How to Streamline Designer to Developer Handoff and End Team Friction

How can you streamline designer to developer handoff and end the friction between these teams for good? Here are four tactics you can start using today.

James Taylor

James Taylor, Founder

March 24th, 2022 6 min read

Anyone who has managed a product team or software project can attest, the friction between developers and designers is an exhausting challenge that impacts both teams’ morale and efficiency. On the flip side, if you’ve been fortunate enough to see these two teams work together in harmony, even temporarily, you know that’s when the real magic happens.

To help improve outcomes, many organizations have invested in tools that manage workflows and streamline the designer to developer handoff. But while these solutions can ease the tension, fostering meaningful collaboration between these essential teams requires proper alignment.

Today, I’m sharing a few issues I’ve seen drive the biggest wedges between developers and designers and how to unite these teams once and for all.

Why Developers and Designers are Frequently At Odds

Stereotypes say designers create as if time and budget are of no consequence, while developers disregard most design work as superfluous and irrelevant. In reality, though, these professionals are more nuanced.

Design teams are focused primarily on usability and aesthetics, while development teams are focused on implementing workable software that performs correctly on all devices. And both teams feel pressure from senior stakeholders to speed up their timelines and get the product to market as quickly as possible.

In other words, designers and developers share the same ultimate objective: deliver a software product that meets users’ needs and business goals. But they butt heads because each team sees a different path to achieve that outcome and fails to communicate along the way. 

How to Structure Your Product Management Team to Cultivate Developer and Designer Alignment

The best way to achieve alignment is by recognizing the teams’ shared objectives and pain points. Then identifying and correcting the places they diverge.

Here’s how:

  • Identify and document constraints
    It’s crucial for product managers to communicate business constraints as early in the process as possible. For example, designers need to know if a message is going to be translated into another language so they can accommodate different word and character lengths.

    From a technical standpoint, designers need to grasp the constraints of the development framework before they begin fleshing out an idea. For example, when creating charts and graphs, there is a lot of variability with what can easily be customized depending on the library that is used. 

  • Understand the medium
    Think of designers like artists before a canvas (only, with a slightly more scientific process). They have the idea for a painting, with all the colors and strokes required to achieve a masterpiece and convey a message. However, the developers hold the brush, and they’re limited to the medium they’re given.

    For example, you can’t achieve the same outcome using watercolor that you can with tempera. And painting with oil requires different techniques than painting with acrylic.

    In the case of software, the medium is code. And while the development team must be fluent in coding languages, the design team should be at least tangentially familiar with HTML and CSS to ensure developers can implement the designs they create.

  • Initiate discussions early and often
    Here’s a familiar scenario: A client or internal stakeholder provides a designer with a task. Then, they don’t follow up until after the design is complete. At this point, the client or stakeholder may decide it doesn’t hit the mark, or the development team realizes they can’t implement the design, so the designer has to start over. There may be multiple rounds of revisions before the design is finalized, inevitably impacting the development timeline.

    This is why it’s essential to break down silos and ensure teams are communicating at every phase of the process. Design teams often hesitate to share half-baked designs for fear development teams will begin implementing too soon. But moving forward with a design that’s not feasible is akin to pouring the foundation of a house before verifying the floorplan is buildable. After all, even if something is possible in After Effects doesn’t mean it will work in CSS or render the same across all browsers and devices. My experience with sharing designs that are a work-in-progress has almost always resulted in a positive outcome.

    The earlier in the process you identify what’s possible, the fewer redesigns and revisions required, and the better the experience for everyone involved.

  • Focus on shifting the culture
    To eradicate these issues and create a smoother designer-to-developer handoff long-term, you’ll need to shift the culture.

    In many cases, designers are wary about showing unfinished designs because they don’t want developers to begin implementing something they’re not comfortable releasing. And developers begin implementing designs before they’re finalized because they feel pressure to complete their sprint and ship a workable product.

    Fortunately, there are two ways you can mitigate this issue.

    First, you can ensure the design team has a healthy lead time. This way, when they show early iterations in a brainstorming meeting, developers won’t feel the need to hit the ground running.

    But, if you’re on a tight timeline and teams have to work concurrently, you need to eliminate any potential silos. Ensure designers share wireframes as early as possible so developers can communicate constraints or research libraries they can use to bring UX patterns to life.

Aligning teams and streamlining the designer to developer handoff process isn’t something you can achieve overnight. Adjusting your processes, culture, and stakeholder expectations can take time and energy. But by investing in alignment, you’ll get more done faster, master agile, and create the sort of team harmony that drives innovation and a healthier bottom line.