Why We Don’t Obsess About Designer-Developer Collaboration — and Why You Shouldn’t, Too
mins to read
Me: The relations between designers and developers seem to be so dramatic. Shakespeare would definitely write a play on their collaboration problem if there were product teams in his time.
Maksym: The problem is overhyped. There is no such issue that cannot be fixed by communication.
Me: Designers and developers don't understand each other. Millions of search results on the keyword “designer-developer collaboration” prove that.
Maksym: 7 years of experience in design prove that if you have both designers and developers in your team, you’ve already solved your greatest design collaboration problem.
That’s me vainly trying to get to the collaborative secrets of Eleken’s design director Maksym.
Maksym has been working with dozens of development teams — small and big, vetted and novice, development-driven and user-centric teams. Maksym learned to handle them all, and now he sees no problem in designer-developer collaboration.
Yet I managed to get to the memories when Maksym was a junior designer, Eleken’s workflows were unestablished, and designers-developers collaboration problems existed together with the ways to address them.
Take a seat there and listen up.
Concurrent UI/UX designer and developer collaboration
Design and development processes line up naturally one after another because engineers can proceed with the development only when they have mockups ready. But in this sequential case, we get a moment of friction when designers pass a baton to developers:
- Designers may overlook engineers’ requirements;
- Coders may get the wrong idea of design they need to implement;
- The team would need to go through everything again;
- Deadlines would be on fire;
- The project would sink into chaos.
Designer-developer collaboration glitch in slow-mo:
Such dramatic cases rarely happen, but even a tiny hitch in production means a financial and reputational risk for big fancy software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies. To remove the point of friction, big product companies need UX designers working with developers simultaneously.
Amazon uses the two-pizza rule (if you need more than two pizzas to feed a team, then the team is too big). For Hubspot, a small team looks like one and a half pizzas: one Tech Lead, two developers, one designer, and one Product Manager.
Maksym explains why simultaneous design and development are considered to be the most effective kind of team management:
“Right now I’m working on a project where mockups get implemented as soon as they are approved. A big advantage of this working model is that I get an extra round of edits from engineers when they start implementing my designs. Thus, the risk of missing anything reduces dramatically.”
Concurrent design-development collaboration may work for big fancy product teams. But small startups have different resources and different priorities.
Startups need to build their product from scratch or redesign their minimum viable product (MVP). At the same time, they need to survive with limited resources and avoid fundamental errors that will later screw up the whole business. Flawless designer-developer collaboration is not on the list of priorities as you see.
So SaaS startups rarely shake a 1-2 year development process together with the UI/UX design that otherwise could have been done in 2-3 months. They usually choose between the two options:
- Decide on how their app is going to look and feel without designers
- Organize design and coding sequentially (highly recommended)
No designer-developer collaboration — no problem lots of problems
It happens that newborn startups abandon the proven practice of including UI/UX designers in the product teams they build. It might be due to limited time and budget, but more likely it’s because they underestimate the role of user experience design.
Because yes, having no designer on the team will help to keep the project within a tight budget. But having no designer increases the risk of making fundamental errors that will later screw up the whole business:
- The design gets overcomplicated. You know the app is not touched by a designer’s hand the moment you see it. The interface looks like a spacecraft control room (and works just as easily).
- Consistency suffers. Developers work iteratively. They may start small, and then suddenly pivot to something else because “what a cool idea, let’s add this feature too”, but “now we lack that button” and “why don’t we put it in the upper left corner?”
- Mistakes get visible only in the end. It takes tons of time to code an app, and you’ll see the big picture in months, if not years. If you suddenly notice that a big picture looks like a Frankenstein’s monster, it would be too late to redo everything. Product design, in contrast, allows you to quickly and easily ideate and iterate on your app before you've invested in the actual coding process.
Sequential designer and developer collaboration
Eleken specializes in designing for SaaS startups, so a sequential working model is something we are very used to. For several months, we work on a clients’ design moving step by step, in close designer collaborations with a Product Manager or CEO. Only after a couple of months, when all the mockups are ready and approved they land on the developers’ desk.
