Designing *with* developers

Today, Joel Spolsky blogged about development process and design. He makes a couple of points I agree with. As an example, he says that developers don’t know how to do everything. He says it first by describing his lack of skills in an early job at Microsoft, and later by describing the lack of skills in very experienced developers:

Joel SpolskyYour garden-variety super-smart programmer is going to come up with a completely baffling user interface that makes perfect sense IF YOU’RE A VULCAN (cf. git). The best programmers are notoriously brilliant, and have some trouble imagining what it must be like not to be able to memorize 16 one-letter command line arguments. These programmers then have a tendency to get attached to their first ideas, especially when they’ve already written the code.

At this point, reading Spolsky’s blog, I’m like the eager school kid with his hand up: “Oh, oh, I know the answer!” Five Sketches™ was specifically developed to prevent the people-attached-to-their-first-ideas problem and to ensure collaboration between developers and other members of the team.

Software products are developed by teams, but, as Spolsky goes on to say—about developers—some team members have more power those who work alongside them, because developers control the code. He tells this story:

Joel Spolsky       A programmer asks me to intervene in some debate he is having with a [non-developer peer; in this story it’s a Program Manager who performs a design function].
       “Who is going to write the code?” I asked.
       “I am….”
       “OK, who checks things into source control?”
       “Me, I guess, ….”
       “So what’s the problem, exactly?” I asked. “You have absolute control over the state of each and every bit in the final product. What else do you need? A tiara?”

Spolsky’s solution is to rely on the ability of others [in this case, the Program Manager] to convince the developer to make necessary changes. But requiring stakeholders and colleagues to engage in persuasion is risky; the variables include not only technical skill and experience, but also credibility, and rhetoric, persuasion, and interpersonal communication skills of both parties.

I recall when we first developed our ideation-design process, on an interdisciplinary team. We had Sharon to debrief each of us, to find out what had worked and what hadn’t, and then we addressed the shortcomings and frustrations in the process. This is how we developed Five Sketches™. And this is why it works … with developers … and with people from QA, Marketing, Tech-Comm, and so on.

By the way, you can read Joel Spolsky’s entire blog post here.