The new hybrid design role that’s completely transforming how product teams innovate

4 min read
Eddie Lou,
Adekunle Oduye
  •  Aug 28, 2020
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In case you missed it: We launched a new free book, the Design Engineering Handbook. To celebrate, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be publishing excerpts we think Inside Design readers will find especially useful. Here, authors Eddie Lou and Adekunle Oduye define the discipline of design engineering and the value they can add to maturing companies:

Coming up with innovative solutions without room to explore, experiment, and iterate can be a challenge. That’s why many companies are starting to create roles to bridge the gap between design and engineering. Enter the design engineer. This new “hybrid” thrives on quickly exploring different solutions and validating with users to speed delivery and idea validation. Design engineers work to understand a team’s product and process, then bring them up to speed with front-end and design best practices. Because they can “speak” both design and development, they can facilitate better collaboration between highly specialized designers and engineers from prototyping to production-ready code. They specialize in solving the very particular problems that emerge at the locus of the intersection of design and development.

But design engineers aren’t just consultants, swooping in with opinions and then disappearing. And they don’t just close tickets design and engineering teams toss their way. They’re in the trenches with those teams, functioning as extended members of them. Design engineers innovate and get things done. They impact the bottom line. They’re full-spectrum, carrying out bold experiments today and shipping tomorrow.

While “design engineering” may not be well known in the product world yet, most design teams have been putting it into practice without really realizing it for a while now. It all started with a seemingly simple question: “Should designers code?” and continued through heated debates on social media and conferences for at least the past ten years. Some argued that designers need to push the boundaries of the design without feeling limited by potential constraints imposed by the code. Others said that designers need to understand what’s feasible so they can envision challenges that might arise from the design. Somewhere along the way, as product design reached maturity, an answer came along: All designers aren’t the same. There is a place in the development process for designers who code and a place for those who don’t.

The designers who code are the ones whose work encapsulates the systems, workflows, and technology that empower designers and engineers to collaborate most effectively. They help designers see new technological solutions to design problems. And they help engineers better understand the power of design. While their jobs are fluid and flexible, they tend to work on three key areas in the design and development overlap: Prototyping, tooling, and design systems.

Prototyping: Consumers expect digital products to be simpler to use, even as they perform more complex tasks. That’s where design engineering comes in. Design engineers can help teams create interactive prototypes, allowing teams to design the whole experience from visual design to animation to interaction to responsiveness. This gives them an effective communication tool, that gives rise to more focused feedback sessions and allow anyone to test-drive the proposed features. Because the prototype is closer to the end experience, it allows teams to get better and more detailed feedback. The closer the prototype is to the end experience, the better and more detailed feedback you’ll get. The high-fidelity prototypes and insight design engineers contribute to the design process can help resolve the tension between building the right thing (effectiveness) and building the thing right (efficiency).

Tooling: Choosing the right tools for the job depends on the people and processes within your organization. With knowledge of multiple disciplines, design engineers can help choose the tools that will allow teams quick adoption to come up with prototypes fast, unlocking more innovative solutions.

Design systems: Design systems require designers and engineers to work together to ship usable components, not static guidelines. Forward-thinking organizations are finding ways to foster collaboration across the old boundaries, and design engineers are key in creating and facilitating these systems. A design engineer might focus on setting up a design system, documenting patterns, building UI components, writing usage documentation, and working with stakeholders spread across an organization.

As you can see, design engineers grasp how products come together. With their help rapid prototyping and creating experiments to test usability with real data, design engineers help teams learn fast and apply their findings to their solutions— an important cultural shift that allows organizations to scale their efforts through collaboration. In short, they help make the magic happen.

Design Engineering Handbook

Learn how design engineering, an essential discipline to creating great products, brings together form and function while accelerating innovation. Written by industry leaders from Indeed, Mailchimp, The New York Times, and Minted, this book will help you connect design and engineering and work more efficiently as a team. Available in epub, PDF, and audiobook formats.

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