Creating a designer & developer workflow end to end.


When I was at Microsoft we had one mission really with the whole Silverlight & WPF platform(s) – create a developer & designer workflow that keeps both parties working productively. It was a mission that i look back on even to this day with annoyance, because we never even came close to scratching the surface of that potential. Today, the problem still even with Adobe and Microsoft competitive battles in peace-time hasn’t actually been solved – if anything it kind of got slightly compounded or fragmented more so.

Absorbing the failure and having to take a defensive posture over the past five years around how one manages to inject design into a code-base in the most minimal way possible, I’ve sort of settled into a pipeline of design that may hint at the potential of a solution (i say hint..).

The core problem.

Ever since I think 2004, I’ve never been able to get a stable process in place that enables a designer and developer to share & communicate their intended ideas in a way that ends up in production. Sure they end up something of a higher quality state but it was never really what they originally set out to build, it was simply a end result of compromises both technically and visually.

Today, its kind of still there lingering. I can come up with a design that works on all platforms and browsers but unless i sit inside the developer enclosure and curate my design through their agile process in a concentrated pixel for pixel way, it just simply ends up getting slightly mutated or off target.

The symptoms.

A common issue in the process happens soon after the design in either static form or in prototype form gets handed off to the developer or delivery team. They look at the design, dissect it in their minds back to whatever code base they are working on and start to iterate on transforming it from this piece of artwork into actual living interactive experience.

The less prescriptive I am in the design (discovery phase) the less likely i’ll end up with a result that fits the way i had initially imagined it to begin with. Given most teams are also in an Agile way of life the idea that I have time or luxury of doing a “big up front” design rarely ever presents itself these days. Instead the ask is to be iterative and to design in chunking formations with the hope that once i’ve done my part its handed off to delivery and then it will come out unscathed, on time and without regression built in.

Nope. I end up the designer paying the tax bill on compromise, i’m the guy usually sacrificing design quality in lieu of “complexity” or “time” derived excuses.

I can sit here as most UX`ers typically do and wave my fist at “You don’t get us UI and UX people” or argue about “You need to be around the right people” all i want but in truth this is a formula that gets repeated throughout the world. It’s actually the very reason why ASP.NET MVC, WPF and Silverlight exist really – how do we keep the designer and developer separated in the hope they can come together more cleanly in design & development.

The actual root cause for this entire issue is right back at the tooling stage. The talent is there, the optimism is there but when you have two sets of tooling philosophies all trying to do similar or close to similar things it tends to kind of breed this area of stupidity. If for example i’m in Photoshop drawing a button on canvas and using a font to do so, well at the back my mind i realise that the chances of that font displaying on that button within a browser is less likely to happen then inside the tool – so i make compromises.

If i’m using a grid setting that doesn’t match the CSS framework i’m working with, well, guess what one of us is about to have a bad day when it comes to the designer & developer convergence.

If i’m using 8px padding for my According Panel headers in WPF and the designs outside that aren’t sharing the same constancy – well, again, someone’s in for a bad day.

It’s all about grids.

Obviously when you design these days a grid is used to help figure out portion allocation(s) but the thing is unless the tooling from design to development all share the same settings or agreed settings then you open yourself up from the outset to failure. If my grid is 32×32 and your CSS grid uses 30% and we get into the design hand over, well, someone in that discussion has to give up some ground to make it work (“lets just stretch that control” or “nope its fixed, just align it left…” etc start to arise).

Using a grid even at the wireframing stage can even tease out the right attitude as you’re all thinking in terms of portion and sizing weights (t-shirt size everything). The wireframes should never be 1:1 pixel ready or whatever unit of measure you choose, they are simply there to give a “sense” of what this thing could look like, but it won’t hurt to at least use a similar grid pattern.

T-shirt size it all.

Once you settle on a grid setting (column, gutters and N number of columns) you then have to really reduce the complexity back to simplicity in design. Creating T-shirt sizes (small, medium, large etc) isn’t a new concept but have you even considered making that happen for spacing, padding, fonts, buttons, textinputs, icons etc etc.

