me at a whiteboard

Design + Engineering

Angela Thoughts

It’s commonly discussed amongst designers that collaboration between design and engineering teams can be fraught with difficulties. Because I have had great relationships with some engineers in my time, I would like to share the mindset that I brought to these relationships. I know this won’t fix everyone’s problems, but maybe it can help.

In a former life, I founded a nimble design firm in California’s Bay Area. Entrepreneurship gave me the impetus to stretch my skillset, and I learned things like basic front-end coding and how to use GitHub. I also learned about the things my developers could do that I could not. When I joined a corporate community, I inherited discovery meetings and company subscriptions, empowering me to communicate my designs right down to the last hexadecimal. However, I found that even with my increased toolset, it was my mindset that was the most powerful tool I had.

Communication, setting clear expectations, enthusiasm for learning and growing, receptivity to criticism, modesty, simplicity, and a sincere desire to understand and contribute to the needs of others – these are the skills I have been cultivating and expressing for the past eleven years as a designer.

Here are a few mental models that have empowered me;

  1. My engineers are my first users.
    When I send them my design files, it’s up to me that those designs make sense and tell the right story. If their product looks different from my design, I go and talk to them, and ask what they need from me. I use my research skills to interview my engineers. I learn their needs and their pain points.
  2. I am honest with myself about whether or not my design process is effective.
    It’s so important to audit whether or not you’re truly getting the data, or the ideation framework, that you need to make human-centered designs. Conducting proper user research, and driving due diligence with standard procedures like user flows, prototypes, iteration, check-ins, and feedback sessions will always greatly simplify designs. Paul Rand said “Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” I do my best to make sure I’m not sending over mock-ups that require my engineers to first create a flying carpet before they can make it happen by next launch.
  3. I try to be the kind of person that my engineers can talk to.
    I do pride myself on my Ms. Piggy impersonation, but IRL I don’t want to be a dramatic art diva that nobody wants to confront. My engineers are UP. IN. the company product. They know when usability issues come up. If you are still a human being like me and not a flawless UX Goddess, usability issues will arise. It’s ok. Hopefully you have the support to conduct prototyping and user testing to resolve most of these issues, but your engineers will be your last line of defense before the real world hits. Engineers that will pay attention and come to you when such a thing arises as they’re developing are worth their weight in gold. Value them. Make sure they know it. The final product (which, of course, we all care about much more than being right…right?) will be better for it.
  4. Finally, I like to just have fun with people sometimes.
    A great way that I’ve had success collaborating with people is to play darts with them. Ask them about their kids, dates, birthdays, whatever. After all, we’re together for the majority of our waking hours. They are also human beings, just like me.

By thinking in the above ways, I have contributed to the possibility of;

  1. My Sketch/Figma/XD files and the final product actually look like the same thing!
  2. The final product functioning as our users expect it to, with no glaring usability issues

Please note that this does not entail taking responsibility for other people’s behavior, or trying to “fix” a toxic company culture. It’s simply taking responsibility for my side of the street, which is a win every time.