Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Innovation through Implicit Design

Ben Johnson, SVP, Digital Products
Innovation / Strategy

This blog was co-authored by Jay Clark, Lead iOS Engineer and Dave Counts, Associate Creative Director. Drawing credit: Dave Counts. 


It’s often said that designers are from Mars and developers are from Venus. They think differently, have different priorities, and approach problems from completely different angles.  And yet, product success requires a close and (mostly) harmonious collaboration between design and technology. So, how do you get from living on two different planets to speaking the same language?

The secret to creating a truly collaborative partnership between technology and design is actually all about harnessing the tension that exists naturally between these two groups. Rather than trying to get either group to behave more like the other, the goal is to help each function understand the other one better, and then figure out a design/development strategy and integrates their distinct processes. You want to create plenty of opportunities for each group to push the other’s boundaries while also acting as a system of reciprocal checks and balances. 

In other words, you want to create a process that allows you to tap into the expertise and strengths of both groups at every step in the process rather than having either group drive things at any one point. 

Let’s Talk About Tension
 Natural tension between design and technology.

Tension is usually associated with conflict, but when you’re talking about software development, not all tension is bad. In fact, some tension is necessary. When tension is channeled in a positive way, it looks less like a bar brawl and more like a sophisticated support system.  

Imagine that design and development are two opposing forces with product suspended between them, kind of like a hammock. Their efforts to pull the project in two different directions actually serves to lift the product up, elevating its quality. The constraints applied by each group—including product—shape the product into its ultimate form. 

Designer and technology working together

But, like in any relationship, creating positive tension isn’t about just pulling toward your own ends. It’s a give and take—a back and forth. It requires that the design and development teams are willing to expand their understanding of the other’s function—how they think, how they work, their strengths and weaknesses— so that each function can play a complementary role that both pushes boundaries and also reins the other in when necessary. 

The gap between technology and design is pretty wide. Developers tend to deal in absolute terms, lower-level implementation details, and pure functionality while designers are more focused on the overall experience, the “personality” of the product, and how to create unique elements that will differentiate the product in the market. 

The way to close the gap so you can reach a solution in the middle is to ensure constant collaboration throughout your design and development process. 

Working Hand in Hand Every Step of the Way

To get to the implicit design—the design that naturally makes sense and is the product of a marriage between design and tech—requires creating a lot of touch points that span the overall process from start to finish. As an example, here’s an overview of a simplified software lifecycle:


When you’re beginning a new project, it’s crucial to have everyone in the room. You need to get buy in across the board, so everyone who is going to contribute needs a seat at the table. This is also the appropriate time to surface all project constraints (budget, team size, ship dates, goals, etc.) so that you can collectively keep the process grounded and actionable. 

Which function takes point in this meeting might shift depending on the specific constraints. For instance, if you have a client with a super tight deadline, you may want to have the development team lead the meeting because they will be closest to the project elements that will drive the timeline. 

At the end of the kickoff, your goal is to have everyone clear on the plan and rowing in the same direction. 

Foundation Meeting

Sometimes called the architectural or scaffolding meeting, this is a key milestone that encompasses the informational architecture (IA) diagram and wireframes. We also use After Effects at this stage to show the interaction patterns that we have planned. 

This is, after the kickoff, the first big opportunity for design and technology to huddle up and review progress. At this point, a big part of development’s role is to carefully vet the design for feasibility within the project constraints. This point is also an important opportunity to surface questions that need to go back to the client. 

As with every other stage, investing the time and effort to do all your due diligence at this IA stage will help you avoid crisis further down the line. The goal is to catch any potential issues early on so that you can deal with them proactively rather than trying to reengineer things at the last minute.


As you move into your development process—Agile or another approach—you still need to ensure direct and consistent collaboration between the design and technology teams. While there may be a shift in which team is leading the charge at any given point in the process, it’s always critical to keep everyone looped in and actively participating. 

During sprints, we’re in what we call the refinement stage, during which we surface problems as a cross-functional team. Having everyone in the room means that we have real-time access to everyone’s expertise and can apply all our knowledge to any issues that arise. Often, there are solutions one team can offer that the other team isn’t even aware of. 

This is also another opportunity for some healthy push back and digging into the weeds. For instance, while designers tend to focus on the “happy path,” there are many other elements that need to be considered like different screen sizes, multiple languages, and empty states. The refinement process is an opportunity to address all those variables. 

To encourage and facilitate an ongoing conversation between design and development at this and all stages, it’s a good idea to sit your product teams together. Having them in close physical proximity goes a long way toward establishing a consistent dialog that will benefit the project outcomes.

Usability Testing

Finally, having your teams remain in lockstep throughout user testing will ensure that everyone is on hand to address any late-process surprises (and there usually are a few of those). It can be a painful process, but it’s always a fruitful one. And, as a bonus, the usability test is the ultimate arbiter of the tension between design and technology. It helps you cut through everything to get at the truth pretty quickly. 

Bringing It All Together

So, remember, creative tension is nothing to fear. In fact, it can be a powerful fuel for product success if you know how to use it to your advantage. Great products require a harmonious union between design and technology, and that’s not an impossible thing to achieve. Even though these two functions live at opposite ends of the spectrum, there are smart and effective ways to bring them together for the good of your projects, your products, and your customers. 

If you’d like to hear more about how to encourage and manage close, frequent collaboration between these two disciplines, we invite you to check out the Vimeo recording of the webinar that inspired this post. Finally, as always, if you’d like to learn more about Rightpoint’s digital capabilities and how we can help you drive innovation in your world, we’re always here to talk.