Process

Driving alignment with product and engineering

December 9, 2021

5 min read

Aimee Franco
Aimee Franco
Product Design Manager
Driving alignment with product and engineering

As designers, we all put our hearts, souls, time, and energy into our work. Our efforts are most impactful though when we work together with our product partners, aligned on the problems we’re aiming to solve, and the solutions we want to build.

I remember early in my UX career (before I was at OpenTable), I was given a list of requirements and was told to design a UI that would accommodate them. What problem were we aiming to solve? I didn’t know. Why were these requirements prioritized? I didn’t know. What would success look like? I didn’t know. This sort of work was not only unfulfilling but stunted our team’s creativity and the impact we could have had on our customers and our business.


If we worked together and aligned as a cross-functional team, we could have all come up with ideas, assessed them from different perspectives, challenged each other and we could have felt confident in the choices we made. It probably would have also been a lot more fun.


At OpenTable, I’ve been fortunate to work on large, meaty projects that require a vision or north star for our teams to rally around. These projects are quarters-long initiatives that our teams build toward over time, such as the brand new experience our restaurant customers use to set up their profile on OpenTable. Large and small projects alike, though, are most successful and enjoyable to work on when designers, engineers, and product managers align both on the problem they’re trying to solve and the way they’d like to solve it.

Everyone on the team is responsible for alignment, but designers have a unique skill set we can bring to the table. These methods can be used throughout the design process, but I outline them from discovery to delivery.


1. Assume a facilitator role

Assuming the role of facilitator at the beginning of a project allows you to use your UX research skills to understand what is important to stakeholders. 

What makes this problem important to solve for now?
How do you know?
What are the motivations and goals?

Leading with curiosity and asking lots of questions to uncover as much context as possible will help the team identify where alignments and misalignments exist. It will also help you understand what you know enough about, and what you need to learn more about. Your next steps should become clearer after using this method.

Tip: Use your deep listening skills during this phase of curiosity.  Indi Young is a great resource for learning more about listening deeply.

 

2. Build shared understanding with user research

It’s important that all members of the team understand what problem they’re solving and why. Once the context is shared—and “why” has been asked a lot—research will help build shared understanding. No matter what you learn during research, bringing your team along for the ride will ensure that you’re basing opinions and decisions on the same data.

If there is good evidence of the problem, propose validation research.
If there is not good evidence of the problem, propose discovery research.

Tip: Include engineers in research sessions when you can - they also need to understand the impact of what they build.

 

3. Brainstorm as a triad

Once problems and goals are defined, giving the PM, designer, and engineer a chance to contribute ideas is important. And it's fun! At this stage, there are no right or wrong ideas.

You can use a tablet to sketch, FigJam, Miro, or a whiteboard if you’re meeting in person. 

Tip: Doing this remotely can be challenging. Try to use a tool that everyone has access to and that will be friendly enough for non-designers to work with.

 

4. Create visuals early

Visuals that represent the team’s ideas or vision get people energized and excited. This skill is a designer’s secret weapon; use it to drive alignment. PMs like to share visuals with stakeholders and peers, while engineers get clarity about what they’ll be building.

Visuals not only drive alignment on your project team but also help explain the vision to a wider group within your organization. 

What they say is true, a picture speaks a thousand words.

Tip: It’s okay for visuals to be representative of an idea, final designs are not necessary to communicate a story. 

 

5. Be helpful and learn your teammates’ language

Having strong and trusting relationships with teammates makes aligning on projects easier. 

Asking peers how you might be able to lend a hand with your design skills shows that you’re in it together - and that you’re a team player. Sometimes this can mean helping your PM communicate a business case with data visualization, or creating a sketch with an engineer to communicate an idea.

Taking the time to learn technical terminology so that you can speak with engineers in their language will also go a long way and can make collaboration more impactful.

Tip: Try using Object Oriented UX to work through information architecture problems with engineers.


6. Select a direction as a triad

When selecting a design direction, it’s important to remember that each member of the triad may be assessing the options from a different perspective.

How desirable is the solution to the user?
How viable is the solution to the business?
How feasible is the solution to build?

In this phase, it’s helpful to have multiple concepts to consider. Allow discussion to flow freely and assess the pros and cons of each concept.

Next, based on the discussion, each member of the group should vote on their favorite concepts to help the team narrow down the options. 

Tip: A limited number of votes per person will force folks to choose their favorites.

 

The methods I shared are meant to help drive alignment on teams, but my hope is that they also encourage creativity, collaboration, and confidence when making decisions.

Alignment happens when we seek to understand each other’s perspectives and when we challenge each other, in hopes of landing on the best possible approach. We are stronger designers when we work closely with our product manager and engineering partners. And our products are stronger when we all align on the problems we’re trying to solve, and solutions we aim to build. 


Credits

Author image
Aimee Franco (she/her)
Product Design Manager

Aimee is a design leader on OpenTable’s Restaurant Design Team. She spends her time between NYC and California eating out, experimenting with clay and dreaming up her next side hustle.