About a month ago, I wrote about the designer/developer relationship and how it isn’t always as collaborative and productive as it could be. Far from solely an interpersonal issue, dysfunctions in this critical relationship can have real consequences for the health of your web development projects, and your overall bottom line. While my last post primarily attempted to expose and illustrate the problem, this one is about solutions.
The good news is, there are specific and tactical things that both designers and developers can do to begin improving the relationship with the other. The tough part is that someone has to recognize the problem and decide to do something about it. It can be a little painful to make the first move. Your ego has to go up on the shelf, you have to swallow your pride, and you have to set your sights firmly on the big picture: your clients and customers, and the work you’re doing for them.
In my experience, the root issues behind these relational challenges aren’t unique to designers and developers at all. While I’ll still refer to the designer/developer relationship in this post, you could apply these suggestions to most professional and personal relationships. The problem boils down to chronic deficits in four key pillars of any interpersonal relationship: understanding, trust, empathy and respect.
Of the four areas of focus, this is where you can make a lot of progress fairly quickly. At Acumium, we have a set of core values that guide our work. One of my favorites is “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Gaining understanding largely boils down some key tactics:
Ask a lot of questions
To increase understanding, you need to know the landscape of what’s going on. The single best tool for this is lots of questions. While the specific questions a designer might ask a developer and a developer might ask a designer might differ, what you’re going for are answers to the following:
- What do you need from me to be successful?
- What’s the current status of the work?
- What do you wish I knew that would help things progress better?
- What pain points might I be able to help with?
- What’s coming down the pipe that I should know about?
Focus on frequent communication
There are many ways you can approach getting questions answered. You may find starting with that as an initial goal facilitates opening the lines of communication in general. Your approach may vary; it will depend on the people involved, how much time you have, how accessible you are to each other. Have a conversation and figure out what makes the most sense for you and go with it. You can always refine later. Maybe you have a kickoff meeting at the start of a project where you talk about overall preferences. Maybe it’s a bi-weekly status meeting. Maybe it’s a daily 15-minute touchbase. Just start talking. It’s like a new exercise routine: it might be tough at first, but if you keep at it, it gets easier.
Plan and retro
Upfront communication is key for laying the groundwork on a project, but don’t forget to follow up afterwards and find out how things went. If you’ve used any flavor of an Agile project methodology, the concept of a retro won’t be anything new. At the close of a project or initiative, get back together and talk about how it went, and then use that info on the next project. Good retro questions are:
- What worked well on that project? What didn’t?
- What do you want me to keep doing? What do you want me to never do again?
- Based on this project, what ideas do you have for how we can work better together in the future?
Stay in close proximity
While absence may make the heart grow fonder, understanding falters without proximity. Ideally, you sit in the same room with whomever you’re trying to gain more understanding about. There’s really no substitute for being within earshot of someone and getting a glimpse into their daily experience: their frustrations, their questions, the demands being made on their time, the interactions that help and hinder them. It’s invaluable, but it’s not always possible. Luckily, digital communication offers significant options for virtual proximity. If you can’t physically stop over with your cup of coffee, take a moment in the morning to drop them a message: “Good morning – just checking in. Anything you need from me today? Anything I should know?”
Promoting trust is difficult to pin down from a “do this, then do that” standpoint. Indeed, those often-horrific team-building exercises geared toward building it tend to feel corny and disingenuous, because they are. You can’t manufacture trust in an hour or two. That said, there are pathways to trust, all of which involve some work. You have to put your money where your mouth is. Some potential approaches:
- Show them you’re invested in their success by identifying needs early. Use questions liberally: “What do you need from me? How can I help?”
- Consult with them. Before you take anything to a client or check it off as done, show it to them. If you’re a designer working with a developer, ask for a sanity check on your design. “Is what I’m asking for feasible? Any red flags?” If you’re a developer, call your designer over when you have something reasonably functional and say, “Am I getting at what you’re looking for? What do you see that’s of concern?”
- Stay available, with or without physical proximity. Don’t be a pest, just ping them occasionally: “If you need me, I’m here. Just let me know.”
- Compromise readily. There’s always more than one way to solve a problem. Be appropriately critical in determining how big the roadblocks are, but, if they tell you you’re venturing into dangerous (or impossible) territory, believe them. Be open and curious to other options. More importantly, tell them as much: “I’d really like to do it this way, but if you tell me it’s not the right way to go, I trust you. How else can we accomplish this?”
- Admit when you’re wrong. Quickly. Everyone makes mistakes. Your trustworthiness surges with every failure you own.
- Ask them for help, even if the problem you’re wrestling is outside their job description. I’ve gotten tremendous UX advice from developers. Even if they don’t have anything to suggest, asking builds trust.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another. It’s important in a professional relationship because it’s difficult to work effectively with someone when you have little appreciation of where they’re coming from. Like trust, you can’t really manufacture it, but it tends to follow naturally on the heels of understanding. And you can ask additional questions that go right to the heart of empathy, like:
- What do you wish I knew about what you do?
- What makes your job easier? Harder?
- What could I do tomorrow that would make working with me easier and more fun?
When I hear people express dissatisfaction about work, it’s often couched in terms of “I don’t feel respected.” Respect is a basic need in all relationships. Luckily, it’s not difficult to demonstrate. Some ideas:
- Ensure they have what they need. We’ve covered some of this already, but it also means producing deliverables with the appropriate amount of detail, and in a format that will be maximally useful. How do you find out what they need? You guessed it: Ask them.
- Be kind, polite and courteous. Yes, you’re allowed to have a bad day, or be frustrated or mad. No, you’re not allowed to take it out on someone else. Sarcasm, eye rolls and yelling are all poisonous. But, if you occasionally lose your cool and succumb, a prompt apology works wonders.
- Assume they’re doing the best they can. Even better, tell them: “This has been really challenging; I appreciate your effort.” True dead-weights show their colors readily enough. Most of the rest of us want exactly what you want: a great outcome.
- Be curious and open to their ideas and viewpoints. If they come up with something great, implement it, or empower them to implement it. Say, “That’s a fantastic idea. Would you be willing to work on that? I’m happy to pitch in if you need help.”
In summary, the professional relationship between a designer and developer (or any two individuals on your project team) can run into challenges. Sometimes, they’re acute; just speedbumps in the road. Sometimes, they’re chronic, big, nasty things with teeth. In either case, refocusing on building or repairing these four key pillars can help. You just need someone to take the first step and put in the first work toward making things better. I hope the ideas in this post can get you started. Whether you’re looking for higher quality work, a healthier bottom line, or happier people, it’s worth the effort. The risks are too big to ignore. The rewards can be huge.
Caroline Sober-James is Acumium’s Lead UX Designer. She recently spoke at the 2015 Madison+UX Conference about the designer/developer relationship. If you are interested in learning more about how web designers can work to improve their relationships with web developers, you can watch her talk below.