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Fostering Effective Collaboration Between Designers and Engineers

Building a process for designers and engineers to work efficiently together will allow you to reap the rewards.

By Alexandria Hewko  •   October 18, 2022  •   7 min read

Your designers want aesthetic, navigation-friendly interfaces for their uses, but your engineers don’t want to stay up all night working on a difficult piece of code just so it makes a small improvement in the user’s experience (which, by the way, the designer feels is a small change that will actually make or break said experience).

Sound familiar?

The battle between the dream user experience and what’s actually realistic to create is seemingly never-ending—until today. We’ve collected a few top tips to help your designers and engineers collaborate more closely and enjoy the teamwork!

Why is it important for designers and engineers to collaborate? 

The relationship between designers and engineers is crucial. Together, they each complete the other half of the picture. The designer creates the idea that will improve the customer’s experience, and the engineer brings the idea to life. They rely so heavily on each other. Without their cooperation, your organization risks having delayed projects due to too many disagreements or feedback rounds, spotty user stories that don’t have a good flow or make sense for your buyer persona, and a general decrease in employee happiness.

Antonia Horvath is a design and business leader who wrote some helpful insights on the value of the designer-engineer relationship. She says, “As a team, you are accountable for how well customers get the job done through the product you’re building. It’s not about how beautiful the design is, how many lines of codes you have written, features shipped or bugs fixed.”

Her message speaks to the technical and process improvements that also arise from increased collaboration between product design and engineering departments.

Tips for designers and engineers to collaborate more closely 

1Foster trust between designers and engineers

Strong relationships are needed in any team, especially in a team that works on building a product at the core of the organization’s revenue. Building strong layers of trust happen through time, continual collaboration, and brutally honest (yet respectful) feedback. 

On one hand, designers need to have faith that engineers can successfully execute the idea at hand because micromanaging the project and providing too tight of creative boundaries can decrease trust. On the other hand, engineers need to believe that designers know what’s best for the customer experience. Frequent nitpicking or pushing back too hard on ideas (unless they are technically very difficult) will only strain the relationship. 

Foster effective collaboration

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2Host brainstorming meetings between designers and engineers 

Brainstorming meetings are a great way to come together at the start of the project and set mutual expectations. When both departments can work collaboratively from the start, it’s more likely that both parties have an equal understanding of the project’s goals, therefore making it more likely that everyone can reach the same goal, too. 

Seeing the ideas that other engineers or designers have is also a great opportunity to build trust and offer them a look into the other’s perspective. Both the engineers and designers will have different but relevant perspectives (functional versus aesthetic) on how to execute something like logo design. To maximize this, the meeting host should set a tone for learning and collaborating at the start of the meeting. Additionally, both departments should have equal participation time in the call. 

Pro Tip: Use this template to help guide your meeting agenda

3Avoid the “us” vs. “them” stereotype

Designers and engineers both think very differently—this means they can clash frequently. But it also means they have a lot to learn from each other. Taking time to see that the other party brings a new wealth of knowledge to the project can increase trust and collaboration. It reframes the narrative of the designer-engineering relationship to be cooperative and knowledge-building rather than distrustful and as just another barrier to success. 

An example phrase that designers and engineers can start implementing in their communication to foster a “together” stereotype is, “Hey, I just had this idea and I know [project benefit] from my perspective, but I was wondering if there are any challenges you might see from your perspective for this idea?”

Practicing this type of language revolves around a humble understanding that one department really doesn’t know it all yet, and somewhat relies on the other department to fill the knowledge gap.

4Create a culture of feedback 

Feedback shouldn’t be feared—in fact, it should be heavily embraced! From feedback come honest insights for improvement. Constructive feedback is relatable to the project at hand, is delivered in a respectful manner appropriate to the situation, and offers an actionable insight for improvement in the future. If delivering feedback is something your team members struggle with, have your team practice the “sandwich” approach. Team members deliver feedback by offering one compliment, one area of improvement, and then a second compliment—in other words, the area for improvement is sandwiched between two compliments!

You can also use a tool like Fellow to start tracking feedback in meetings and assigning action items to tasks that need to be done for the next meeting. It’s also helpful to have a record of all feedback discussions to look back on in the future.

5Be transparent

Transparency helps teams know when things just aren’t going well. If designers and engineers can be honest when they’re confused about why a decision was made, this honesty creates a healthy atmosphere that allows the team to learn more about the confusing topic. You should definitely encourage senior-level team members to model being transparent, as they may have more confidence in their role. This behavior demonstrates to junior-level team members how to speak up about topics they want to learn about or areas with which they’re struggling. 

Developing a healthy, frequent practice of being transparent will increase trust across your team as well.

6Be flexible

Part of working together is compromise. On one hand, there are times when a feature can’t be implemented due to a technical capability, or even due to tight timelines. On the other hand, a small feature edit may actually make a big difference and be worth the extra time spent on it. 

As engineers and designers work together to merge their processes, compromise is a must. When first working out how the relationship can improve, make it a priority for both teams to identify several “must-haves” in their process, then leave everything else as things that can be flexible to change. 

Having flexibility and agility also improves speed, communication, and overall efficiency—the less friction when getting a project completed, the better!

7Establish clear goals 

Having common goals can help ensure that both teams are working towards the same end result. By defining goals as clearly as possible using simple language that appeals to both departments and using SMART qualities, you give your team a better shot at understanding and attaining the goals. 

Tracking your goals as a team is also important. You should leverage a tool like Fellow to track your team’s objectives and integrate your key performance indicator (KPI) results right into your meeting agenda. Putting this information into the agenda as a talking point ensures that your team members see the expected goals and helps them feel motivated as a team to work towards it. Frequently check in on your goals together as a team to remind your team members of the great progress made so far!

8Use productivity tools 

According to GoRemotely’s study, 83% of employees rely on digital technologies for collaboration at work, and 70% of all employees said that these tools helped them become more productive! 

Today, thousands of tools exist to support the daily work of your team. Most tools do so by automating aspects of your workflow, enabling team members to collaborate in an online space, or notifying your team of updates.

Fellow, Monday.com, and Asana are some of the best productivity tools on the market today!

9Understand each team’s language

Designers and engineers have very different verbiage in their day-to-day work. Understanding the way that teams communicate and the keywords that they use to describe project elements will make all the difference. Technical teams often speak in abbreviations, and sometimes there can be two of the same abbreviations across the two teams—and each abbreviation has a different meaning! To get over the learning curve, it’s recommended to forego using abbreviations until the teams get settled with their new collaborative processes.

10Ensure there is clear communication

Clear communication is a lot more than just using a Slack channel. Practice having regular stand-up or check-in meetings, being honest about project challenges, and asking questions when something doesn’t seem right. As a manager, you can facilitate the development of strong communication channels by encouraging team members to sort problems out together through brainstorming sessions rather than using management or team leads as third-party mediators. 

Parting advice

As your design and engineering teams grow, it will become more difficult to manage the relationship and ensure there is strong trust and communication. If you’re working with a small team, focus on building really efficient collaboration processes that work with both departments as soon as possible—doing so will help as you scale. If you already have a large team, work closely with your senior-level team members to help implement these processes and set an example for junior-level members.

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