If you want to create products that resonate with your users, one aspect to get right is the synergy between the design and development teams.

In product management, both teams do the majority of the work in building products, therefore it’s obvious that they both need to be highly involved in each other’s work. However, I can tell you that this is not always the case, even in big companies.

There are still isolated teams, factory-line processes where design and development aren’t in sync, and overblown timelines and a host of issues as a result of these inefficiencies. If there is a disconnect between design and development, whether in expectations, timelines, or ideas, then your product will inevitably run into issues.

What happens when product design and development are out of sync

Product changes happen in later stages, costing you more

When design and development are siloed, chances are, you’ll spot mistakes much later in the product management cycle. Generally, the later you decide to make design changes, the more it will cost you in time, money, and resources because you’ve already invested a lot in the product.

Whether you discover that the design isn’t technically feasible or that the design intention got lost during development, these issues can be roadblocks. Worse, if you find a big issue and you need to pivot by a large margin, it gets harder to resolve.

You’ll launch late due to product delays

In business, time is money. When designers and developers are constantly misunderstanding each other or aren’t aware of each other’s work, then there is a lot of unnecessary back-and-forth to rework things. This blows up the timeline, either pushing the launch date later or you’ll launch a product with fewer functionalities.

You want designers and developers to be working in harmony. Disagreements happen, but there’s always a way to resolve them or find a middle ground. The more the teams work closely together, the smoother the process, and the better the product outcomes.

“Scope Creep” happens often

Scope creep is when additional changes or functions are added to the project that wasn’t agreed upon at the start. When you have scope creeping up more and more, it will blow out your budget and timeline. A scope creep isn’t fun, and makes everyone’s work harder.

To reduce this, you’ll need design and development teams to be proactive in communicating, and giving regular updates and feedback. If you plan properly, and everyone is on board working together, then there shouldn’t be any scope creep in a project, or it’s a rare occurrence.

It gets harder to innovate

Bringing design and development to the same table regularly gives you different perspectives on a product idea. As designers are often regarded as more creative, and developers as more logical, fusing these two skill sets gives you a better chance at innovating. The more heads you have to solve a problem, the more ideas you get.

When teams are isolated, these strategies and ideas never get to the surface for consideration. You’re missing out on a breadth of experience by not bringing both teams together early in the process. You won’t be asking the right questions or solving the right problem for your users.

You struggle to be agile or adaptable

You might think you are adopting an agile methodology, but it will amount to nothing if both design and development aren’t truly communicating. It’s hard to build an iterative and agile workflow if everyone is siloed in their own work.

It may look like you are nimble on paper, but the truth is that teams are just trudging along, doing their work, and handing over to the next in line. And when you have a limited budget or some kind of constraint, you can’t afford to not be agile and flexible in your ideas and execution.

How to get product design and development working better together

Establish a common vision and shared language

Having a shared vision and goals is the first step to getting both teams to collaborate better. However, it’s not enough to present these things in a fancy slide deck. You need to define exactly what success looks like, and get everyone to understand it and align their team goals with it.

For example, designers may want a series of animation videos to help users, but technically, it may eat up the loading time or present other technical issues. Both have valid points, however, because you haven’t established what success is, teams will end up in an impasse because they are chasing different goals. This would most likely affect the final product.

Apply equal ownership and responsibility to design and development

Issues could also arise when there is a disproportionate ratio between designers and developers. When there are more designers than developers, the few developers may struggle to be heard when it comes to technical considerations, such as whether a system can scale easily, or maintain performance during heavy usage. This applies vice versa, a smaller design team may struggle to push for necessary design changes when there is a much bigger development team.

In principle, both teams are equally important, and they have equal ownership in and responsibility for the product. Disagreements and infighting may occur when collaborating, but it is worse when one team has more power than the other. In the end, it compromises the end product. If you find that your projects are constantly delayed, riddled with issues, this could be why.

Encourage early involvement and work in parallel

Designers and developers should work together, in the ideation phase and continue working in parallel while passing feedback to each other. This way, mistakes can be detected earlier, and changes can be made faster.

Try hosting regular review sessions, workshops for generating ideas, and pair designers and developers together when it is reasonable to do so for a task. For example, you can try doing rapid prototyping, a process that quickly validates an idea in weeks. You’ll need designers and developers to collaborate efficiently to do this.

Build stronger working relationships

There are common things you could do to build stronger working relationships between design and development. You could try running regular team building activities, hosting knowledge sharing sessions, establishing a shared working space — virtual or face-to-face — and doing shared celebrations and training.

One thing that also works is when you expose designers and developers to each other’s work. When a product designer understands the work and goals a developer has, it’s much easier to compromise and work together towards a solution. This is also true when developers understand design intentions and the work of a designer. In order to be productive and efficient, it’s not enough for people to be good at their job, they also need to understand other people’s jobs and motivations, so there is mutual respect and trust.

What if you are outsourcing a lot of design and development?

Some startups and small to medium sized businesses may not have in-house designers and developers. It’s common to outsource some of the work due to resourcing and budget constraints. Sometimes, it just makes better financial and business sense to hire third-party providers.

The important thing is to remember that you are the one who oversees everything, and you are in control. The concept of close collaboration still applies; you just need to establish the right processes, workflow, and tools to enable it.

I’ve done a lot of consulting work in this space, and it is definitely doable, if you are looking to establish or have established a long-term relationship with the product design or development company. If you’re not, then it is much tougher to make it work. Either way, you decide what works best for you. I hope I’ve given you a lot of food for thought on how to get your product designers and developers working in harmony.

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto is a design leader who is passionate about practicality, quality, and human-centred design. As founder of award winning digital design agency, Relab, his clients include leading businesses in retail, education, real estate, and hospitality. He has personally grown Relab to be one of Australia’s leading design sprint agencies. You’ll find him speaking at design sprint, business, and educational events. His mission is simple: help others build and launch products faster without compromising quality or sacrificing user satisfaction. He also thrives on mentoring small businesses and startups, getting them to simplify processes, build better businesses and create productive teams.