Winning The Telephone Game

Designers, developers and communication

Did you ever play The Telephone Game? The game where you sit in a circle and the first person whispers a phrase in the ear of the person next to him, until the phrase reaches the last person. When the phrase is spoken out loud by the last person, you find out that it’s altered in a very unexpected way. You may not have played this game as a child, but it’s likely you are playing a version of it in your work environment.

As a frontend developer, you are the person between the first person (the person who creates the phrase) and the last person (the person who ships the last version of the phrase). The frontend developer sits between the designer and the backend developer. All three have their own goals. Designers want to create a nice and slick experience for the users. Frontend developers want to build this experience and make it work on every device and browser. Backend developers want to make an efficient system that makes this experience possible. Different goals, same product. Therefore communication is very important. Unfortunately, all three speak a different language. To collaborate effectively, they must learn each other’s language.

It is important designers know something about frontend

Designers don’t have to know how to make a website work in every browser. But if they know some basic HTML, CSS and even Javascript it makes it a lot easier to communicate with the developers. You can explain your ideas much better and understand the feedback you receive from them (skillcrush, 2017).

Also, you get to know what is possible and what is not. It is a problem if you don’t know this. When you’re putting your whole heart into a design and the developer comes over to tell you that what you want isn’t possible, you have to start all over again. By learning about development, you can save a lot of time (and avoid a broken heart).

To make the communication easier, don’t tell developers that “this button will activate a lightbox that will smoothly fade in, and fade out the background”. Chances are, your vision about the button is completely different from the developers’ vision and they won’t create what you had in mind. Instead, show it to them: create a prototype or animated GIF with software like Principle.

It is important frontend developers know something about design and backend

You can’t just duplicate a Photoshop or Sketch file into HTML, CSS and Javascript. Frontend is more than that. You have to know what is important for the user and make sure he can use the product without any problems. A good designer will work user-centered by default, but a developer must learn to take the user into account with everything he makes. If this is the developer’s mindset he is able to communicate with the designer much better. The same goes for backend developers (codeschool, 2016).

In order to pass the phrase from the designer, through frontend, to the backend developer, you also have to know the language of backend development. You have to know where the data you use in the frontend comes from and what it looks like. You have to be comfortable with the API the backend developer built. This way you can resolve issues faster with the backend developer you’re working with. Maybe, your frontend problem can be solved in the backend easier, this will save a lot of time. It’s very useful to know what the backend does and what can be done with it.

It is important backend developers know something about UX

As a backend developer you are often one of the last pieces in a big puzzle. So it’s important that your vision of the end product is the same as that of the designers. Even though backend development is a technical discipline in its core, it has an impact on user experience. Take a CMS that’s made for a specific client. I’ve come across backend developers who only think in terms of technical requirements. “Does the CMS I made work?” seems to be a valid question, but what the question really should be like is: “Does the CMS I made work for our client?”

So, how to win The Telephone Game?

Don’t whisper, but speak out loud. Speak clearly about your decisions and explain why you made them. Try to learn and understand the languages the others are speaking, maybe even learn a new skill. Don’t hesitate to ask something if you don’t get what the others are saying.

The three disciplines discussed in this article overlap each other more and more. Designers are asked to do frontend, frontend developers are asked to do design or backend and backend developers must have some frontend skills to make it. It becomes more and more important to broaden your horizon and learn other skills outside of your core discipline.