Appreciation for Engineering

After five years of working in boutique Visual Design studios, I launched and successfully operated a freelance web design company just South of Silicon Valley in Santa Cruz, California. Entrepreneurship gave me the freedom to travel the world, the impetus to learn basic coding, a practice of self-starting, and an appreciation for working with developers. My teams were nimble, we worked side-by-side, and we spent a lot of time together. I learned about the things my developers could do that I could not. However, I felt that to learn how to do my job effectively, I needed to spend some time in a corporate environment on a large team. That first day, exiting the elevator and passing the ping pong table, I thought, “now I’m really going to learn how it’s done with design and development teams.”

I became a member of a small design team, and worked with my own team of developers. I had a company subscription to a collection of software tools, empowering me to communicate my designs to the engineers, right down to the last hexadecimal. I had inherited Discovery Meetings, boardrooms, stakeholders, and so many things that I was sure would transform my ability to communicate design forever.

Plot twist!

What I did NOT see coming is the degree to which the skills I already had would be what I needed most, and what I would hone the most – communicating, setting clear expectations, an enthusiasm for learning and growing, receptivity to criticism, modesty, simplicity, and a sincere desire to understand and serve the needs of others. I have been cultivating and expressing these skills for the past eleven years I’ve spent as a designer.

I think most designers can agree that we’d love for our designs to have these two attributes;

  1. Your Sketch/Figma/XD/whatever file and the final product actually look like the same thing!
  2. The final product functions as any user of the internet would expect it to, with no glaring usability issues

Well, I believe that such designs are inevitably created by designers who know how to communicate with their engineers.

Here are a few ways of thinking that I’ve learned in my time with the amazing, capable, fun engineers that I work with. I hope they serve you.

  1. Your engineers are your first users. When you send them your design files, it’s up to you that those designs make sense and tell the right story. If their product looks radically different from your design, go talk to them and ask what they need from you. Use your research skills to interview your engineers. Learn their needs and their pain points.
  2. Be honest with yourself about whether or not your 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. When I first began designing more complex applications, my user interfaces were a big, tangled pile of poo. Processes like user flows, paper prototypes, iteration, user research, and check-ins and feedback sessions have greatly simplified my designs (and I am doing everything in my power to continue that path). Paul Rand said “Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” Make sure you’re not sending over mock-ups that require your engineers to first create a flying carpet before they can make it happen by next launch.
  3. Be the kind of person that your engineers can talk to. Don’t be a dramatic art diva that nobody wants to confront. Your engineers are UP. IN. your 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 are worth their weight in gold. Value them. Make sure they know it. The final product (which, of course, you care about MUCH MORE than being right) will be better for it.
  4. Finally, to the degree that your company culture permits, HAVE FUN with your engineers. Play darts with them. Ask them about their kids, dates, birthdays, whatever. You’re together for the majority of your waking hours. Remember that they are also human beings, just like you.