Designers Share the Keys to Closer Collaboration With Product and Engineering

Advice on how to break down silos and get involved earlier in the product development process.
Written by Michael Hines
May 24, 2023Updated: May 24, 2023

“Begin by throwing out the idea that UX is a siloed discipline.” 

This is Derek Becker’s first piece of advice for UX designers who want to improve collaboration with their counterparts in product and engineering. Becker is the art director at MobilityWare, a mobile gaming company that sees UX design as the blueprint for its production process. Under this approach, designers have an important role to play early in the product development process, one that breaks down the silo that can develop around their discipline: It has them working closely with their partners in product and engineering from the get-go.

If designers aren’t involved in the product-development process early on, design risks can easily become an afterthought. Dara Kordulak, director of creative services at Sure, has experienced this at previous stops in her career and notes that it creates problems across teams.

“We became a ‘catchall’ for last-minute requests or oversights,” Kordulak said. “It was on us to quickly change designs and, as a result, ultimately create tech debt for the engineering team.”

Getting design involved early in the product development process helps create a stronger working relationship with product and engineering. Rabih Shasha, user experience design manager at Thrive Market, notes that this can also help serve the needs of UX designers, too.

“By working together, we can advance the needs of UX design while respecting the priorities and considerations of other stakeholders,” Shasha said.

This trio of designers has more than 30 years of experience combined and offered their expertise to Built In Los Angeles on what it takes to make collaboration with product and engineering click.

 

MobilityWare is the studio behind mobile gaming’s most popular Solitaire game, among others. With over 450 million downloads across its product portfolio, the Orange County-based publisher is dedicated to its mission of bringing joy to others, one game at a time.

 

How do you collaborate with product and engineering on a daily basis? Why is that collaboration necessary?

Designing content with mobile device limitations and variation is always a give-and-take with the engineering team. Not only do we have to design for new device specs to make sure we push their visual capabilities, we also need to keep our audience in mind and the minimum spec we are willing to support. It’s always a moving target. We also need to consider device ratio, device orientation and app package size. Creating UX and UI that keeps all these factors in mind is essential to creating a seamless user experience. We plan for all of these factors with the engineering team by developing content that can be responsive and flexible.

At MobilityWare, we have regular playtests at every stage of development. On-device testing is a huge part of making sure the project is moving forward and that everyone is empowered to make suggestions and improvements, even if they’re outside of their area of expertise. The technical artist along with the engineering team work tirelessly to update the content for review, and their hard work allows UX and UI artists to quickly gain insights on visual flow improvements and bugs that could be otherwise missed.


How do you advance the needs of UX design while also respecting the priorities and considerations of product and engineering?

It is easy to get caught in the trap of trying to put everything into one feature, but the reality is that your players and your engineers will appreciate a UX solution that features tried-and-true techniques. Reinventing the UX wheel in this case is not always a good thing.

I remember one time when the designers were pushing for a radial selection hub on a casual mobile title. As a team, we had never set up this type of interaction before and it was rarely used for our audience in this game category. Not only would it have had a longer dev cycle, but it would have created additional bugs and taken longer to teach the players new habits. 

It’s the toaster principle: You can redesign the look and method to make toast but is it worth it if it still just makes toast? People see a traditional toaster and immediately understand how it works. The same principle applies to UX/ UI design; UX is there to make interaction easier for the player and, in some cases, for the development team as well.

 

What tips would you share with fellow UX design leaders to strengthen their collaborative relationship with product and engineering teams?

Begin by throwing out the idea that UX is a siloed discipline. Every game development team has specialties, but when someone develops content in a bubble it can be harmful to the team and the product. UX development is a discipline that affects all other aspects of production. It’s a blueprint, and like a blueprint for a building, if aspects are missed or not thoroughly vetted they can have large impacts on the rest of the team, especially engineering. Get input from engineers early in the UX process to identify any development red flags and possible production improvements. It also improves morale by breaking the waterfall mindset and creating a more agile, team approach to feature development. 

Get input from engineers early in the UX process to identify any development red flags and possible production improvements.”

 

My other tip is to be flexible with your solution and understand change is part of game development. I’ve never seen a UX solution go from conception to release without some learning or changes along the way. Working with engineers to get early builds helps speed up the process and reduce last-minute changes. Building a framework for early builds is crucial to the success of any title and is a tool that greatly improves the likelihood of product success as it moves through the stages of development.

 

 

Dara Kordulak
Director of Creative Services

Sure is an insurtech company whose SaaS technology helps insurers bring their operations — from selling policies to servicing them and handling claims — into the digital age.

 

How do you collaborate with product and engineering on a daily basis? Why is that collaboration necessary?

Our product and engineering teams are encouraged to have an open-door policy as far as work and collaboration goes. We support the value of open communication via regularly scheduled standups, backlog refinements and specific channels in Slack. Prioritizing conversations in public Slack channels helps for posterity, brings visibility to any questions or issues that may come up, and allows for different members of the team to jump in and help to provide a solution.

We support open communication ... conversations in public Slack channels helps for posterity, visibility and allows different members of the team to jump in.”


How do you advance the needs of UX design while also respecting the priorities and considerations of product and engineering?

