Engineers, a designer’s best friend

It’s been said that communication between Engineers and Designers is hard, impossible, or that the other ‘just doesn’t get it.’ I’m a UX Designer and have worked in big tech, agencies, and startups and in each place I’ve heard these statements being made. It’s almost a running theme at this point in the industry.

But for me working with engineers is one of my favourite things about my job. They provide a fresh perspective and are a wealth of ideas.

When I got my first full-time UX design role, I felt electric. Not only was I working at Google, but I got to meet so many people from a multitude of backgrounds and functions. Some of my most fond relationships were with the kitchen staff, baristas, and cleaners. We talked about their families, movies, and commiserated over the guy who didn’t wear socks or shoes into the micro-kitchen. When I needed to get out of my head and set patterns about work related topics, I found myself drawn to my coding counterparts.

The engineers and I were often working on the same product or feature so we had a natural starting point for conversation but conversing with someone outside of my function was a breath of fresh air.

Now, I know my first gig out the gate was a pretty lucky one filled with Engineers that were top of their game and had the bandwidth & budgets to care about their craft beyond delivery.

The ability to learn how to work closely with engineers, speak their language, ask in-depth questions, understand and empathize with their process and integrate that into my work was one of the most valuable skills I took with me when I left Google.

Why should you design with Engineers?

There are numerous reasons why working with engineers is invaluable as a designer. Here are a few good reasons that are top of my mind:

  1. It’s fun!! Engineers are fun. Designing with other people is fun. Why wouldn’t you rally together to with a large portion of your coworkers, especially when we’re so isolated during this global pandemic?
  2. Collaboration early on gives you & your designs a different perspective because you’re connecting with people who oftentimes approach problems from another starting point. And after-all, we test on folks who don’t think like designers, why would we only design with other designers?
  3. You can better understand the scope of potential solutions before you spend time diving into the weeds of something unfeasible.
  4. They suggest an idea that you were certain was out of scope
    They know the expansiveness of the codebase and their own capabilities within the time frame.
  5. Usability tests typically run smoother
    Now I can’t say this is true every time, but when I’ve sketched with engineers in the first phases of design, testing has always been a breeze and participants understand what’s happening almost immediately. My hypothesis is that because there is intentional diversity of thought in the sketching phase, I end up with a solution that has a more holistic representation of mental models baked in.
  6. Because you actually care about their input and experience building whatever you make, you’ve brought them along for the ride and they’re more invested in building the solution.

So how do I build these relationships?

Say hello!
Whether you’re joining a new team or are just trying to make connections on your existing team, find your engineering partner. Start by saying hi. If you’ve worked on a feature with an engineer in the past, just say hi. Ask them for a catch-up — a zoom coffee break is always a great idea. If you’re new to a team, use that as your reasoning for connection and ask them about how they’ve worked with Design in the past. Ask them a bit about their role, what they like to do and what they actually do. These same questions can be used for folks you’ve worked with before. We’re all learning about each other all of the time.

Educate (as needed) on designers’ roles and process
Often times — even at Google — I’ve found that a lot of the engineers don’t really feel comfortable with designers roles & responsibilities, who to talk to for what, and how “it” works. This makes sense. Design is the youngest field to be incorporated into the tech industry.

I keep a standard deck on hand that I can tweak for each place I work outlining basic roles:

  • Visual designer
  • UX designers/Product Designers/Interaction Designers
  • UX writers
  • Researchers
  • UX Engineers

Now there are a million different way to define design roles so keep it high level & applicable to your company. Explain that there is crossover and that we all work together to create well made, human-centered products.

Regarding design process, I explain “double-diamond” because it’s a really simple visual to understand and go through the basic phases of our work. The design squiggle makes a guest appearance now and again, too.

I’ve shared this deck out in 1:1s & lunch & learns. If possible, aim to present this rather than just sending it out via email. Not only is it nice to have an actual human present, it levels the playing field for all of the engineers and gives us an even foundation to work from.

Keep it short. 15–20 minutes max, then open the floor for a conversation. In my experience, people ask questions here. Maybe not everyone but folks who are keen to work with design speak up during this time. It’s a great place to identify your engineering allies.

Get them involved in the design process
Set up sketching workshops with them. Hesitancy is natural here and they’ll for sure make the classic joke that they can’t draw to save their lives or they’re really bad at design. I just tell them that it’ll be fine. If you can draw a line on a piece of paper, it’s all good.

Keep up coffee or zoom calls
Say hi to your engineers every day. Even if you don’t work with them directly, make a point to check in after stand-up or to stop by their desk. Because COVID, message them on slack.

Don’t know what to say? Talk to them about something they mentioned in a meeting a few days ago, their dog, grandma, or board game. not all engineers like boardgames, adjust to their particular interests.

I know nothing about boardgames but have developed full on relationships and running jokes around this topic. Feel free to make fun of yourself and lean on those rad research skills you’ve got in your professional-back-pocket to make genuine connections.

Also, some people you just wont click with. The key is to be genuine. If it doesn’t come naturally, don’t force it.

Once you’ve the foundations of the relationship established, schedule a coffee catch up once every few weeks.

Share UX articles
Just about every company has a Slack channel where people share things they’re reading, funny gifs, etc. In my experience those groups are dominated by engineers — frankly mostly men. Speak up here. Share a few articles that you’re reading. Bonus points if it has something to do with working more closely engineers. If you extend the olive branch, someone will be thankful. It’s also a great way to integrate UX into your company.

There is almost always that one faithful front-end eng who really cares about the user. This is a great place for relationships to start.

Working with people who have different roles from us can be challenging. It’s a lot of effort to cross the bridge of knowledge when we’ve already at full capacity designing great work for our users, but the journey is worth it. Designing with engineers opens your work up to new possibilities, helps you get work done faster, often times helps you catch issues before user testing, and ultimately brings your team together.

I’m sure there are more ways to connect with our cross-functional peers that create the work we’ve painstakingly thought through. Come up with your own or take some of these suggestions and try them out.

Working with engineers makes your designs better and they make you a better designer.

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Katie Hudak

Katie Hudak

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