When should engineering and design teams start collaborating?

If you ask a financial planner when you should start saving for retirement, the answer is always going to be “now.” If you asked me when engineers and user experience (UX) designers should start collaborating, I’d say the same thing.

Unfortunately, these teams often not only fail to communicate, they often see themselves as conflicting with one another. Designers feel like they must fight with engineers to get their work built correctly, while engineers believe that designers don’t fully consider the technical implications of their demands.

This tension is a natural outgrowth the tendency for designers to work in relative isolation on the first phases of a UX project and then hand off their finished or nearly-finished designs to engineering to execute. While this workflow is common, it results in wasted effort and missed opportunities. The best way to address it is by bringing teams together early and often—especially including engineers in the early phases of a project. Here are three benefits to design and engineering collaboration you can achieve by opening the lines of communication.

Generate more great ideas

Many organizations make the mistake of overlooking the creativity engineers bring to the table. Some of the best design ideas I’ve ever seen have come from engineers—proving that you don’t need “UX” in your title to contribute to the design process. The engineering team should be in the room from the outset to hear research results and to participate in early design strategy workshops (such as Fell Swoop’s Clarity Lab). This also requires building a culture where everyone’s contributions are valued—and hiring engineers who demonstrate creative thinking abilities in addition to solid facility with code and technology.

Bring perspective to the process

Designers are often tasked with envisioning the future of a product or experience. To leave no stone unturned, they will often “go big,” exploring grand new ideas at the request of visionary stakeholders. As much as designers relish these types of opportunities, a dose of realism can prevent wasted time and money. Having engineers present to establish “soft” constraints can help keep things on track. Limitations can also stimulate creativity (necessity being the mother of invention, or so I’ve heard).

Of course, engineers need to know how to play the “yes game” when appropriate so as not to stifle creativity or preclude valuable solutions that could differentiate your product or elevate your user experience. This is another skill set that can be trained and hired for. Engineers should know how to provide just enough direction to both promote creativity while ensuring implementation is possible.

Save time and money

I love to reflect on the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work on the Johnson Wax building. He created a building that reinvented the experience of the corporate office. The client, Mr. Johnson himself, was noted complaining that he felt like he was working for Wright instead of the other way around. Wright was autocratic and determined that his radical designs be implemented as he envisioned them.

Unfortunately, while Wright was a brilliant architect, his engineering expertise did not rise to the same level and the building suffered from cost overruns, leaks and other shortcomings. The moral of the story is that even with a brilliant designer (and designers as brilliant as Wright are rare), engineers can help ensure that genius is executed effectively. Just imagine where an average designer might leave you without input from those who actually have to build their ideas.

To sum it up, in my 20 years of experience as a UX designer, the projects that have been most successful are those that have addressed each of these points: engineers contributed ideas early in the process, established effective guidelines, and helped identify ways to do things more efficiently in terms of cost and time.

These also happen to have been the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on. At the end of the day, designers, engineers, marketers and entrepreneurs all want to do great work that sees the light of day, and this collaborative approach is the best way to achieve those results.

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