Maksym explains how it works on the example of TextMagic, the company that hired us to design them some new functionality:
“We worked on one screen at a time, in color at once, since the app already had its own design system. Each screen we approved with a Product Manager and iterated it until he was happy with the result. We didn’t maintain continuous communication with TextMagic’s devs but contacted them occasionally to ask, say, wouldn’t this idea be too hard to implement?”
Sequential collaboration is not as sophisticated as concurrent design and development — the moment when designers pass mockups to developers is full of uncertainty and risks. But this cooperation model still works fine if you know how to apply it.
The short recipe from Eleken looks like this:
It can be decoded as “communicate with a Product Manager (all the time) and developers (when needed). If you want to go into greater detail, here we have five risks of sequential collaboration and the principles of collaboration that reduce the risks:
Designers can miss some details
Designers can’t foresee everything. For instance, at the implementation phase, a way-too-long title appears, and you have to decide whether you show it in full or cut with three dots. Such corner cases get fixed easily when you have designers and developers working together, but can frustrate a tech team that has to sort things out by itself.
Generally, our clients deal with little design gaps by themselves. When they feel they need help, they can check back with us asking for design support. Thus, we’ll fill all the gaps that have arisen and control the design implementation.
Developers can misunderstand the design
This scenario is theoretically possible because mockups usually look like a pile of screens that all look the same.
But UI/UX designers are people who know how to make things intuitive and accessible. To make a pile of mockups easier to grasp, our designers arrange different user flows into different pages in Figma. Inside Figma’s pages, all flows are logically organized, and all screens are labeled.
To facilitate the understanding and the further developers’ work on our designs, we usually supplement them with UI kits. UI kit is a seed of a future design system — it summarizes some UX tips for developers and all standard UI components (such as buttons, inputs, navigations), font, and typography.
With a UI kit, developers can see, for instance, all the buttons in one glance. It allows developers to compose buttons in advance, in all colors, sizes, and forms needed. Later, when they will work on pages, they’ll be able to insert all the UI components in a couple of clicks.
Mockups may turn out to be too complex to implement
For this scenario, it’s supposed that designers do something complicated in a vacuum, never show it to anyone, then say “ta-da” and a tech team suddenly realizes it’s impossible to get this thing into practice on schedule.
Designers don’t usually aim to create something tricky — quite the opposite. If our designers find out their idea can be too complicated, they reach out to developers to figure out if they are okay with this or that element.
Designers may not understand how the code works
In this case, a potentially complicated design element may go unnoticed by a designer.
Just in case something like this happens, we approve our mockups with somebody from a client’s side step by step. If we miss anything, a Product Manager would point at it so we can offer a better option.
The designer’s ego may hinder the collaboration
That’s the situation when the statement “designers don’t aim at creating something tricky” misfires. If designers strive for perfection and fail to see the bigger picture, they may ignore the requirements of schedule, budget, and common sense.
Maksym says he stamps out design-centrism in Eleken:
“A startup is rarely a story of maximalism. More often, it’s a story of giving up small things for the sake of greater success. So I train our designers to think a tad bigger. Not to the scale of a screen or a user flow, but to the scale of the whole business.”
How do you collaborate with designers?
Concurrent design and development are optimal in terms of collaboration. It means both designers and engineers are involved in the design process and the risks of misunderstanding are minimized. That's why established companies often choose this working model.
Startups limited in time and budget, however, prefer the design to be done first and coding later. This working model creates a point of friction when the UI/UX team passes mockups to the Tech team. But the friction can be eliminated, given that the Product Manager acts as a middleman.
The only problem of designer-developer collaboration that can't be fixed is when developers make a startup and forget to hire a UI/UX designer. Please, don't do that if you wish your business a long and happy life.
Leading Distributed Design Teams: 3 Biggest Challenges and How to Solve Them
Let’s face it, leading a distributed design team with no possibility to quickly look over your employees’ shoulders to check whether their designs are fine is challenging, if not hard.
