DNA Labs: Is design development or development design?

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The classic sit-on-the-fence answer to the question is of course – both. However, since that's a boring un-insightful answer, let's dig in to the question a little more. For me, the way to do this is to consider the changes we’ve seen in digital projects, and the evolution of how the design and development disciplines have enmeshed.

Change one.

The first change came early on in our days working on digital projects. As we engaged with projects we were often presented with reams of business requirements which appeared as though everything had been solved. This was not the case and as we dug into understanding users, the user experience the solution would need and the design that would be required, it became clear how much of what we were doing was part of the solution design process.

If the technical design had been done before we had uncovered some of the key interactions and solved some of the challenges the project contained – it would have solved the problems in the wrong way. We've seen simple projects turn into very complex ones once the true problems were uncovered and big hefty projects suddenly shrink once an elegant solution has been uncovered and designed.

While this process is dealing with users, UX and design we had been helping frame the development approach and solution which would normally come later. Sometimes this has led to very unsettled projects as the ‘clear' business requirements have been upended. However, once this phase has passed and all parties have agreed the solution that has come forth, projects get back on track and are much better for it.

Change two.

The second change came as responsive web design became reality. Previously responsive web sites had not only been simpler interactions but also much easier to specify. Designers could create a design and demand pixel perfection from a frontend development team. While this wasn't always possible cross browser it kept the two teams reasonably distant. It also allowed plenty of frustration from both parties as designers complained about developers not implementing their design right and developers complaining about designers not understanding the medium. 

Both had fair points. Plenty of developers glossed over the finer details which the designers had sweated over. Plenty of designers put forward design solutions which couldn't be implemented due to frontend technology being immature or the cost/benefit of the effort involved not being clear.

Responsive design upended this siloed approach very quickly. It became impossible for a designer to specify every interaction and page pattern, as now there were twice or three times as many. Designing every screen size was obviously not a good use of time. The result was designers and front-end developers working on the implementation together. 

The stakes are now higher - poor experiences make things fail. Designers have needed to upskill their knowledge about how HTML, CSS and JS work in order to engage well in the dialog. Developers had led themselves into bad situations because they didn't take user experience at every break seriously enough. 

As we work, now a frontend developer is designing interactions and making design decisions as they implement the frontend so that the final solution works smoothly across the myriad of screen sizes. Designers and developers have a large common ground as they would through the detail of a website to ensure things work elegantly. It's tough work sometimes, with compromises on both sides, but it's the only way to beat the new standard which responsive requires.

What now?

In simple terms, the dynamic has changed considerably. While the old dynamic was design vs development, the new paradigm is functional x visual.

Visual designers and front-end developers collaborate to create beautiful user interfaces. Functional designers (UX) and functional (backend) developers collaborate to create systems which solve the right problem elegantly.

We're still figuring out how be ever more streamlined and efficient as all this comes together in reality, but it's safe to say both changes have been for the better.

John Milmine _ Technical Director.

DNA Labs is our open dialogue on some of the CX, research, design, digital and development challenges we’ve faced, the issues we've resolved, the outcomes we've delivered and the value resulting.