Keeping things simple and being able to say to a developer “Actually try using a medium button there when we get to that resolution” is at the very least a vocabulary that you can all converse in and understand. Having the ability to say “well, maybe use small spacing between those two controls” is not a guessing game, its a simple instruction that empowers the designer to make an after-design adjustment whilst at the same time not causing code-headaches for the developer.

Color Palettes aren’t RGB or Hex.

Simplicity in the language doesn’t end with T-shirt sizing it also has to happen with the way we use colors. Naming colors like ClrPrimaryNormal, ClrPrimaryDark, ClrPrimaryDarker, ClrSecondaryNormal etc help reduce the dependency of getting bogged down into color specifics whilst at the same time giving the same adjustment potential as the T-shirt sizes had as well – “try using ClrBrandingDarker instead of ClrBrandingLight”. If the developer is also color blind as in no they are actually colorblind, this instruction also helps as well.

Tools need to be the answer.

Once you sort the typography sizing, color palette and grid settings well you’re now on your way to having a slight chance of coming out of this design pipeline unscathed but the problem hasn’t still been solved. All we have done really is created a “virtual” agreement between how we work and operate but nothing really reinforces this behavior and the tools still aren’t being nice with one another as much as they could be.

If i do a design in say Adobe tools I can upload them to their creative cloud quite quickly or maybe even dropbox if have it embedded into my OS. However my developer team uses Visual Studio’s way of life so now i’m at this DMZ style area of annoyance. On one hand i’m very keep to give the development team assets they need to have but at the same time i don’t want to share my source files and much the same way they have with code. We need to figure out a solution here that ticks each others boxes as sure i can make them come to my front door – cloud or dropbox. That will work i guess, but they are using github soon so i guess do i install some command line terminal solution that lets me “Push” artwork files into this developer world?

There is no real “bridge” and yet these two set of tools has been the dogma of a lot teams lives of the better part of 10 years, still no real bridge other then copy & paste files one by one.

For instance if you were to use the aforementioned workflow and you realize at the CSS end that the padding pixels won’t work then how do you ensure everyone see’s the latest version of the design(s)? it realises heavily on your own backwater bridge process.

My point is this – for the better part of 10 years i’ve been working hard to find a solution for this developer / designer workflow. I’ve been in the trenches, i’ve been in the strategy meetings and i’ve even been the guy evangelizing  but i’m still baffled as to how I can see this clear linear workflow but the might of Adobe, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Sun just can’t seem to get past the developer focused approach.

Developers aren’t ready for design because the tools assume the developer will teach the designer how to work with them. The designer won’t go to the developer tools because simply put they have low tolerance for solutions that have an overburden of cognitive load mixed with shitty experiences.

5 years ago had we made Blend an intuitive experience that built a bridge between us and Adobe we’d probably be in a different discussion about day to day development. Instead we competed head-on and sent the entire developer/designer workflow backwards as to this day i still see no signs of recovery.

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  • Mike Hunt

    Interesting thoughts about software development problems.

    If those problems you mention aren’t enough, as you know another issue is software platform company strategies. Until they all get along and seek common ground in frameworks, languages, server services and development environments as well as listen and deliver for application software companies, we will have these problems trying to build cool stuff.

    Another view I think about is we will have the same development workflow issues until one company becomes dominate to where everyone picks that companies platform. Then that company offers a tool-set that is a kick ass bundle of functional applications to build things and said bundle includes worthy documentation.

    As a former MS employee of 11 years in Windows engineering (Win98 to early Win8), I hope it is MS that pulls ahead and fixes these problems.

    At the same time I like apples documentation, style and quality (at the hw level too). I think Apples money making strategy “feels” better as I think it was (is?) targeted to offering consumers a compelling product we want to pay for. Much different th
    an embrace, extend, extinguish and many cut-throat tactics without the consumers best interest in mind.

    I think the problem we have of taking a concept and delivering on it for multiple platforms (apple, google, ms. pick more than 1) is also about communication as you mentioned. Being able to communicate clearly with vastly different walks of life that work as a team to deliver on a product. As you know, “listening” is a communication fundamental 🙂