August 12th, 2008

There’s a bit in this three-year old article that Gruber linked to about Apple’s design process that caught my brain:

Products get worked on in parallel by all departments at once—design, hardware, software—in endless rounds of interdisciplinary design reviews. Managers elsewhere boast about how little time they waste in meetings; Apple is big on them and proud of it. “The historical way of developing products just doesn’t work when you’re as ambitious as we are,” says Ive, an affable, bearlike Brit. “When the challenges are that complex, you have to develop a product in a more collaborative, integrated way.”

I don’t think it has anything to do with complexity. I’d take that sentiment and apply it to any project, big or small.

I’ve seen it both ways. Working in a teams where the vast majority of the staff were multi-disciplined, and in teams where each section was clearly its own echo chamber to the point where it felt like the considerations of one team would always be ignored by the other. I can tell you that the former was not only infinitely more productive, but that the results were exponentially better. In many cases, if only by the virtue that they were actually built.

The idea of design divorced from engineering is laudable, but the way it so often plays out makes it implausible. Yes, in theory, the design team should come up with a perfect solution and the engineering team should be smart enough to figure out how to pull it off and neither should ever have to talk to each other. The resulting product would look exactly as designed and would work perfectly. Keep on trucking you radical dreamer. Here’s a quarter for the jukebox.

The world’s supply of brilliant-the-first-time designers and can-figure-anything-out engineers is not nearly vast enough. While the ranks of folks who think they’re the former is exponentially higher than the folks who think they’re the latter. As an industry where the two sides are so co-dependent on each other, that either group would think of the other’s role as trivial is beyond ridiculous.

As an engineer, nothing infuriates me more than hearing a designer talk about something as “an engineering problem”. You absolute bastard. Why are you designing something that you aren’t even sure will work? Why bother opening Photoshop if what you’re producing is little more than a fantasy-world mockup? Do you have any idea how little talent it takes to envision perfect solutions? Any concept as the number of dreamers running about these streets with perfect inventions cluttering their heads, no clue as to the impossibility of their production? The fact you graduated from a midwestern art school makes you only marginally better, you hack of hacks.

Not to let engineers off the hook. Guilty as charged, the lot of them. Oh yes, that problem is very hard to code. I’m so sorry you can’t Google a solution for it. Amazon no help either, huh? Forced to come up with your own solution to the problem. Well, that must just suck. Actual creative thinking. Whiteboards and late nights. God forbid you work for your paycheck. God forbid you create something new, do something worth doing.

The two disciplines have to play off each other. One has to influence, guide, and challenge the other. The gulf between what technology is capable of and what we see in the interactive marketplace has to be shortened.

Designers running free, creating without concern for the production is nonviable. Designs can become hinged to interactions that will not work, with the compromised result damaged to the point of mediocrity.

Engineers paving the way is just as fruitless. Solutions will lack elegance and beauty. A utilitarian wonderland of marginal design with exquisite engines. Volvo-world.

Teams must collaborate throughout the project. Designers challenging engineers to at least try their idea. Engineers reminding designers that the supply of time and money being finite, choices have to be made. The two together defining more perfect solutions that ship, and work not just correctly but elegantly.

The idea of there being these two separate things has to be forced away from our thinking. They are one team, which produce one product.

Stick their desks together and see what happens.