Thanks to the big remote shift due to the world pandemic, many businesses adjusted and went to work fully online, but for many companies, hidden problems remain. We can group typical challenges for remote teams into three categories: broken communication in the teams, a silos mindset, and weak ties.
In Eleken UX design company, we believe in a collaborative approach to design. Our design is not created in a vacuum, but in constant communication and collaboration with stakeholders, product managers, users, and development teams. So the infamous three we mentioned above would just impair our work.
In this article, we share the best practices for distributed teams that actually work. Here’s how we defeated the most common challenges of remote work.
Challenge #1. Broken communication
If you want to manage a remote design team easily and effectively, first of all pay attention to how the communication is happening.
In remote design teams, spontaneous communication is absent and text format leaves a lot of room for confusion. As a result, colleagues communicate less, and miscommunication often happens.
As it’s been said many times, communication is the key and you don’t want to let it become chaotic in your distributed design team. Here’s what you should do:
- Keep the number of video calls limited as they are the most tiresome form of communication. Incorporate the culture of follow-ups after online meetings.
- Organize the rest of the communication channels: messengers, design tools, and calls should not duplicate one another but work as a structured communication system.
- Ask for feedback from your team members about the communication. If people in the team are frustrated with something, they might (consciously or not) sabotage the comunication.
After implementing these tips, your communication with the team will become more on-point and effective, people will proactively approach each other with specific questions, and it will get easier to lead a remote design team.
But there are other pitfalls waiting for you on the way.
Challenge #2. Silos mindset
There’s a chance that you have never heard of silos. Or heard about it in an agricultural context. You are not alone, silos is a rather new term in business language. It describes a situation when departments of the company work isolated from each other. Instead of sharing their expertise, teams store it like grain is stored in actual silos.
Covid-19 was a big test for remote teams and it caught many companies off guard. Some teams simply did not know how to work remotely and it deepened the problem of silos, so departments started growing apart.
Silos mindset is a serious problem, especially for product companies. When there’s no strong cooperation, knowledge sharing and such, the success of your product is at risk.
Imagine the situation: your designers and developers work as two independent departments that contact each other only when it’s time to hand off the design. As a result, the design team creates layouts without consulting with developers about technical possibilities for implementation.
As a minimum, developers will have many questions for designers, and the work will be slow. But scenarios can be even worse, up to the need to create a new design to meet the development possibilities. This is a silos problem in action.
The good news is that it is possible to deal with silos:
- First of all, educate your team, explaining the importance of sharing expertise with each other and working towards a common goal as one organism.
- The next step is creating easy ways to communicate and share the company's knowledge base.
- Build cross-functional teams and effective collaboration processes.
But even when all the processes are done right, the human factor still remains. And for the teams that are distributed around the world, it can be a serious challenge.
Challenge #3. Weak ties
It might sound a little weird, but weak ties are the biggest problem for distributed teams. Broken communication and lack of collaboration can be solved with the right processes. But how to make people cultivate friendly relationships if they rarely see each other and spend work days apart?
- Implement the culture of getting to know each other across the team. There are great ice-breaking tools like Donut Slack bot for random and casual one-on-one meetings.
- Know your team members and organize outstanding online activities that people will actually love. Having fun online is possible. Think outside the box and be creative as a team. You can try a Wonder platform for online creative collaboration and building the feeling of togetherness in the distributed team.
- Corporate off-sites are a must. At least once a year bring your people together to eat, play and connect.
Even if your distributed team belongs to different companies that work independently, the ideas we mentioned above will only improve your remote work.
How Eleken leads a distributed team of designers
Eleken was among those companies that effectively worked online before it was cool. Actually, since the company was founded in 2015, we have been working in a hybrid format. Our clients are around the world, and with each of our projects, we prove that long-distance relationships do work.
Our design team leader Maksym recently shared the advice that basically sums up Eleken leadership:
- Don’t be afraid to give people freedom of action and responsibility.
- Don’t micromanage, but trust your designers.
- Apply product management best practices, even if you are not a product manager.
- Surround yourself with smart people eager to learn new things.
How do we manage our remote design team and implement these principles?
