Separating the Designer from the Maker

Building modern applications requires a lot of knowledge and expertise. At the highest level, it includes considering users needs, an interface, saving & requesting data, hosting, and deployment. Typically teams of people, each with expertise in a specific function are required to build a single application. The bigger a project gets, the more specialized the individuals become focusing on an increasingly smaller part of the broader application.

In a common Agile development practice, Product Owners and Business Analysis work to understand and document the business requirements. UX Designers and researchers design and test prototypes to discover user needs and provide designs for a usable interface. Front-end Engineers work to build the interface while back-end Engineers build the server logic and database structure. Dev-Op specialists work on getting the applications deployed. Each of these people can be subdivided even more granularly in many cases.

This process works reasonably well; however, through all this complexity, I feel we have lost something important.

I work as a UX Designer & Front-end Engineer; however, I consider myself a maker someone who enjoys making stuff that other people can enjoy. Because of this I have taken up Blacksmithing and have enjoyed making things with the permanence of steel. Heating the metal until it is glowing red hot and relentlessly hammering it to move it millimeters in the direction you wish is addicting.

When I go to make a knife or hook, I typically have a general design in my head of what I want to make that acts as my overall vision for the result. While hammering, there is an element of chaos that provides inspiration and alterations to my original design. A drop point knife might slowly become a more exotic knife shape just because the metal moves in a certain way. It is the same idea as Bob Ross's "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents."

With the specialization that we find in application development, this natural feedback loop gets cut-short. Designers design and don't have a significant role in the development or making of the application. Many front-end engineers build to design specs and don't have a feel for the essence of the design. That ability to quickly and naturally adapt gets stunted and becomes mechanical we lose the artisanship in building applications that are useful to real people.

Not having instant feedback and the ability to make changes on the fly causes churn in a project. For example, I have often seen front-end developers spending hours getting details to line up in the exact way the UX designer has in a mockup yet the designer might not value those details in the design and would consider another much easier option just as valid or potentially better. The reverse can also be true, UX designers who don't understand how data flows from the back-end to the front-end can struggle understanding technical constraints and as a result, be continually making design changes causing project delays.

I write all of this to encourage anyone in the software development field to learn about the holistic process and not limit yourself to one specialization. Grow and expand your skills beyond design, engineering, or product management. Don't have the mentality of "that's not my job" because at the end of the day we are all makers working together to create something useful to other people.

I don't see application development becoming less complicated any time soon, so there needs to be specialization in the field. However, don't let your self get comfortable in that single aspect but instead strive to grasp the larger picture of what you are making.

UX needs to speak Development

First things first this is not an article about how UX professionals should learn to code (while I do agree with that statement). The field of UX is growing not just in the number of people, but the scope of work that falls under the UX umbrella. UX principles are everywhere you can find a bunch here ( However, the field of computer science has a few principles that would be beneficial to learn and apply to UX. 

DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) - This is a foundational principle in software development and it's very straight forward. Don't do something twice, if you can do it once. This principle very much applies to design in today's landscape. UX designers should focus on creating design system rather than creating "screens." We should be spending time building pattern libraries that allow us to iterate quickly. Design systems and pattern libraries do more than just saving time; They also help increase consistency in our designs and give us more flexibility in making changes. I recommend reading up on design systems like Atomic Design by Brad Forst.

UX creates many kinds of assets using traditional prototyping tools like Axure, Sketch, and Adobe XD all leverage reusable symbols. If your building a button, icon, or panel that gets reused make it a symbol so that can be referenced and edited in one place. Put thought into how you are going to build a prototype and make use of symbols, so your workflow is efficient. 

Continuous Integration - Continuous Integration is a little bit more software development specific, but the idea of sharing and managing code or in our case asset files has overlap. Have you ever worked with at creative or UX team that shares a network drive? It is full of design files like "" now that I mention it I bet your working directory has the same kind of the mess. UX needs more tools to help with file versioning especially with teams. There are a few tools out there like Folio, Dropbox, or Github but all these tend to leave out features and feel like a band-aid rather than solving the problem. Until we have tools that help with managing files and versioning creating and enforcing a naming convention standard can help. Adobe XD shared its vision for versioning in their 2016 MAX presentation that looks like a step in the right direction.

KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!) - Okay, so this isn't specifically a computer science principle; however, it can be beneficial. Reminding ourselves to keep things simple is valuable. I was recently working on a project with a progress indicator, and there was an edge case that would require us to move the user backward in the process. That didn't feel right to anyone on the team. When we stop trying to add something to solve the problem, it was evident we could leave the user on the same step and just inform them of a delay instead of moving their progress backward. Instead of creating complex solutions, the best solutions are simple, and we just need to reframe the problem. 

The KISS principle also applies to how we work, not just the solutions we create. There is value in a robust UX process, but not everything requires every step. It is often much easier start building a high fidelity prototype quickly in Sketch or XD to help clarify problems and to give a catalyst for reactions and feedback. Other times more research and discovery are needed to attack the problem. UX is getting more and more tools specifically for UX design, so it is important we keep it simple and use the right tools for the job at hand. 

In conclusion, UX designers work with developers, and we can learn to form each other. Software development has discovered many practical principles especially in the rise of Agile Methodology we would be missing out to ignore these and live in our silos. 

Connecting the Dots — A Solution to Modern Business Complexity

Jacks of All Business Models…

Straightforward business models are becoming antiquated. Over the years, there has been a trend for companies to diversify and multiply their business models in an attempt to up their profits. After all, it’s only logical that diversifying would allow a company to reach a broader market, and therefore reach more paying customers.

