Engineers are from Mars, Designers are from Venus

By Michael Carney , written on January 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Looking back, 2012 may have been the year that “designers became the new hackers.” It’s become cliche to say good design is the difference between good technology and great consumer products. Companies are climbing over one another to hire the best design rockstars around. And it’s suddenly cool to be Scandinavian.

But, because this is a relatively new concept in the tech world, the transition hasn't exactly been smooth. Designers and engineers speak different languages and measure impact differently, making it difficult to quantify the value of design the way you can evaluate code.

More art than science, design is inherently fuzzier than computer programming, which can be measured by metrics and performance benchmarking tools. After all, underlying the code is all numbers. In a “lean startup” world, where resources are limited and decisions are meant to be made according to data, what’s the ROI on design and how much should one startup spend?

To see the value of design, one need only look as far as Path, the more beautiful, more intuitive, Facebook meant for your 50 closest friends. The perceived value in its design prowess, rather than its actual business metrics, is the biggest reason Google offered to buy the company for a whopping $125 million before its Series A. And there’s little other explanation for how a niche social network which just reached 5 million users is worth the $250 million it reportedly commanded during its most recent April financing round.

More surprisingly, Google – a site that long thought whitespace and bubbly multi-colored letters equaled cool – has embraced beauty. Lately, it has been flooded with previously inconceivable accolades for beating Apple at its own iOS app design game. As much as the company’s functionality in the case of Gmail and data in the case of Maps trumps Apple’s, it’s Google's new design language that is leading many to call the search giant’s iOS apps better than its own Android counterparts.

Capping off the recent frenzy for all things design, Groupon founder-backed Chicago VC firm Lightbank went so far as to create an entire fellowship to identify and groom design talent for its portfolio companies and the midwest startup ecosystem at large.

But developer Terence Eden, of Dabr and QRpedia, asked an interesting question on his personal blog that got me thinking about the way developers and designers relate under this new art+science paradigm. Apparently not one to beat around the bush, his post was titled “Are designers crazy?” The tone was not as condescending as the headline, instead diving into the inherent disconnect between the way developers and designers approach projects and perceive value.

Eden opens, apologetically, saying:

I'm not a graphic designer. I find it hard to get into the mindset of excellence through beauty...This is a failing of mine - one which I'm trying to rectify - but recently I've had the sneaking suspicion that some designers may have a touch of "Emperor's New Clothes" about them.

He then outlines a situation where a particularly neurotic designer recreated a number of buttons to accommodate various iPhone models, making sure that each edge landed on a “whole pixel value,” rather than on fractions of pixels. It’s almost as if Eden was imagining that Rainman was the one sitting at the keyboard. After pointing out that he can barely even notice the difference between the “before and after” shots, he gets to the heart of the issue, asking:
Will users notice that images aren't a bespoke designed for their platform? Will they care? Will you have to create an entirely new workflow to generate images specific to one platform? How will you manage image assets - especially when they need to be updated?
I’m not suggesting that design isn’t important – and I don’t believe that Eden is either. What we agree on is that design departs from measurable return on investment that typically permeates most engineering endeavors.

For example, in rewriting code to speed up a given process, such as how fast a website loads, engineers must consider whether such an speed increase will be noticed, whether the increased efficiency will come at the expense of readability and reliability, and finally how long it will take the company to recoup the investment of time, based on the expected efficiency gains.

These questions can be answered in the case of engineering, often with as little as a stopwatch. This is much less simple with regards to design. How much nicer is a full pixel than a fractional one? What is the quantifiable impact of a blue button versus a slightly blue-green one? A-B testing can give an indication in cases where the difference is extreme, but the subtleties are far harder to measure. Unless a company is operating at massive scale, like that of Google for example, it can be near impossible to gather enough data to know the effect of design.

Eden referenced an interesting example in which Google measured the effect on click-through-rates when modifying the shade of blue used to highlight a link. The company used 40 subtly different shades and measured billions of interactions to determine the most effective choice. Most startups don’t have the luxury of gathering this type of data before deciding how to allocate design resources.

Eden concluded his perplexed dive into the artistic world of designers asking:

I'm [sic] I the crazy one? Is there such an apparent difference between the above screenshots that I should go out and buy a guide dog now? Does determining the exact shading on a hyperlink sound like a good use of resources when compared to all of Google's other problems? My brain doesn't work like that of a designer - I know that. But should I even try to think like them?

It’s reminiscent of the age old battles in Silicon Valley (and in the movie Office Space) between engineers and salespeople. In one of the first guest posts on PandoDaily, Andreessen Horowitz Partner Ben Horowitz outlined a solution he used at Opsware: The Freaky Friday management technique.

He asked the head of Sales Engineering and head of Customer Service – two feuding but “outstanding managers” in his words – to switch roles beginning the next day. After living in Oppositeville for one week, the pair found a solution to their conflict.

The value of design may never be boiled down to a spreadsheet, and it may seem trite to have two professionals roleplay with possibly millions of dollars on the line, but perhaps that’s where Eden can find the answers to his questions.

[Image source, Notquitecarrie]