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Bridging the Gap Between Designers and Engineers

Ryan Riddle
By Ryan Riddle on 5th August, 2015 Updated on 1st February, 2017

Traditionally, there’s been a divide between designers and engineers who are separated by either a wall or floors. It’s created a tension where both sides are constantly infuriated with one another. Designers feel that developers don’t adhere to what they designed and the developers think designers don’t understand that some things just can’t be implemented.

Yet more and more engineering-driven companies are filling their ranks with design talent. Now the two sides are having to collaborate more closely, which comes with its own set of unique challenges, which we dive deep into in our newest free pocket guide, Building Mockups Developers Won’t Hate.

We sat down recently with Quantcast Principal UX Designer Jonathan Smiley to discuss what it takes to change an engineering-focused company to be more design orientated.

Design is No Longer a ‘Nice to Have’

Before Jonathan joined Quantcast, he spent five years at ZURB as a partner and Design Lead. At ZURB, he worked with a lot of big companies, such as McAfee, on a variety of design projects. He was also responsible for creating the open-source framework Foundation.

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Photo Credit: Quantcast (Jonathan Smiley is on the right)

Now he’s leading the design charge at Quantcast because, like so many other engineering-driven companies, the company realizes how important design is to the longevity of their service.

“Companies are starting to realize focusing on design isn’t just a differentiator,” Jonathan told UXPin.

A 2014 study found that companies that emphasized design generally performed better. Those companies grew 299 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to researchers. As the researchers state in the study:

Great design helps make products and services more aesthetically pleasing, more compelling to use, and more relevant in a world that seems to change at an ever-increasing pace.

The minimum threshold for design is higher these days because of the growing “ubiquity of evolved technology,” added Jonathan. The saturation point has been hit, especially for industries in Silicon Valley and the United States. Technology is all around us, all the time, making design more crucial than ever before.

“It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have,” said Jonathan.

He also said that the onus is no longer to bring out newer gadgets, but to create the ability to do more with them. He added that designers must make applications easier to use or they’re going to shoot past people’s ability to actually use them.

He emphasized that designers need to decrease the difficulty for people. As he put it, design is about making people accomplish an action able do the thing – whatever action that is – while engineering makes the action work.

A Difficult Shift

Quantcast has been and remains an engineer-focused company with more than 100 developers. The design team in comparison is much, much smaller – only five strong so far. However, that doesn’t mean that the company doesn’t know the value of design.

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

Co-Founder and CEO Konrad Feldman is a big proponent of design, according to Jonathan. While there has been a creative culture initiative to bring design to different parts of Quantcast, that doesn’t mean that the transition from an engineering-focused company to a design-centric organization has been easy.

“It’s a difficult shift,” said Jonathan.

The biggest challenge for the design team is working alongside the engineers. “It’s getting better, [but there are] still a lot of executional issues because our skills set is misaligned with theirs,” said Jonathan.

That misalignment can take it’s toll, creating overhead for the design team having to execute on a front-end code.

The engineering team at Quantcast are full-stack developers who aren’t as comfortable with HTML/CSS. The design team uses a lot of tech – such as Flexbox, interactions, animation, and responsive web design – that engineers just don’t know as well as they do back-end code.

According to Jonathan, the engineers appreciate when designers who are code savvy, like himself, assist with the front-end coding. However, the design team doesn’t have bandwidth to do all the coding. And that can frustrate engineers who don’t have the skills yet to write code for Quantcast’s projects.

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

Jonathan said that they’re trying to figure out the best solution – like growing the design team to take front-end code off the engineers’ shoulders, or training them to do it themselves. Right now, it takes the engineering team longer to write front-end code but they’re doing their best to close the gap, said Jonathan.

However, Jonathan and the design team have been working on bridging the traditional divide between engineers and designers, creating a more cohesive working relationship. And that includes changing the process and getting the engineers more involved.

A Better Way

When Jonathan first arrived at Quantcast, he did what had always been done: bring the specs to the engineers. He delivered mocks with detailed explanations that explained how to implement his design. The engineers then went at it. What came back was perfect … well, pixel perfect, which doesn’t really work when you’re designing for multiple screen sizes.

The engineers had actually measured the design down to the exact pixel, Jonathan said. He realized there must be a better way.

Jonathan decided to help the engineers out by taking a stab at the markup, then explaining what he’d done. His goal: teach engineers all the latest front-end techniques that the design team was already familiar with.

Quantcast encouraged more design thinking by holding code parties with designers and engineers. They also hold design workshops, including a planned one on typography.

Becoming More and More Design Centric

The Quantcast designers use a process that isn’t too different than ones you’d find in other design-centric organizations. They build wireframes and prototypes, using tools such as Sketch and InVision, then review those with stakeholders to further hone the designs. The design team also performs a complete visual pass.

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

The design team also carries out user tests, where researchers do iterative testing every two weeks. Once they have a final version, the designers code enough of the design so that the engineers can build it out.

When it comes to code, however, Quantcast doesn’t use a framework despite the fact that Jonathan spearheaded the popular Foundation responsive framework during his time at ZURB. That’s because Quantcast doesn’t have specific browser support requirements, which means the design team can use any toys they want. Flexbox is one of those toys. Since Flexbox makes layout easy, the design team can build things from scratch, said Jonathan.

The designers give the engineers as much as they can. If it’s something more complicated, Jonathan is always willing to help the engineers out so that they can get it done.

“It’s better than what it was,” said Jonathan of the process. And while it may be a work in progress, the process is helping unite designers and engineers rather than divide them.

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

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Photo Credit: Quantcast

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