First of all, we keep our design, marketing, sales processes, and documentation tidy. We mostly use Notion for that.
Our team is growing and onboarding new people is important. Our onboarding document for new designers makes the start of remote work with the design team quick and simple.
A new colleague can come back to it or study our design processes there anytime. The same approach we have to our collective expertise- we preserve and share it through design systems and inner design workshops.
Every week we have design feedback sessions and collective brainstorming for the design team.
We recommend this practice to all remote design teams, as it brings the team together, and it’s a great and fun way to learn together.
War in Ukraine became a huge stress and emotional challenge for all Ukrainians, including our team. But thanks to great processes and motivated people who love what they do, we did not interrupt our work. Our clients were actually amazed to see how our team completed tasks in the first days of the war, sometimes from bomb shelters.
We all felt that clients and the rest of the team rely on us and continued to work not out of pressure from management, but from our own feeling of responsibility. My teammates say that the stability of our work helped them stay sane in that madness, and was the source of calm and security. All thanks to the great people and culture in the team.
We hope you will never have to experience what we did with war. But here’s the lesson we learned, and you can benefit from it in any other extraordinary situation. The disaster seemed unrealistic until the very last moment, but we were prepared thanks to:
- Clear inner and external communications
- Well-established processes
- Strong team spirit
This strong base was not built in one day. But in times of crisis, the investment in a team and processes returned fully. We did not lose a single client or employee and our business keeps scaling despite the war.
We don’t know how the world will change in the next five years and what challenges it will bring to businesses. But we are sure that transparent and frequent communication, as well as strong leadership and positive team culture, will help distributed design teams to overcome any challenges.
Manage your distributed team with confidence, invest in your people and their well-being and it will result in outstanding design productivity and portfolio. And if you are looking for a skilled design team that works remotely around the world, you came to the right place. Drop us a line and let’s discuss how we can help you.
How Design Operations (DesignOps) Work at Eleken
Hi! We are Eleken, a SaaS design agency. And though we consider ourselves to be a well-established team with common goals where everyone knows what they are doing and, in which direction we are moving, we also face challenges in our daily work.
For example, nowadays designers are involved in more strategic conversations. However, we’re being asked to balance that involvement along with our daily tasks (researching and designing). We have more meetings to attend, more policies and regulations to navigate, and more interruptions overall. Sometimes, we’re just too busy to design!
DesignOps is a way to remove some of that operational load from designers’ lives so that we can spend time researching and designing, achieving better results.
For that reason, in this article, we want to show you how we optimize work processes to make our team operate smoothly. And naturally, we can’t go without a small intro of DesignOps definition.
What is Design Operations?
Design Operations is a collective term to describe our efforts for optimizing our teams, tools, and workflows.
As for DesignOps roles, there’s no need for special titles - everyone can do it (researchers, managers, or/and designers).
However, if you want to know some specific job positions responsible for design operations these can be:
- Design/UX producers, who drive day-to-day design work and processes forward
- Design/UX program managers, who optimize a businesses' global approach to UX and design
- Research Ops specialists, who elevate the quality and consistency of research across teams
There's a need to mention that there’s no specific operational design framework that all companies should apply. There are many elements related to enabling consistent quality design and each business should choose their own DesignOps practices based on problems they encounter.
Now, we want to share with you the way we at Eleken have shaped our DesignOps practice.
How Eleken ensures effective design when scaling
As we grew, new challenges appeared, and to cope with them we developed a stable team structure, design standards, design process, toolset, hiring, and onboarding procedures, collaboration methods (both with each other and with our clients), and many more aspects that we can call our DesignOps.
For you to better understand how Eleken handles the difficulties that may occur on the way to delivering successful design solutions, we singled our four elements of operational design that we are going to discuss below:
- How we work together
- How we get the work done
- How we cooperate with our clients
- How our work creates impact
Let’s get it started!
How we work together
Here you will learn how we:
- structure and build our team
- enable effective internal communication
- share and expand knowledge
- hire and onboard new members
Team structure and roles
Eleken is not a typical design team with roles common for most SaaS companies. We differ both in structure and hierarchy. Basically, there are two main roles in our team: design lead and product designers.
