Designers, meet developers: The secret to keeping a development project on the rails

If there's one thing that will knock a development project off track, then it's a communication breakdown between developers and designers - but it's not an intractable problem.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

When Jarek Potiuk started at Poland's Polidea five and a half years ago, it was still a pretty traditional mobile services development company. A team of designers would draft a project, and then developers such as Potiuk would be tasked with building it. It didn't always work out.

"We had one project on photo sharing, which we were developing for a very long time," he recalls. "The design was done twice during the project, and there was even a change of designers that took place. It wasn't even clear what the project really wanted to accomplish. It ended up taking over a year to complete, and the 'time to market' window closed for it. We didn't even know why the redesign was done; we basically started from scratch."

After that experience, Potiuk started to rethink the way projects should be kicked off, and now a Polidea project looks very different.

Mixed teams of both developers and designers now tackle projects together from the moment the very first talks start with clients. "For example, I'm working on a project right now with a team of two designers and four developers," Magdalena Zadara, a UI designer at the company, says. "From the very beginning, we set up the project together, and there's always a designer and a developer present during talks with the client. We discuss functionality, what the product should be, and what its goals are.

"That way, it's also easier to prioritise when you have a tech crunch, because everyone has a better understanding of what the main function of an application has to be."

While working in such a way sounds natural on paper, it breaks with tradition in software development. Both Potiuk and Zadara had to come up with a way to make it work from scratch.

"Poland has a very strong reputation when it comes to developers and programmers," Potiuk says. "But many programmers don't think about the user. It wasn't common for them to learn about design during their studies or at work."

The opposite is true as well. "If you're a designer, you think about the product as a whole and try to get the best and easiest experience for the user, which is not necessarily translated into the best and most efficient software," Zadara says.

"Sometimes a feature that seems to be very straightforward to me can be much more complex from a development point of view. I could go to a developer to say, 'We need to add location based search', with the developer saying it will slow down the application and the implementation will take a long time. You need to learn to trust them that they are making the correct call sometimes."

But even while this new way of working is only slowly taking hold, Potiuk sees the trend spreading, and not just in Poland. Polidea has even modified its yearly international Mobile Central Europe conference in Warsaw, which started out as a 'by developers, for developers' mobile event, to be aimed more at both sides of the divide.

During the most recent event last month, presentations were as equally focused on technical aspects as on project management and design aspects.

It also means that those in the creative fields get new IT-fuelled opportunities, says Daniel Mizielinski, owner of Hipopotam Studio and a lecturer at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.

A self-taught coder, he now teaches programming to art students and sees a growing enthusiasm there.

"Programming offers a great field of experimentation for them, as the possibilities are endless," he says. The first wave of interest came in website design, but the interest is gradually shifting to more advanced forms of coding. "From around 2005 until around 2010, most students were mostly interested in building web applications. That's now switched towards mobile applications."

He points out it can be a relatively low-risk way of working. "If someone who loves to cook opens a restaurant, he or she takes a big risk in the form of loans and investments. If the restaurant fails, there is a debt problem," he says. "With app development, they can just work on it how they see fit during their free time. If it's successful, they can make some money then, maybe getting their time investment back. Better yet, they can put it on the world market."

Still, there are some hurdles to overcome. Mizielinski says that many students are still afraid to learn programming, so rather than spending time on acquainting them with theory, he throws them in at the deep end instead.

For more complex projects, he also advocates collaboration with specialists from both fields right from the start. "When different branches are working independently on the same project, it always looks as if someone has brought in this half-baked product which another team is supposed to get working."

Also, the collaboration is not something that is easy in practice, Polidea's Zadara points out. "The mindsets are very different, so it is not always easy to communicate smoothly. In a mixed team, you don't have the comfort that everyone is thinking in the same way, so you need to be more open."

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