We Asked Developers to be Designers...This is What Happened

5 min read Monika Mosur on Jan 19, 2023

Solving problems is the bread and butter of designers but to get the best outcomes we can’t work in a silo. Communication and close collaboration between product teams, engineering, and design is key for providing the best user experience. Without this, you risk handing over prototypes and wireframes after days, weeks, or even months of work which are met with endless questions and alternative suggestions for web development.

At PubNub, our design teams receive feedback early and often, but we wanted to take things a step further. We knew our cross-functional team had ideas, perspectives, and years of experience that were important to share—so what if our software engineers could be involved in the concept sketching? 

With the opportunity of our scrum team coming together in-person for some team building, we decided to introduce some of the methods often used in the design process. How did we handle brainstorming, creative thinking, and most importantly, sketching? Here’s what happened! 

Presenting the problem

It was important to begin the workshop by sharing a problem to solve. In addition to being a learning opportunity to introduce new techniques to our scrum team, it was a chance to share and move a real project forward. The design team had previously examined the needs of users and businesses through interviews and analysis of metrics. Using this, we prepared a summary including our target personas, the functionality problems faced, and inspiration from other products. 

Knowing the background of the problem, we began with sketching. 

Can software developers sketch?

Sketching is an effective and low risk way to generate and explore thoughts and ideas. Where written or spoken ideas can be open to various interpretations, sketches can help to rapidly achieve alignment.

In the design world, digital or manual doodles are nothing new. However, sketches in our team were something completely unfamiliar to them. It can be uncomfortable when people are not used to communicating in this way and tricky to break down attitudes of "I can't draw".

To help them out, we started with Crazy 8s/Rapid 8s. This method allows you to quickly get used to sketching. The easiest way to do this is to fold a sheet of paper into 8 parts. In addition, each person should see the problem that we want to solve, and in our case it was displayed on the screen. 

Then the workshop participants were asked to sketch eight solutions in 8 minutes. Abstraction at this stage is welcome. But wait, is 8 minutes enough time to sketch eight ideas for a particular problem? Not necessarily, but our goal was to get comfortable with sketching. During the presentation of ideas, everyone could be further inspired and consider whether elements or combinations of the ideas might form part of the solution. So, where did we go from here to solve our design problem?

How can we solve a design problem (as a team)?

To help the team frame and define the problem, there is a well-known method used during ideation called “How Might We” which is a way of generating ideas during the design process. 

Due to workshop time constraints, the design team prepared HMW questions in advance. These were carefully composed in such a way that different answers were possible. From there, we scattered posters around the room with these questions. 

The team generated multiple ideas for every single “How Might We” and then they had a chance to vote for their favorite ones. This allowed us to learn about what others wrote down, as well as talk it over and indicate their preferences. We learned that it was invaluable to have different specialists gather together. All of the above was needed to think about our UI/UX design challenges in a broader sense and expand horizons to diversify solutions. Having completed this phase we could head off to the next and final step.

The solutions in detail

I asked the development team to choose their best solution from Crazy 8s and then make it more detailed. Each of the participants started working on a new piece of paper. Then, after selecting a specific solution it was expanded. For example, adding actions to be performed (user flow), as well as more detailed descriptions and elements that are especially important for the idea.

A key moment was the presentation of more detailed solutions. Thanks to this, a discussion on the effectiveness and effort in implementing the idea began. Developers could present technical arguments for or against this. The Product Manager's contribution was also invaluable, as she was able to answer many product design questions that arose along the way.

Ideation allowed us to create mockups and brainstorm many ideas, some of which were later used in further stages of the design process. These are now in the process of being refined in a design tool, validated with user testing and usability, and discussed internally with additional stakeholders.

Online vs offline developer collaboration

Since the pandemic, we moved to the white dotted canvas of Mural frames for better project management. Despite our love for Slack and the efficiency of online workshops, we felt it worked well to introduce these new techniques in-person, as it allowed for more open conversations about design thinking and the development process.

Our team participated in small talks which were more private, something that often gets cut short in online meetings. Movement around the room and physical sticky notes also helped create energy and allowed our team to get more comfortable when it came to sketching and presenting web design ideas. 

However, there were some things that were more challenging without our usual visual design system and virtual tools. Even with a set time frame, once a single conversation started it was hard to stop it. In the end, we were left with additional work to document and share with others. This aspect is definitely easier (and more eco-friendly) online. 

What have we achieved?

Our main goal of this design workshop was to present methods of ideation to our team members and prepare software developers for similar activities in the future. This workshop met many of the things we set out to achieve. 

Here are a few of the key things we learned: 

  • It improved our developer collaboration and engagement within the team. 

  • The development team's awareness of the current project and the workflow challenges that designers face in their daily work increased. 

  • One day of ideation allowed us to generate many ideas for solving a design problem in a very short time. 

  • Based on this workshop, we will also evaluate the extent to which it improved solutions and efficiency for the final product.

Are you a developer who's interested in what you can build with PubNub? Take a product tour or sign up for a free account today to jump right in!