My Journey From Developer to Designer

By Florian Tiefenbach

“The only thing designers are good for is choosing nice colours”. As a software developer, I overheard many similar comments about designers from different disciplines. Over the last decade, I worked in several  teams, in different organisations and industries. During this time, I saw huge gaps between design teams and development teams. Unfortunately, I never worked for one of those organisations people think about when it comes to new ways of collaboration or new innovative forms of work and flexibility. I am pretty sure that most of the organisations are still working in silos: Design vs. development vs. marketing vs. customer service. It is an absolute nightmare for communication between departments and it is difficult for teams to take ownership of a product. Often times, the involved departments are busy fighting each other instead of working together on a mission. This has a huge impact on the engagement and the motivation of the people involved.

Those silos are not just bad for the organisations. One of the biggest issues in my career always was that many projects and especially the managers still see human centred design as a threat for their budgets. To them, it feels counter intuitive to talk to users, because it is hard to measure the impact of their inclusion in  the process. Often, I was confronted with arguments like: “They will just complain” or “They think they know it better”. This is the funny part. Of course they know better. They are the users. I remember one of the project managers saying: “We don’t need to test with real users. We can train them when we are ready with the application. We  know what we have to implement, and we can do small changes afterwards”. The project never went live. The small changes were huge and meant a complete redesign of the software. One of the most frustrating things about such a disaster is the financial aspect of it. Imagine a team of six full-time developers and two interface designers working on a solution for about a year. Money burnt out of ignorance, arrogance and a closed mind-set of the management team and the product owner. All of them afraid of talking to people, because they can’t control the outcome in excel.

Personally, I have always believed in user centred approaches and spend uncountable days in discussions and arguments about including users in early development stages. It is funny though, that the terms, ‘Usability’ and ‘User Centred Design,’ were first used by developers, but still most of this sector  doesn’t see the value and importance of understanding the user. For me, design was and is about solving a problem, a problem which needs to be fixed to make the life of the users easier. At the time of the project mentioned above, I was really frustrated. I read a lot of articles from Airbnb and others about interdisciplinary collaboration and how to work hand in hand between designers and developers. I understood the success of Amazon due to customer service based on user centred design. Still, people didn’t listen. Even as a Lead Senior Developer, it was almost impossible to access the right people and more importantly, to be involved at the right time in the project to have an impact on the process planning. Most of the time, developers come into the game when everything is already planned, set up, and ready to go. Even when the process uses agile methodologies, the backlog and the requirements are often already defined in the back of the head of the product owner. Even worse, a visual design team will have already created the layouts and mock-ups and moved on to the next project. I needed a change. I couldn’t work like this anymore. It was frustrating. I wanted to try to move to a position at the beginning of the chain, not the end, but I was lost. I didn’t know how to approach the problem and how to begin a  career change. The usual step for developers of my stage is to either become a software architect or switch to project management.

When I heard about service design for the first time, I thought ‘This is exactly what I am talking about.’ It works to break down silos through a co-creational model in multi and interdisciplinary teams. Today, I am working on my final project for my Masters degree in Service Design at the Royal College of Art . It was absolutely the right decision to come here, not because of the course in particular, but  because I have learnt a lot about design and designers. I met talented people over the past year at the RCA, all with different backgrounds, interests and future goals, but the foundation and the understanding of design is pretty similar for all of them. This gave me a much better insight into how designers think and how they really work. Designers are really skilled at finding problems and coming up with ideas to solve them. They are used to dealing with uncertainty and all kinds  of up and down feelings. This work style is very different from my past experience. Developers are much more about implementing solutions for a known problem or, implementing given requirements. Even if developers start working in a field or with some kind of technology they don’t know, some sort of documentation or a manual is usually available to look into for an explanation. Designers don’t have a manual, even if some methods try to give guidance. I don’t believe someone can become a designer after reading a book about design thinking.

My time here at the RCA changed my mind, my thoughts and the way I approach things a lot. I notice how I see things differently  in the tube or at a restaurant. I am much more proactive. I used to think, ‘Oh I could try to do that, someday’ and now I say to myself, ‘Let’s do it, now.’ On the other hand, I have those days when I am feeling lost and I struggle to accept and cope with the uncertainty of design projects. Maybe these feelings are inevitable.

          Layout design by David McAllister