on my more than 15 years of experience as an interactions designer.
- Immediacy: Sometimes it seems the UX team or dev team is brought into the project late in the game. This is by far the biggest mistake organizations can make, especially in a customer-facing business. Both dev and UX should be in the room from the start of the project.
- Location: Proximity — physical or virtual — is key for robust collaboration. This could mean physical space or constant connectivity through various messaging and digital conferencing solutions. The ability to just ask a question, get advice or have unscheduled problem-solving sessions is crucial. Do not let internal divisions limit interaction.
- Daily Scrums: Make the UX team a part of your daily development scrums. Pull in the designers, ask what they’re working on and hold them accountable. This also aids in comradery and inclusion, necessary components of any agile team.
- Don’t Play Sides: Designers and devs have a long-standing tradition of throwing each other under the bus. Any product failures are inevitably the fault of the other party. We need to evolve past this mentality and realize we are on the same team. Embrace failures as a chance to get the next one right.
- Think like a UX researcher: One of the most important members of any business is the person who goes out in the field, observes users, identifies problems and recommends solutions. Think of yourself as an explorer. Ask why a user would do something, or if what you are making would be frustrating to them. Above all, get your stuff in front of people as fast as possible to see how they react.
Sam Walton was the master UX professional. Carrying his yellow notepad, he would visit stores all over the world and take notes on what could be improved. As he put it, “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say.” He was then able to translate these ideas into solutions and built a great team to make that happen.
As developers, designers and researchers, we must avoid the ego, posturing and intellectual superiority that sometimes comes with digital product development. Whether we are building a software program, an app, connecting databases or tweaking old systems, we need to put the end user first by working as a cohesive team. The next time you see a great website, a great film or a great piece of architecture, think of the team it took to build it, their roles and the ways they collaborated to deliver a delightful user experience.