I was sitting at a dinner. The dinner was for speakers at a design conference. I was one of the speakers. Across from me sat another speaker. A software developer with an appreciation for beautifully designed software. This in itself is a good thing. You can have beautiful architectural plans but if the contractor has no appreciation for detail, then the plans won’t get executed with care and live up to the vision.
Now, this analogy in itself is a problem as most software developers don’t consider themselves akin to contractors. They think they are the architects as well. And this in fact was the discussion that ensued — what is the role of the user experience designer?
The enlightened engineer across the table started lecturing me on how important it was to have great designers — both interaction designers and visual designers on his project. I countered that those two tasks really should be relegated to one person. I added that it was difficult to be great at only one and really be a user experience leader on the team. The engineer responded that this was simply not realistic and told me tales of how even if designers could do both interaction and visual design, they weren’t technical enough to contribute to the project as peers much less as leaders. I asked for an example.
The developer told me that a designer had proposed a user interface to him that was laden with multiple megabytes of graphics for a web page that needed to load with lightning speed. This was his proof.
That was my proof that his designer sucked.
Knowing about how the size of graphics affects load time is as “technical” an issue to understand as knowing the difference between requiring black and white vs. 4 color printing on a physical print design project. In other words, it’s basic. As I’ve said before, designers don’t need to know how to operate the press but they do need to know the basics of how it works and the constraints under which they work.
The engineer was taken aback. His expectations were so low that it didn’t occur to him to expect more of a designer. It didn’t occur to him that a designer who uses Adobe’s complicated products, deals with technology all the time, and understands file sizes, should be expected to take a web page’s load time into account in their design.
Who’s at fault? Is it the designer who’s not thinking holistically about the project or the engineer who has such low expectations? The answer is: yes.
I have personally witnessed many user experience designers who are passionate about getting their designs built partner closely with engineers. The engineer thinks creatively about how to get the design built to deliver on the emotional impact intended by the designer, and the designer thinks creatively about how to tweak their design so it’s not only easy for the engineer to implement but to maintain as well. These are the collaborations I have enjoyed most. And all they require is a designer who has an appreciation for the medium of software as well as empathy for the realities of the development process, and an engineer with attention to detail who loves making beautiful software that customers love.
When this partnership is humming, fantastic user experiences are the result. When engineers think they are the designers, and designers live up to low expectations, the results are almost always disappointing.