Bring more UX design into software developers’ jobs, CTO urges

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The paths of software engineers and UX designers are converging, and in many ways, overlapping. Software engineers are recognizing the power of user feedback, and UX designers are appreciating technical limitations and possibilities. In a digital economy, the ability to maintain user interest is competitive advantage. But it’s a matter of bringing together two different mindsets. 

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

Gabriel Ruttner, co-founder and CTO of FeatherDocs and Udacity instructor on developer-designer interaction, says tomorrow’s software jobs will require expertise in both disciplines. In a recent online discussion with Udacity’s Matt Hui, Ruttner described how software and UX professionals approach problems from different perspectives. “Often designers might want to build things that are too out there, too outlandish,” he points out. At the same time, “engineers will want to build things that are too technical and too difficult.” 

The designer “will usually start at the problem definition in an understanding of the behaviors and the constraints in that realm,” Ruttner explains. “You’re looking for understanding into what the users trying to do right now to solve problems, and you’re looking for pathways and opportunities that you can jump in that are easy enough to solve.”  

Software engineers, on the other hand, “come at it from a slightly different point of view,” he continues. “You’ll have some kind of problem definition, you’ll have some objective some business revenue or some other metric that you’re trying to drive. You’re going in and trying to solve that thing optimally. You have some kind of software that you can throw at that idea, and you will try to make that software the best possible thing in order to solve it. You’re trying to hone in on one specific thing and make it great.”

The differing mindsets tend to result in qualitative versus statistics-driven approaches as well, Ruttner relates. “Designers will often be in this very ambiguous path, where they’re exploring all qualitative types of information,” he says. For example, they find by the time they speak to at least five users, they have developed a fairly complete picture of what the users want. In contrast, software engineers “are much more quantitative and empirical and KPI driven. You know you’re building an algorithm. You’re trying to improve latency. You’re trying to improve efficiency.”

Those two types of ideas — “the numbers versus the quotes sometimes clash, and engineers might get frustrated with designers or vice-versa. The engineer will want to build. They want to get straight to writing code. And they’re seeing the designers as slowing them down, because they want to talk to two or three users.” 

But the designer role is critical when it comes to the delivering successful software, Ruttner emphasizes. “‘It’s a difficult thing when you’re an engineer to accept some of the processes that are coming out of UX. It is a relatively new field. But at the same time, UX is a subset or an extension of human-computer interface, with behavioral psychologists the backbone of that, and it is an established field of study that’s been around since the ’70s and ’80s. So it’s a little bit of a challenge at first for engineers to accept this qualitative thinking it’s a little bit of a challenge for designers to communicate it.”  

There are fewer online UX resources than for development techniques, so Ruttner urges software engineers to reach out to designers. Achieving this necessary convergence between development and design takes, above all else, patience. Ruttner admits in his own role as a software developer, working more closely with UX designers “slowed me down. As an engineer or someone who develops software, the first thing I like to do is sit there and bash out code. Maybe it doesn’t work very well, but it takes that idea that I have in my brain and makes it something that people can use.” Working more closely with UX design, however, “I’ve realized that’s not really the best place to start.” 

Ruttner recounts his experience with FeatherDocs, an online legal service that helps attorneys identify and locate legal documents: “When we started talking to people we realized that is a really difficult lift from an engineering point of view, because there’s legacy systems and it doesn’t provide nearly the value that we thought it would, because they have other solutions in place.” Ruttner and his team went out and worked with 70 attorneys, and “found out is there are tangible touchpoints throughout the process that can be improved with software. Because we didn’t jump straight into code, we found a better idea — something that’s a little bit easier to develop.” 

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