Understanding your medium
“The UI is not just an interface between the browser and a human, it’s an interface between a human and a database. You can’t have an interface unless you can connect to both things. If you don’t know how your interface connects to a database, what are you interfacing to?
Ryan Singer – in an interview at Future of Web Apps London 2010
I’m a web developer. I’m not a designer. I can line things up and I don’t think I have terrible taste, but my brain is wired in such a way that I get my kicks from code and databases rather than colour and typography. While I have endless patience to learn a new programming language, an hour in Adobe Illustrator is enough to have me ready to hurl my Mac out of the nearest window.
That said, I’m a web developer, producing things for humans to use and interact with. As such the whole product – be that a simple site, an application or some web based software has to matter to me, if I’m to do my job right. So I’ve made it my business to make sure I have some understanding of basic design principles, to be able to understand where designers I am working with are coming from and also be able to make sensible decisions when I am left without any creative for an element of a build. I couldn’t do my job properly without at least attempting to understand the role of design.
However, it very rarely seems to work both ways. I’ve built a business around being a reliable web development resource for designers and design agencies. They design, we code – we’ve developed everything from simple content managed websites to large-scale web applications and everything inbetween. When I started the company – almost ten years ago – the idea of designers making a picture of a web site, chucking it at us to build and us sending it back complete, worked. Most sites were simple, the technology available was basic. Back then I was already banging the web standards drum, even so the simplicity of what we had to work with, and the expectations people had of websites made the job much simpler. A clean delineation between my job as a developer and their job as a designer worked just fine.
I don’t think this works just fine on the modern web. We’ve visited this subject before, and I strongly believe that you cannot design for the web unless you understand your medium. Without the ability to write HTML and CSS; without an understanding of how server-side code interacts with a database; without some concept in your head of how it all fits together – how can you design an interface for a web application, or even best use the available tools and technologies on a relatively simple site?
In my experience you can’t. On a really basic level, I am often handed designs that have no navigation through sets of data. Search results with no paging for example. A designer who knows that we are retrieving data from a database would understand that we might end up with more data than we could show on one page. With that understanding they could then design the best experience for the user to move through, filter and sort the data. You only know what is possible by understanding a bit about how content might be retrieved from a database.
There are so many issues here. There is certainly still an issue in agencies where the web design isn’t seen as any different to print materials that are being developed for a job. A picture of a website is created then someone has to build it to look like that picture. There is no attempt to consider the capabilities of the web or how the site will function on different devices.
There is also a big issue in that many agencies are pitching with essentially complete web designs. I believe this to be bad practice but it continues and I think is the root of lots of mediocre design out there. These pitch designs are created without full knowledge of the requirements and usually without any input from those with actual web design and development expertise, they’ll be created by whoever does the rest of the work for the pitch. I frequently see these pitched designs go right through to production, because the client liked them, so they “must be right”.
Many agencies and designers don’t see the benefit of learning how to code – if the code couldn’t be used in production. It might seem to be wasted money if you send a designer on a CSS course yet he takes 5 times as long to do something as the outsourced team you normally use. However, even a basic knowledge of CSS will mean that designer can start to think about the capabilities of CSS while designing, be able to design for a medium he understands. He’ll be able to talk to the developers in an informed way about the effect he wants to achieve and be able to understand better the constraints of browser technology. He may even start designing in the browser and handing over to developers developed mock-ups in HTML and CSS. Maybe not code that would be robust cross browser and suitable for production use, but a mockup that works in Safari or Firefox is far easier to play around with and understand and then use as the design for the final code than a flat Photoshop document with a few notes on it.
Design schedules can be to blame. If designers and developers are scheduled one after the other – the designers finish and the developers start – where is the time for collaboration? With remote teams, or even where designer and developer time is scheduled in the same company, we need to work in a completely different way. We need to allow time for iteration, for understanding how the human will interact with the UI and therefore the underlying database. Developers need to be part of the design process, right from the start and designers need to engage with and understand the development process.
This isn’t so much a rant about non-coding designers as it is about an agency model that doesn’t allow people to do great work. It’s a model we’ve been part of, because it did work once. I’m a great advocate of specializing, and of bringing together specialists to do a great job, rather than using people who an do a bit of everything. However we need to promote a new way of working together, and we need to look at how we can still do a cost effective job, still give clients solid estimates and timescales for work, while also enabling this way of working that allows good people to get together and create great work.
I would love to hear the experiences of other people – whether designer, developer or web project manager. In particular those who work in an agency situation for end clients as I think the situation here is very different than when working for a company developing products or essentially on your own websites. We need to provide clients with a cost, and timescales and I think the worry about that limited budget is a big driver for the broken models of working that we so often contend with.
I’m also going to be speaking at Future of Web Design London this year on the subject of “10 Development Concepts a Designer Should Know”. I’ll be speaking in as non-nerdy a way as possible about databases, e-commerce and related subjects in terms of how an understanding of what happens behind the scenes can help when designing how users will interact with applications. This is one part of the puzzle I believe, as the more that each member of the team understands the full workings of a site or application, the easier collaboration will be. If there is no desire to learn from one another, working together is pretty much doomed.