The design lead’s main duties are to supervise and mentor designers, fully accompany newcomers throughout their onboarding, and serve as the contact person for clients that want to provide any kind of feedback/apply some changes related to their cooperation with Eleken.
Product designers at Eleken are independent individuals (as we don’t have product managers) and are all dedicated to their specific projects where they are responsible for user experience, visual design, UX research, and everything needed to create high-quality design solutions.
Team management and coordination
As I’ve already mentioned, designers at Eleken are independent and when you hire them they become a part of your team, like an in-house employee with whom you communicate directly. We believe that when you let your designers make decisions and take responsibility on their own, they grow professionally quicker and are more likely to come up with unique design decisions.
Therefore, for the most part, Eleken’s designers don't need thorough management from our side. There are two main cases when our design lead supervises and coordinates designers:
- New member onboarding. When a new person comes to Eleken they receive full attention from our design lead (we will talk more about onboarding later).
- On-demand. When designers feel they need some help, they can address Eleken’s design lead anytime and receive full support, advice, and mentorship.
Team communication and experience exchange
For a team (especially for the one that scales quickly) it’s essential to have a possibility to share thoughts and opinions, and most importantly get feedback or criticism from peers.
At Eleken, we hold regular weekly meetings where we discuss projects, share both positive and negative experiences, look at each other’s works, brainstorm ideas together, and get each other’s feedback. This practice allows everyone to stay tuned, create a common source of knowledge, and exchange experiences.
Hiring and onboarding
Both hiring and onboarding at Eleken are lengthy processes. It usually takes four-five months from the moment the designer applies for a job and until they start working on real projects. We are super attentive and precise when it comes to choosing a new team member and put a lot of effort into finding and educating great SaaS design specialists.
Hiring at Eleken consists of three levels:
- Portfolio evaluation. We create a job post and people send their CVs and portfolios.
- Test task. If we consider certain candidates to be suitable for our position we send them a test task. When analyzing the test task, we mainly pay attention to the applicants’ ability to create logical design decisions while adhering to major design principles.
- Interview. Finally, we invite the candidate to the interview which we can divide into three blocks: personal background and motivation to work in this industry, logical questions on basic understanding of the essence of the design, and finally, communication skills in English. The third block is especially important for us, as we want to make sure our designers will be able to clearly explain to our clients each step/idea/decision they made.
After we make our choice based on the interview results, the onboarding stage begins.
Each newcomer goes through a three-month boot camp where they have to design a product (an imaginary one) from scratch. They undergo all stages of the design process including brainstorming, competitive analysis, user research, wireframing and visual design for each screen until we get the final result.
During the whole onboarding, our design lead monitors the process: he constantly communicates with the designer, discusses each step, provides feedback, points out their strengths and weaknesses, shows the right direction for further development, and makes sure they understand what makes a good SaaS product.
Only after the design lead approves the candidate, they can work on real projects.
It takes much time and resources to get a new employee for our company, but this way we are confident our clients get access to the top design talents and receive only high-quality service.
How we get the work done
Here you will learn how we:
- define our guiding design principles
- improve design quality with consistent sets of design tools and processes
- set priorities on tasks
- cope with leadership overload
Our design principles
To provide high-quality design everyone at Eleken adhere to the following UI/UX design principles:
- Always design with the user in mind. We teach our employees to put themselves into users’ shoes each time they create something new.
- Build the correct hierarchy. By laying out elements logically and strategically our designers can influence users’ perception and guide them to the desired action.
- Use visual objects like style and patterns when possible. It will keep the consistency and will relieve a headache of your developers.
- Each design element should have its purpose. We don’t put a funny image on the screen, just because it looks nice. Eleken’s designers always try to simplify the interface (remove unnecessary things) and make each piece of design perform its function.
- UI/UX design is all about managing the user's attention. Good design doesn't need onboarding, when done correctly the user will intuitively do what they need to do.
- Remember about accessibility. We make designs for all people, and not only for those with excellent eyesight. That’s why when working on a project we ensure that the interface is well-structured, colors are contrasted, and fonts are readable.