But there’s a problem. Having multiple business models can severely limit each one because a company can’t focus on everything at once. Their brand message suffers from a lack of clarity to the market, and their overall growth suffers because each pillar of the business isn’t getting the leadership, time, and vision it needs. In short, they do an average job at seven different things rather than an excellent job at one or two things.

But Everyone Is Doing It!

I see this happening at large-scale tech companies like Google, and Apple. Google has created so many branches that they had to create the parent company Alphabet to house all their brands. Of course Apple has always been a bit different as a branded house by keeping everything under their main brand. However, if the rumors of the new Apple car are true then their product portfolio is growing far beyond computers, software, and devices.

After so many years, this is no longer limited to the huge tech brands. We are seeing it more often in startups and other small-to-medium businesses as well. One such example is Slack, a successful business communication tool that was originally developed for internal communications in a not-so-successful digital game development company. When Stewart Butterfield saw its value he brilliantly transitioned the tool to the market, transforming his company into a popular business communications developer.

Moving Beyond Mere Innovation

I see this trend as a result of an increasingly-connected world of ecosystems. A phone is no longer just for voice communications, and cars are evolving beyond simple transportation. As the boundaries of technology are pushed, everything and everyone become increasingly more connected. Fueling the IoT, Big Data, and other emergent technologies has allowed companies to discover that they don’t have to play in their own sandbox anymore. Today there are opportunities in the connections just as much as the innovations.

This is producing a new problem for companies: how do you stay focused without limiting your potential? As I said earlier, it’s crucial not to muddy the focus of your brand. Yet at the same time you want to take advantage of any opportunities that arise. I believe companies can do both as long as they have a strategic approach, but it will require an intentional investment.

Connecting the Dots

The more complex a system or business gets, the more a strategic investment is needed. It’s a simple idea, but like most simple ideas it often gets overlooked as we get comfortable with the status quo. People will often get in a rut, throwing the same solutions at a project because it’s what they’ve always done. However, with without investing any time into their strategy they often end up with a lot of wasted hours with very little result.

For example, consider a fast-paced development process such as Agile. A small team can take on a straight-forward, isolated problem with an Agile process and create some very impressive results. However, what if that same team is given a complex problem with an ecosystem of solutions to address? Without increasing the strategic investment to match the problem’s complexity, project managers will usually just add more Agile teams and end up with nothing but a pile of disconnected features and solutions.

As children we were thrilled to be handed a dot-to-dot puzzle. We were given a page with a bunch of dots and challenged to create a line drawing, but could only succeed by connecting them in the right order. Developing strategies for solving problems driven by a complex ecosystem can be very similar — the puzzles may have changed, but the game remains the same.

See Your Page of Dots

This could be your current brand’s product line, a group of brands, or just feature sets within a product. Whatever it is, getting a holistic view is essential to creating a winning strategy. Looking at a problem in individual chunks only allows you to create individual strategies that won’t come together to form a fully-connected solution. It’s important to understand each “dot,” but it’s equally important to get a full view of the problem to create a full solution.

Find the Starting Dot

Unlike those childhood puzzles, you won’t have a defined starting place. There isn’t a single way to find that first dot, but there will always be one to find– some may find what holds the parts of their problem together, while others may look for the least common denominator. However, it’s important to remember to keep a holistic view while searching for that starting point.

For example, how might Apple connect a car to the rest of their product line? Unlike most car manufactures, Apple needs to look beyond designing a car to get the driver to a destination. They need to create a connected experience, turning the car into a place of productivity and entertainment. With that holistic view, their starting dot could be finding ways to innovatively connect their existing productivity and entertainment products to the car, creating a unique experience that no other car can offer.

Envision the Complete Picture

Randomly connecting dots will never solve the puzzle correctly. It’s critical to see the signal through the noise, and the shape in the shapeless. This is where creativity and out-of-the-box thinking will really start to shine.

Even if you can’t see the fully-detailed picture by staring at the individual dots, you need a vision and plan to get there. This is especially true when you’re a part of a team, as a vision will allow everyone to draw lines in the same direction. The best way to create a vision for the team is to set parameters for your expectations. You can do this by…

· Creating sketches, maps, prototypes, and other visualizations

· Giving a breakdown of how you plan to achieve the vision

· Developing milestones

· Setting KPIs

In short, you are defining success for your team.

Take Action and Reevaluate

“The hardest part of a journey is taking the first step.” Theory and planning can take you far, but the puzzle is never truly solved until you put a pencil to the paper. Take that first step and start working towards a milestone, but don’t be surprised when the initial vision of the solution doesn’t match the final product. That’s why it’s important to reevaluate in tandem with taking action.

As you start working on the problem, get in the habit of regularly stepping back to get a holistic picture. Our “dots” don’t always stay still, and the needs and priorities of the project may shift. Without taking time to reevaluate the landscape you may end up spending resources to solve a problem that is no longer relevant.

Wrapping It Up

In most contexts, “strategy” is a very vague term that has lost its value. “We need more strategy!” What does that even mean? We’ve used the term so often that it’s lost its importance. For these closing remarks, let’s define it as “Take a step back to evaluate all the moving parts, form a hypothesis on how to improve the system, take action, and test the results. Then repeat.”

Businesses are complex systems that need strategy, now more than ever. Our world is becoming increasingly connected as industries merge together and lines are blurred. This is the defining moment for many companies as they try to balance capitalizing on unique circumstances without overextending themselves.

Companies who want to rush forward without investing in strategic approaches will quickly find themselves tangled in the complexity of this new market. But those companies that invest in strategic approaches, who “connect the dots,” will find themselves at the forefront of innovation and success. They will be the ones who solve the puzzle and win the game.