The Role of a Designer in an Engineering Organization What can HGTV teach engineers about engineering teams?

Awhile back, I had an interesting conversation with a product designer. She was, at the time, relatively new to our company and wanted get my opinion on a few things. We met for coffee, and talked a bit about our thoughts on the company in general. Then she posed a question to me: “What do you think the role of a designer is in an engineering organization like this?”

I paused for a moment, trying to come up with a useful answer. I’ve partnered with a number of designers throughout my career. And while there have certainly been similarities between these working relationships, each one has been fairly distinct. Apparently I was taking awhile to mull over the question, so she prompted me again:

“I talked to another engineer, who used the metaphor of building a house. He described engineers as being the architects who design the house, and the construction team that builds the house. So then, design’s role is to paint the house afterwards.”

“No,” I immediately told her, “that’s not right at all.”

The look of relief on her face told me that I’d given her the response she was looking for. Still, I wanted to answer her original question. And, not being one to mix metaphors, I wanted to stick with the home-construction theme.

Maybe TV can teach us something

So of course I turned to Love It or List It, a television show that airs on HGTV. Love It or List It has a simple premise: each episode features two (usually married) homeowners. Both are dissatisfied with their current home, but they disagree on how to solve the problem. One invariably wants to sell their home and move into another; the other insists on remodeling their current home. And thus, a sort of competition arises between the two “stars” of the show: real estate agent David, and designer Hillary. David tries to find the couple a brand new home to move into (and thus, “list” their current home), while Hillary remodels the couple’s existing home–or as much of it as she has budget for–to try to convince the couple to stay (aka “love it”).

It is Hillary that we are, of course, interested in here. From the outset, she works with the homeowners to identify their current situation: their problems with the current home, the requirements each would have in order to stay, their budget, etc. From there, she begins to generate ideas on how to renovate the home.

Importantly, she always collaborates closely with contractor Eric. While one might expect a contractor to simply carry out the designer’s vision, that’s not how Hillary and Eric typically interact. Instead, they work together to refine the designs and come up with the ultimate plan. For example, Hillary might float the idea to build a laundry room in a certain unused corner, only to told by Eric that the house’s existing plumbing would make that unfeasible… but hey! If we removed this other wall, then that would open up the perfect spot for a washer and dryer. And so on.

Once the designs are finalized and approved, we see glimpses of Eric and his team performing the actual demolition and construction. But collaboration between the two rarely ends there, as unexpected problems are encountered and they work together to resolve them. The end of every episode results in a stunning redesign, one of the homeowners invariably exclaiming “I can’t believe this is the same house!” and–at least so it seems to me–the homeowners typically electing to once again love their home.

Design is more than making things pretty

Paint roller
Not really the role of a designer

Or course, Love It or List It isn’t perfect metaphor for engineering organizations. For example, we might assert that Hillary’s role encompasses product management as well as design. But it’s a far cry better than the notion that designers are there to simply make a nearly-finished product look pretty.

Let’s take a step back and examine why I chose the Love It or List It metaphor over the slap-a-coat-of-paint-on-it metaphor:

  • First, designers don’t wait for engineers–or any other functional role–to decide what to build and how to build it. Instead, they help to drive the product definition before any line of code is written.
  • This means, of course, that designers don’t just come in at the end of a project. Instead, they collaborate with the entire team from the outset of the project.
  • Finally, design is about far more than just making things look good. While creating visual appeal is generally a big part of design (and for sure, Hillary’s remodels look stunning!) designers are there to contribute their understanding of user behaviors, and to help the product team to push the boundaries of how to solve their needs.

The designer and I riffed on this for a bit. By the end of our coffee break, we were both pretty happy with this metaphor. Weeks later, she and I soon found ourselves on the same team. We pushed this sort of cross-functional collaboration from the beginning. Our entire team–design, front/back-end and mobile engineering, product management, research, QA–would routinely meet to iterate over mockups, building on each others’ ideas until we’d found the best possible solution.

The end result? Solutions that were innovative, feasible, and I daresay in many cases, stunning. And for what it’s worth, team members who chose to love their jobs, rather than shopping for new ones.