Thoughts on the Intersection of Web Design and Development

by Brad Sheehan

“Projects don’t fail for technical reasons. 99% of projects that flop do so for communication reasons.” I have heard this quote numerous times, almost verbatim, from both designers and developers, and it is an issue of the utmost importance. I’ve gathered my thoughts on why design and development can get tied in knots, and I’ve cited a few approaches that may help these disciplines dovetail more gracefully.

We see design and development intersect every day at Fresh Tilled Soil. While most of us work out of the same office – one with a collaborative, open-plan layout – maintaining good communication and a solid understanding of each other’s work still requires a concerted effort and thoughtful planning. The same is true for good communication with our clients and back-end development partners. I recently chatted with our Development Director, Tim Wright, about this topic.

Tim experienced friction between designers and developers while working at North Carolina State University. “Meetings were painful because people just didn’t know how to talk to one another.” It sounds simple, right? Just talk to one another. But as Tim and many others will attest, this can be difficult, especially when talking about highly technical and skilled work. Tim was doing more design than development at this point in his career, and he made the effort to learn PHP in order to mitigate some of these communication barriers. “As a result of learning PHP, I became an intermediary between the two worlds.”

After working at NC State, Tim moved west to work for the University of Southern California’s (USC) web services department. There he encountered communication problems between the web design team and the project managers (PMs). So, Tim employed the same method as he did at NC State. “In order to better understand some of the decisions the PMs were making, I took a project management course.” This ultimately helped facilitate smoother communication and work flow between the designers and PMs.

Tim’s experiences remind us that communication issues do not magically resolve themselves. It takes effort to learn the language of your colleagues well enough to understand their point of view. This doesn’t mean becoming experts in these skills. Learning a new skill or about a business domain takes time, but simply showing sincere effort can go a long way in creating a collaborative atmosphere. When we think about how much time could be saved by better communication, doing what we can to deepen our knowledge of others starts to seem more worth our while. Consider the following scenario:

A design consultant and a client meet about creating a web app. The designer comes up with a set of beautiful wireframes. The client signs off on the wires. Now, it’s time to start building this thing. The developers get the wires to start building a prototype and… uh oh, many of them include things that are close to impossible to implement in general, and definitely impossible to implement in the time/budget allotted for the project. Tim referred to this as blindly “tossing wireframes over the fence.” The time and money it would take to go back to the drawing board, get client approval again, and then finally start to implement the design, makes the time that it would take a designer to learn more about a developer’s work flow and about the technical feasibility of his or her designs seem a bit more useful. Making the effort to learn about what your coworkers do can save time and money. It’s a social move and a business move at the same time. (I should note that this example is not meant to say the responsibility is on designers to learn all about developers. The same responsibility applies to developers.)

Fresh Tilled Soil builds this learning into its routine. After a few “toss it over the fence” experiences at FTS, the company started doing weekly Design for Developers and Development for Designer sessions for an hour either before or during lunch. This is great because it removes some of the onus of learning everything individually. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to ‘show and tell,’ and ultimately to teach each other about our daily dealings and about the important things to keep in mind when doing our work. Between these sessions and keeping representatives of all parties involved and informed throughout the entire creative process, it seems to me that FTS is helping to unbind some of the knots in the creative process and achieve a more harmonious intersection of design and development.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design