Chris Thelwell

Throwing grenades to feed the beast

How designers have reinvented themselves just to keep up

Written on Tuesday, 1st December 2015 by Chris Thelwell

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Design is a messy profession. A profession who’s purpose has survived disruption many times. Both by itself and by others such as business and technology. I want to share some of my experience watching the design and digital worlds evolve over the last 18 years. I’ll examine how the introduction of Agile principles and processes has changed the way we design. As well as shed some light on the reality of working with designers, and why it never feels quite right.

Design has been around for many many years, way before the internet or even computers. The process of design, up until recently has changed very little. This is how it goes: You brief your designer, he goes away, does his research thinking about all the users and what they need. He create some ideas—often many—and comes back with the ‘answer’. It’s not quite right so you give him some feedback. He then iterates a few times until you ‘sign it off’, done. The designer then wins an award, everyone on Dribbble goes crazy etc, you know the story.

Is it any wonder that developers and designers don’t really get along?

Throwing grenades over the wall

So the designer has solved the problem, yay! He then needs to hand it over to the dev team to implement. Enter the term ‘Throwing grenades over the wall’. This is how it plays out: The dev team try to build it. But the design doesn’t quite work. Or they have lots of questions about how it should work but the designer isn’t around. When it finally gets built it never matches the original design. Often because the dev team have mis-interpreted part of the design, they have a better solution or things simply changed. Then the client, being a client, changes their mind about something. The whole thing is redesigned by the dev team, with little input if any from the original designer.

Is it any wonder that developers and designers don’t really get along?

Make it look pretty

Then, dev teams got smart. They adopted agile principles and started to shape their teams around new processes like Scrum, Kanban and Extreme Programming. The grenades that kept coming didn’t work anymore so they brought the designer right into these new agile teams.

Designers were not happy! Working in these new teams meant working on small things, really small things. Incremental piece by piece designs. With little thought around the big picture and how everything fits together. In the very worst case I’ve seen the team built features first and then asked for a designer to ‘Make it look pretty’ just before it was shipped.

Working in these new agile teams meant working on small things, really small things.

Feeding the beast

Designers revolted. They wanted to do their work before the story hit the development cycle. They were pushed out of these new agile processes, but this felt worse, much worse.

Designers worked 1 or 2 sprints ahead of the dev team. But now the dev team had power, they were no longer the implementers of requirements. They had the power to make or break a company based on how fast they could get valuable software into the hands of the customer. And they were expensive. We couldn’t hold them up while we did our designs. Things changed—all the time—so lots of rework. But we had to do it really fast, the dev team was waiting.

It felt like the designer’s only purpose was to ‘feed the dev team beast’.

Then everyone started to talk about Lean. Waste was the enemy. But our deliverables—wireframes, mocks etc—never made it into the hands of a customer. So that made our work waste. It seemed like Lean was created to devalue the work of the designer.

The designer’s only purpose was to ‘feed the dev team beast’.

The new world

Is this our new world? Us and them. After all we have different deliverables, whether that’s design or code. We’re measured on how good those deliverables are and how fast we can get them done. Will we ever get along with our developer colleagues? I hope to find out.