To keep the design workflow running smoothly we created a designer handbook that describes characteristics of the product design process at main types of projects:
- Design from scratch (there is only an idea and we design a product from the very beginning)
- Redesign (there is a product, but it needs to be restructured not to be outdated or complex)
- Design support/product extension (there is a product but the client wants to create/add new functionality)
This document is accessible to all our designers and contains useful information needed to effectively perform design duties.
For example, here is a scheme of how the design from scratch looks at Eleken:
To facilitate the design quality and let design scale efficiently we defined a set of standardized tools. We use:
- Figma for main design purposes. It covers 95% of our needs (prototypes, wireframes, logos, presentations, icons, and so on).
- Google spreadsheets for UX research.
- Miro for brainstorming, schemes, and user flows.
- Slack and Gmail for communication.
Both for design agencies and for freelance designers it is often difficult to decide what project to work on and when to work on it. To prioritize, they have to consider the design team capacity, uncover problems in the design workflow, and so on.
Eleken doesn’t face the problem with prioritizing. While design agencies/freelancers have many products, we focus on one. You hire a remote team member who is completely dedicated to your project.
Although each designer at Eleken is dedicated to their own project, we work as a whole team, helping and supporting each other.
In case our design lead feels overloaded (though it happens very rarely) there are senior designers who can help and provide feedback for those less experienced.
And that’s one more thing that differs Eleken from freelancers: we're a team, every designer collaborates with the team to get feedback and improve.
How we cooperate with our clients
Here you will learn how we:
- provide effective communication with clients
- ensure the length and quality of our design
Collaboration with clients
By hiring designers at Eleken, our clients get a remote team member who they're in complete control of.
Our UI/UX specialists can be:
- a standalone designer in our client’s company
- a part of a design team (if an additional pair of hands is needed and the client doesn’t have time for hiring and onboarding)
We work on the time-based retainer pricing model, which means you buy a subscription (weekly or monthly) and get a full-time designer working on your project. This model allows you to stay flexible: you can unsubscribe in case you don’t need our services anymore, or add more designers if you need more employees for the project.
If you want to learn more about the way we collaborate with clients, read about our pricing.
We provide outsource design work, that’s why it was essential to us to think out ways to deal with any remote communication challenges.
Means of communication: we work with any means of communication that is convenient for our clients. In most cases, we use Slack for messages and Zoom for meetings.
Type of communication: our clients talk directly with the designer, without any middlemen. This way there are no misunderstandings or “Broken Telephone”.
Frequency of calls/meetings: it’s up to our clients how often they want to contact the designer. They can set up weekly meetings to receive general updates about the project’s progress, or have daily standups.
How we ensure the length and quality of our design
There is no fixed amount of time that product design takes. We can estimate the period of time needed based on our experience, but we strictly follow the pay-per-month rule. Working closely with our designers, clients know perfectly well how the project’s progress goes.
As for the quality, we’ve already mentioned that each of our designers goes through complex hiring and onboarding processes so that we make sure they have skill sets to create high-quality product design from start to finish. Also, the client can easily reach out to the designer and can control how the project goes at each stage.
How our work creates impact
Here you will learn how we:
- educate others about the value of design
- define our values and goals
Transmitting the value of design
At Eleken, we take care not only about our employees but we also want more people to understand the power of design. For that reason, we are open for communication and try to actively interact with our clients as much as we can.
We don’t keep our design processes secret and let people learn how we work. So, when you hire a designer, you, in fact, get the knowledge of the whole Eleken agency.
Eleken is a team of design enthusiasts. We believe people face enough difficulties in their daily lives and applications/software they use on a regular basis should not be one of those troubles. Technologies are called to simplify people’s lives, and with the help of profound UI/UX design services, Eleken can help everyone feel the value and enjoy the beauty of technological progress.
We help SaaS products become closer to their users and open their full potential to make people’s lives better.
Still have some questions about Eleken’s DesignOps?
We are always open to communication! Schedule a call with Eleken.