The virtues and perils of the developer/designer

How important is it for interaction designers to be well-versed in the technologies they are designing for? Does good design spring from a firm understanding of the underlying capabilities and limitations of the technology? Or is it helped by an indifferent stance towards how a design is ultimately produced in order to consider the issues from a fresh perspective?

There are good arguments on both sides of this issue, and there’s no one right answer.

Many successful product design models rely on designers being fluent developers. Notably, 37signals can rapidly develop and iterate their products because the design thinking is intertwined with its technological manifestation. A firm like Stamen delivers such compelling visualizations because they can ingest and process data like developers then exploit their tools to consider and present the information and interactions like designers.

Other models feature greater role specialization. At Cooper, we have designers with varying levels of technical expertise, from ex-programmers to design-school grads with no development experience. We work to keep the consideration of technological possibility or constraint at arm’s length early in the design process in order to envision the best experience for our personas. As our designs progress, we work closely with the client’s development organization to vet feasibility and adjust the design in response to developer and business stakeholder feedback.

Several factors have made the question of this design/develop relationship more complicated than ever:

  • Agile devlopment methods that stress iteration and feedback
  • Development tools that make it possible for non-programmers to build prototypes, demos, even shipping code
  • Increasingly dynamic interactions that are difficult to design and communicate without experiencing
  • Increased awareness of goal-directed design methodology by software developers

Where do you and your team fall on this spectrum, and how are you dealing with these issues?