The Designer/Developer Relationship: When Two Critical Roles Don’t Play Nice

Imagine you’re building a house. You’ve hired two contractors. One is responsible for the HVAC, plumbing, electrical, framing, and drywall. The other is responsible for the floorplan, fixtures, furnishings, paint, and flooring. A gross oversimplification, I know, but bear with me.

Now imagine you find out these two are approaching building your home from wildly different points of view. Their priorities aren’t aligned, they aren’t talking to each other unless there’s a crisis, and their relationship has developed a rather adversarial tone. To top it all off, the first contractor just routed a pipe through the middle of your home theater room because the second contractor hadn’t allowed for it, hadn’t specified where it should go, and wouldn’t return any calls or emails.

Are you nervous about the house you’ll end up with? Are you a little upset about the pipe running through your home theater room? I sure would be. Now imagine the house is your web development project, and your two warring contractors are the designers and developers assigned to the project. Still nervous? Yep, I would be, too.

Before I go further, I should make the strong disclaimer that I know there are tons of strong, healthy designer/developer relationships out there (I’ve been part of some, myself). You guys are knocking out expertly run projects dripping in awesome sauce. You’re fist bumping and going out for pizza and beers with each other afterwards. This post isn’t about you. This post is about your peers who haven’t reached that synergistic nirvana yet. Read on and be grateful for what you have.

First, let’s state the obvious. On a web project team, designers and developers occupy two critical roles. Without visual and UX designers, the end product is at risk of poor usability and flow, misalignment to brand, poor visual execution, and not meeting the goals of your users. Without developers, the end product just doesn’t get built. It stagnates as a collection of good ideas and great, but static, visuals that’ll never be anything but pretty. Epic fail in both cases.

Even with the interdependence of design and development, and the benefit to both roles to work together toward the common goal of the best end product possible, the designer/developer relationship can have a baffling tendency to fall short of the collaborative ideal. As both a former server-side developer, and a current UX designer, I’m in a unique position. I speak both languages fairly fluently, and have heard the grousing from both sides. While it manifests in different ways, a common theme I’ve heard when talking to designers about developers, and developers about designers, is that the other “just doesn’t get it.”

Well, okay. Doesn’t get what, exactly? There are common themes, here, too. Here’s the gist of some complaints I’ve heard lodged by designers against developers:

  • They’re petulant and difficult to work with
  • They’re uncooperative
  • They’re lazy and just don’t want to put the work in to achieving the design goals
  • They don’t have respect for my design
  • They make assumptions
  • They don’t care

Wow, those developers sound kind of awful, don’t they? Well, it’s a two-way street. Here are some complaints I’ve heard developers level against designers:

  • They’re petulant and difficult to work with
  • They’re uncooperative
  • They’re rigid and unrealistic
  • They make assumptions
  • They have no idea what it takes to actually accomplish any of what they’re asking
  • They throw half-baked stuff over the wall and then expect me to build it without all the information

Hey, these designers sound like a bunch of tools, too! Notice the overlap? Everyone’s a jerk!

At this point, you may be thinking, “Is this really that big of a problem? Working with someone isn’t always sunshine and roses. How much do I need to care about this?”

I’m going to say yes, you should care about it, and here’s why. The severity of the disconnect between your designers and developers may vary, but when these two critical roles on your project aren’t working together well, here’s what you should expect:

  • Project inefficiencies
  • Extra development cycles
  • Reduced quality
  • At-risk schedules
  • Increased costs
  • Crabby people who don’t like working together very much

Ugh. Those aren’t nice things. So, are we doomed? No. We’re not doomed. It boils down to deficits of empathy, respect, understanding, and trust. The good news is, with a modicum of care and maybe a small swallowing of pride, there are things both sides can do to significantly reduce those deficits. In my next post, I’ll outline some practical ideas (with which I’ve had personal success) that both designers and developers can do to improve the relationship with the other, and be well on the path to synergistic nirvana and fist bumps over pizza and beer.

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  1. […] also helps to strengthen the team of people you work with. When the UX and development teams work together and understand where each other is coming from, with a shared ultimate goal in mind, it promotes […]

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