What helps us most is bringing design into the conversation early in the project lifecycle. Often, or at least at my previous companies, design was the last stop in the road before development. We became a “catchall” for last-minute requests or oversights. It was on us to quickly change designs and, as a result, ultimately create tech debt for the engineering team. At Sure, we have goal-setting and scoping conversations earlier on during kickoffs to better assess the items that may be problematic, and we try to work out any kinks ahead of time to prevent misalignment further down the road.

 

Please share an example of successful collaboration between your company’s design team and product and engineering. What made the collaboration work well?

We recently paired with project managers and engineers to learn about pain points specifically related to our Figma files and how designs are delivered. We sent out a Notion doc with a database that allowed the entire team to add items about anything, from issues with copy updates to needing more annotations within certain Figma screens. Opening up the conversation and showing the engineers that we wanted to optimize our files and process for them led to some great conversations. It resulted in us refactoring a lot of our files and documentation to help fill in the gaps where needed; not to mention, it helped us create a more meaningful and efficient way to work together.

 

 

Rabih Shasha
User Experience Designer Manager

Thrive Market is a membership-based subscription service for organic and sustainable groceries, cleaning products, supplements and more.

 

How do you collaborate with product and engineering on a daily basis? Why is that collaboration necessary?

Collaboration between UX designers, product managers and engineering teams is crucial to creating a successful product. I break collaboration down into four parts:

  1. First, there is early involvement in product ideation. As a UX team, we work closely with product managers and engineering during the ideation phase. We contribute to user research, interviews, surveys and usability testing to help shape the product concept and define user requirements. This ensures user needs and goals are considered from the outset, leading to a more user-centered product.
  2. Second is designing, wireframing and prototyping. Collaboration with product managers helps to align the product vision and collaboration with engineering teams ensures technical feasibility. Regular design reviews and feedback sessions with product and engineering stakeholders help communicate design concepts and interactions, refine the design and address any constraints or challenges.
  3. Third is development, testing and iterating. Continuous communication and collaboration are necessary to address and find feasible solutions to design-implementation discrepancies and technical limitations. We work closely with engineering throughout the development process and collaborate on the design handoff, providing detailed design specifications, assets and guidelines to ensure accurate implementation of the user interface. As a feature or product goes live, our role shifts to observing and gathering feedback on the success metrics of a feature. We work to identify usability issues, prioritize fixes and implement necessary changes.
  4. Finally there is the design system and component libraries. Developing and maintaining a design system or component library ensures consistent implementation of design patterns, UI components and styles across the product. It also helps streamline the design-to-development handoff process and accelerates the development of new features.


How do you advance the needs of UX design while also respecting the priorities and considerations of product and engineering?

This is an ongoing process that requires building relationships, effective communication, mutual respect and a shared understanding of the project goals. By working together, we can advance the needs of UX design while respecting the priorities and considerations of other stakeholders.

It’s important to educate all teams about the value and impact of UX design on user satisfaction, engagement and business success. Case studies, research findings and data can demonstrate how good UX design can lead to better user experiences, increased conversions and customer loyalty. By advocating for UX design, we build awareness and support for incorporating user-centered principles into the product development process.

It’s important to educate all teams about the value and impact of UX design on user satisfaction, engagement and business success.”

 

Encouraging and involving product and engineering in the design process is important, too, and could include inviting them to user research sessions, design workshops and usability testing sessions. The aim is for them to gain first-hand exposure to user needs, pain points and design decisions. This shared experience helps build empathy and understanding, allowing all teams to make more informed decisions that align with UX goals.

Also, transparent communication facilitates trust and is an ironclad approach to understanding and evaluating all perspectives. Tools like regularly scheduled meetings, design reviews, collaborative moshpits and two-way feedback sessions act as guideposts for addressing conflicts or misalignments. Listening to the concerns and ideas of product and engineering and providing rationale and user-centered arguments are vital to supporting our design recommendations.

Finally, find compromise and seek win-win solutions. Understanding the concerns of product and engineering teams and proposing alternative design approaches that meet user needs and technical requirements will lead to a better balance of user experience, business goals and technical feasibility.

 

What tips would you share with fellow UX design leaders to strengthen their collaborative relationship with product and engineering teams?

Building solid, collaborative relationships takes time and effort. Establishing shared goals and values is important. Having a clear understanding of the desired outcomes and a shared commitment to delivering a great user experience strengthens collaboration. Identify common ground between UX design, product and engineering to create a sense of shared ownership and purpose.

Involving product and engineering in the UX design process from the beginning is also essential. Collaborate on user research activities, brainstorming sessions and design reviews. Engage them in the decision-making process. Early involvement helps build a shared understanding of user needs, promotes a sense of ownership and reduces the likelihood of misalignment later in the project.

Providing resources, support and promoting a culture of continuous learning is important, too. Ensure that product and engineering have the necessary resources and support to collaborate effectively with UX designers. This could include providing access to design tools, training on UX principles or opportunities for professional development. Support their efforts by being available for guidance and feedback and empower them to contribute to the UX design process.

Finally, lead by example. As a UX design leader, exemplify the collaborative behavior you expect from others. Be approachable, open to feedback and seek collaboration opportunities. Demonstrate a willingness to compromise, actively listen and appreciate diverse perspectives.

 

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