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Why developers should learn design skills to create great products

Zopa product designer Lilian outside Zopa HQ London Bridge

Design skills can improve code like coding skills can improve design

Designers are often encouraged to learn basic coding skills to better understand the medium they design for. I believe the reverse is equally valuable — developers should learn design skills to enrich their craft and improve the connection between developers and design.

As a product designer, my most successful work comes out of good collaborative partnerships with developers. The partnerships that work best, are the ones where the developers really understand the creative process, or even better, take part in it themselves. When developers are included in the design stage, it only improves the product. This is why I try and make design transparency a natural part of my work.

Here are some benefits I have observed from collaborating with creative developers, and how it can make our work more impactful and more fun.

Understanding design means understanding the user

“Good design makes a product useful” – Dieter Rams, The 10 Principles of Good Design

As designers, our primary focus when creating is “who is this for and why do they need it?” We think about who the user is, what they might want or expect to see, and what their fears or pain points are. Design and empathy are closely linked, so understanding design is a direct path to understanding the user. Doing our jobs well means putting customers at the centre of what we do.

Putting the user, and not technical challenges, at the heart of our work

We can have those courageous conversations that start with, “I don’t think we should build this…” because we know that the reasons to build are aligned with the value the design gives the user. It makes it easier to have discussions about the product which are optimised for the best experience possible.

Train your creative eye and improve feedback

“Man invented things by imposing a shape on nature. Man discovered things by revealing the pattern of nature.” – Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways

Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down why something doesn’t look right. Learning the fundamentals of design teaches the vocabulary to describe those feelings. You can train your eye to spot where things might be off balance, so you’ll essentially be able to peer under the hood of good design and see how it works.

Training your eye is a critical component for creating design systems — it strengthens your ability to identify design patterns, so you’ll know how to extend them, break them, and fix them.

It’s not always easy to single out discrepancies when things don’t render as intended. Despite our best efforts, creative software can be an untameable beast. Having a developer who can spot and communicate the differences between design and build can make a huge difference.

Minimise handover tension

“Design is relationships. Design is a relationship between form and content.” – Paul Rand, Conversations with Students

One of the most fretful parts of a designer’s process is the waiting period. Once we hand over our work to be implemented, we just have to wait. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to come out the other end.  As designers, a lot of our job involves rationalising our work, which can automatically put us in defence mode, especially when it unexpectedly changes during implementation.

Establishing trust is essential to implementing design

Changes are inevitable. Digital mediums have infinite variables, and pixel perfection is practically a myth. These change conversations are best had when they are nurtured through early collaboration in the design process, when it’s easier to challenge ideas or ask for clarity. Creating a common understanding for how the design should behave, makes the whole process much easier and more enjoyable.

How can developers learn design skills?

It’s not always practical to pick up new skills when you have your own deadlines to contend with. But learning the basics of design can be easy if you have the right support in your team and from the designers you work with.

Ask to be involved in the early stages of the design process

These exploratory stages are critical when forming the design solution. The early stages are often when we define who the user is and what they need. This may take the form of user flows, personas, research, or mood boards. Whatever your team is starting with, ask to get in on it early.

Ask your designers to work in a transparent way

Establish which tools and rituals you’ll use to maximise the visibility of design work. Tools like Marvel make it much easier for designers to share their work as it’s being made without much extra effort. Discuss ways to make sharing frequently easier so everyone can be up to date with the design process.

Connect often and meaningfully

Design and development are often split up due to team structures or other organisational reasons, but you need to make sure you have an allied front when it comes to making decisions about design executions. Find your own way of connecting between teams and have regular touchpoints so you can discuss and align.

Share creative inspiration

Next time you find a product, poster, game, or website you think is visually and functionally interesting, share it with other designers with the reasons why you like it. This can spark ideas and innovation, and helps designers understand your own preferences and taste.

Make time for design

image by Mo Selim Art of three different drawings of spiderman showing how the quality of the artwork improves with more time and why for developers need design skills

Mo Selim Art – 10 Min 1 Min 10 Sec SPEED CHALLENGE

Add a design tax to build time that allows for feedback, collaboration, finessing, and reflection. This may feel like an extra overhead at first, but over time it becomes a reflex that will make your designs sharper and save on effort in the long run.

Ultimately product design is about communication, whether that’s between the product and the customer, or you and your team. Understanding the different disciplines in your team will help guide conversations that will end up creating great products.

At Zopa, we have a culture that encourages collaboration and learning new skills. If your workplace doesn’t have these schemes in place, picking up the basics is simple enough.

Some resources to get you started

book cover of The Design of Everyday things by Donald A. Norman for developers need design skills book cover for Color: a course in mastering the art of mixing colors by Betty Edwards for developers need design skills book cover of "Thinking with type" by Ellen Lupton for developers need design skills Developers need design - a book cover for Grid systems in graphic design by Josef Muller-Brockmann — The basics of layout design.

The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman — A great primer on design thinking.

Color, Betty Edwards — The basics of colour theory, tones, and palettes.

Thinking with Type, Ellen Lupton — The basics of typography, balance, and hierarchy.

Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Josef Muller-Brockmann — The basics of layout design.

You can also try doing a paid or free course with DesignLab, Treehouse, or Lynda.

Lilian is a product designer working on exciting up-and-coming things at Zopa. She is an EFFERVESCENT creative spark who spends most of her time seeking inspiration from video games, travelling, and cabaret.