Gone are the days when the designer is commissioned to ascend to the mountain top in order to return with an inspired solution to the problem at hand. Design is a team sport. Actually, great design has always been a team sport, but somewhere along the way we’ve let titles and career paths dictate who the designers are and aren’t.

Design thinking has played a critical role in reconnecting design methods to non-design disciplines, and can be a solid starting point for designer and developer to effectively collaborate, laying the foundation for a rich design culture. Effective collaboration between designers and developers can be the difference between success and failure. No one understands the power of these two disciplines working in harmony better than Pixar, who through tireless collaboration has celebrated countless successes.

Here are 4 practices that will help you leverage the dynamics between designers and developers.

1. Connect with the customer

User research is too important to be left just to the designers on the team. Observational insights can come from anyone willing to practice empathy, identify behavioral patterns and assess a user’s goals and motivations.

When developers and designers both participate in user research, their unique perspectives shape the outcomes, and equally important, the outcomes reflect consensus built on a shared experience and understanding. This consensus can serve as an anchor for the entire life of the project. The team is able to look back through a lens of “we discovered this” instead of the lens of  “I discovered this.”

The next time the team conducts user research, be sure to bring along members from both the development and design teams.

2. Reframe the challenge

Great design requires knowing the constraints: which ones are firm and which ones need a good hit with a cattle prod.

A good discovery phase can only expose so many constraints. The rest get exposed as the team begins to make and learn through the building process. Discovering new constraints can be frustrating for both developer and designer, but it’s important to recognize that constraints aren’t necessarily compromises. When the designer and developer work together to discover the constraints within a project, they’re able to effectively reframe the challenge in a way that respects their individual crafts, without making one party feel shortchanged.

The key to responding to these potentially frustrating discoveries is to frame the challenge in a way that points to a solution. Design and technical constraints are part of the equation, and therefore, part of the solution. Reframing the challenge as a team can speed up its resolution.

Kedron Rhodes

3. Suspend judgment

Suspending judgment can be hard enough when hearing an idea from someone in our own discipline, let alone from someone across the aisle in a different discipline. Design thinking asks us to suspend judgment for the sake of the idea, in order to give the idea space enough to mature into something promising.

Suspending judgement has another benefit that can be easy to overlook. When we let the ideas of others have a chance to live and mature, we’re planting seeds of trust. We’re expressing to our team members that although we have different disciplines and backgrounds, your ideas are welcomed. On the contrary, if we’re quick to cut down a developer’s ideas because they sound naive from a design perspective, and vice versa, we’re drastically limiting the source of inspiration a solution can come from, and building walls between disciplines that only hurt team collaboration.

The key to letting ideas have space to mature is by building on them. You can build on others’ ideas with a simple “yes, and” approach or asking, “What would have to be true to make this idea work?”

4. Zoom out

As a designer or developer, it’s easy to get caught up in our own craft and lose sight of the bigger picture. Zooming out to see the entire landscape is vitally important to keep the big picture in perspective.

Designers and developers often have blinders on to things outside their purview. The fortunate part is they don’t often share the same blind spots. You can use the various perspectives on your team by considering aspects of the solution you may be blind to.

The first step in leveraging your team to help you see the bigger picture is admitting you don’t have all of the answers. This can be tough for both designer and developer, but getting a new perspective is often the only way to move forward.

Wrapping up

Great design requires a team, and design thinking can be an effective tool that breeds team collaboration. Starting now, what can you do to include a broader section of your team into user research? Consider how you can help your team reframe challenges as you discover new constraints. How can you support your team by suspending judgment and build on the ideas of others? How can you use your team’s perspectives to help you zoom out and consider alternative solutions?

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