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Summary:

When building successful apps, both designers and engineers have to remember that they are on the same team, said Kleiner Perkins’ Michael Abbott at Structure: Data 2013 Wednesday.

Structure Data 2013 Michael Abbott Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
photo: Albert Chau

When it comes to creating a successful app, human interface designers and lead engineers have to work closely together from the beginning, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Michael Abbott said at the Structure Data conference Wednesday. That can mean thinking about apps in a new way.

“More and more products are being built by having great pairings of those two players,” Abbott, the former VP of engineering at Twitter, told GigaOM founder Om Malik. Engineers need to understand a user’s experience with the app, Abbott said, but designers also have to “understand the limitations of the environment they’re building. It shouldn’t just be a great experience in one small segment,” but an app should work “whether you’re offline or have a bad connection.”

Abbott often sees a “lack of real empathy” between designers and engineers. “The tension on the design side is that it’s never good enough,” he said, “and on the engineering side he or she wants to ship…How do you get that balance? Because you still need to ship.”

Malik raised other issues about apps and empathy: “Uber managed to piss off people every single time they did something interesting — surge pricing, or charging more at the time of Hurricane Sandy…I keep saying, if we are going to build this future driven by data, how do we bring this empathy and humanity into the data?”

“We might be forced into it by some of the reactions we’re seeing to Uber,” Abbott answered. But he pointed out that, when it comes to services like Uber, the way that a user rates a driver is also unique to that user — and that brings up empathy on the user’s end. For example, Uber could infer from data on what a driver’s rating should be, based perhaps on the start and end times of a trip. “Your rating of that driver,” he said, “also ends up building an implicit rating on you, and your ability to rate.”

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  1. Nicholas Paredes Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    At my current employer, I helped evolve a Lean approach, where development, business, and UX resources are embedded on the project team. As a mobile UX manager, my job is to herd the kittens, and allow everybody to contribute. This contribution has created an empowered environment where my designers are moving much faster and development actually proceeds prior to any hand offs of final wires.

    Having started to read The Lean Startup only after I began my latest project, it occurred to me that the processes where very similar. What matters most is a common understanding.

  2. Agree. It’s important for all team members to have equal input on decisions. Too often at tech companies, the person who graduated from MIT trumps everyone else, and is blind to his inability regarding user experience/design, while the person who studied art is discounted for being “non-technical”. That usually results in crap product.

  3. Combining design and engineering is difficult if they’re considered separate parts of the organisation but the most successful products combine them. Our designers are also engineers so they fully understand the constraints and requirements of the backend when hooking things up. This is also important for designing UIs that work rather than engineers trying to translate a concept UI into working code.

    Designers don’t necessarily need to be expert engineers but having some degree of technical knowledge makes a massive difference.

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