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18F discussion: Should project teams code first or design first?

When starting a new project, should a team code first or discover first? That was the question recently posed to the 18F team by Robert Read, one of our developers.

Rob asked the thought-provoking question hoping it would lead to an internal conversation on different approaches to user-centered software design. It did, and the result was positively delightful — with designers and developers weighing in on everything from approaches to protosketching to usability testing to user-centered design.

I asked Rob and 18F designer Jesse Taggert if they wouldn’t mind elaborating on their initial conversation in a more formalized way. They were happy to, and so the three of us sat down to debate whether teams should code first, design first, or a combination of the two.

Here are highlights from that conversation:

On why it is valuable to code as soon as you can

Robert Read: My position is that coding is a medium, not unlike paper and I would never want to exclude a particular medium from my toolkit. As a coder, it always makes sense to be coding as a way to explore ideas, in the same way that other people always have a pencil in their hands and are doodling in order to explore ideas.

You should always begin by coding as soon as you start talking to a customer about something. In saying that, I believe that modern coding practices allow you to produce things that are testable extraordinarily quickly. Sometimes, if you have someone who is good at coding, you can produce a working prototype in just an hour as you’re learning from the person what it is that they want. I suggest that this should be a standard practice for designers or any team that is servicing a customer or an end user.

On why it is sometimes best to wait — the solution isn’t always found in the code

Jesse Taggert: If you start off absolutely with coding, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a huge presupposition that the answers are about technology. What I’m often finding by doing design research is that sometimes it’s more about the process or service experiences. And we want to understand that more before we start to say, ‘We’re gonna make a new improved, technical experience to answer some of those needs.’

When creating a technical prototype is really beneficial to a team

JT: We were recently talking about a project where the stakeholders had envisioned that their solution was going to be a huge technical problem. Rob did this prototyping session with one of his colleagues. At the end, they had a working, responsive app and demonstrated to these folks… that it wasn’t going to be a big, overwhelming project. So that’s a win for coding — demonstrating the look and feel and value of technology. But coding may not always be the solution to the actual problem, which might involve more behavior and process.

I asked both Jesse and Rob if the complexity of the project should affect the decision to code first versus conduct design research first

JT: I would push back against the word complexity versus using words like known and unknown. If it’s an unknown project, we want to do a lot more discovery and research. And if it’s a known thing, you might be more comfortable bringing in the technical stuff.

RR: I agree with Jesse. It’s not really a question of complexity. It makes more sense to think along the dimension of how known or unknown is the thing you’re trying to address.

I then asked Rob and Jesse if it could be confusing or risky to show users a coded prototype so early in the process.

RR: The danger is that when you show something like a coded website to someone, they will seize on it too quickly as the final solution. I think the real risk here is that people will fail to understand that something that you code can be thrown away just as easily as it was created. The code must be treated as no more significant than a sheet of paper that someone made a sketch on.

JT: I’ve had prototypes where, [you want to] keep it crude, because as soon as it looks too good people, whether they say it or not, they get attached to it…. There’s always that balance between how it looks and feels, which can buy stakeholder or client buy-in, and how you manage it moving forward so the clients understand it’s not final. I would add that in that scenario, emphasizing the results of task-based usability testing is a good way to help clients assess whether the product is working or not. A prototype may look great to a stakeholder who is swayed by good looking design, but we can say, ‘We did these tests and they didn’t work as intended, so don’t like it too much.”

On developers submerging their egos to serve the end user

RR: I’ve had the pleasure working with Kent Beck in the past and one of the things that he focuses on is the fact that developers have to really submerge their egos and their personalities and have to recognize that they are totally in service to the end user. In the case of having a designer on the team, that basically means you’re in service to the designer who is interpreting the needs of the end user.

It’s very important that the development team use its intelligence and creativity to figure out how to give you things testable to the design team as early in the process as possible. So it’s not that you’re creating a finished product as early as possible, but the development team should be thinking, ‘Okay the design team wants to test this hypothesis or test out this idea — how can we build a fourth of that solution which we can give to them and they can valuably do usability testing on?’

On how thinking of serving the designer leads to more creative thinking

RR: If you think of it that way it does actually require more creativity because the developers — instead of thinking of a perfect product, must think of themselves as moving through a swamp or a landscape to get there. And it’s the path that’s important, not the end product. And the path is in service to the design team being able to confirm with their suspicions or test things with the user.

On design research needing space at the beginning of a project

JT: One of the things about design research is that research often needs space at the beginning of a project. I’ve worked on really high functioning agile teams and I always called it ‘the sanctity of the backlog.’ They worked so hard and they pulled from what’s in the backlog and their stories are well thought out and it’s amazing. And if design and research doesn’t have enough lead time before that, then it’s a very panicked situation because you know you have a team that values what those stories are, and you haven’t had enough time to add material to field material for a sprint or two. Often it’s called Sprint 0.

RR: I understand that. Design should always lead development by at least two sprints so that the developers know what they’re working on. But I guess, to be a little bit provocative, I would say why would a designer not want to have the development team at his or her service at the very beginning? Why would you ever say, ‘I don’t want someone working for me.’ As long as the development team is disciplined about understanding that in the end, they are in service to the end user.

JT: During the research phase, you might not need a developer team, but the research team may be composed of developers, designers, etc.

On meeting the needs of the end users

RR: I would just finish by saying no matter what you do, the most important thing is to focus on the experience of the end user. Everything else is just a detail about the process for achieving that. But the most important thing, from a spiritual or psychological point of view is to always be focusing on the end user.

JT: The meta-thing is absolutely yes. And in this government environment, there’s also the user experience of the people in government learning this process, and it’s a really fascinating space to be in.