Common ground

The biggest problem in software today is that programmers and designers simply don’t work well together. They certainly want to, but each craft sees the problem from their own point of view and, with the best intentions, each tries imposing their methods on the other group. But even agile developer’s sharpest tools aren’t going to work well for designers, and likewise, even the designer’s sharpest tools aren’t going to help programmers.

The solution will be to find some common ground where each craft is open to the best contributions of the other, without either side being forced to sacrifice their inherent strengths.

I believe that the solution, like most big things, will be relatively simple in concept, yet getting there from here won’t be easy.

Today, most of the pathologies of both designers and programmers can be traced to their mutual lack of experience working together. Most programmers will tell you their biggest problem is coping with rapidly changing requirements. Most designers will tell you their biggest problem is unresponsive programmers.

In the modern, agile world, programmers defend themselves against changing requirements by showing customers the program as often as possible, and by being able to make rapid changes to suit the customers expressed needs.

Interaction designers defend themselves against uncooperative programmers by doing ever more detailed design and documenting it with greater accuracy, detail, and precision.

But modern, agile programmers can work so flexibly that they don’t need all of that detailed and precisely written design. If designers could just blend into the development team, they could communicate their design directly without the overhead of documentation. They could provide a kind of just-in-time design service to the programmers.

On the other hand, interaction designers can master the driving principles of even the most complex domain so that programmers don’t need to make all of those changes. With a comparatively brief and inexpensive field study, designers can vanquish the changing requirements problem almost completely.

Ironically, the common ground for agile developers and interaction designers is one where the major problem faced by each craft separately is largely solved by the simple presence of the other craft, working collaboratively at a peer level.

That’s really good news for cost-conscious business people (now that’s redundant). Having designers and developers collaborate is very economical. Most of the cost of interaction design is incurred in the documentation and communication of that design. Similarly, most of the cost of software development is incurred in traversing blind alleys trying to elicit useful guidance from the stakeholders. Effective collaboration simultaneously discards the need for the two most expensive parts of product development, while driving quality—and user desirability—through the roof.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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