The Rise Of Functional Designers
In a previous post, I explained my point of view of why user experience needs to precede user interface when planning the development of a new mobile app (click here to read the article).
This article will follow up to discuss the latest trend of functional design; a topic that relates to how designing apps should ideally take place. The information below might be old news to professionals in the field, however might be helpful for newbies and non-techies.
Given the ridiculously fast pace this industry evolves in, the design phase tends to take less time than needed in the initial project phases, and then lags on during and after development. This in my opinion holds true in almost any software development life cycle (SDLC) that is deployed- including agile SDLC. The reason is that while the static interface designed on Sketch, Photoshop, illustrator or whatever is used usually looks great on screen, the reality is far from the truth on simulators as well as actual devices.
Many factors contribute to this phenomena, even if the designer is a veteran and experienced professional that accounts for empty states, validation messages as well as exceptional scenarios. It just looks better on screen rather than on the device. In comes the typical push and pull between designers, developers and product owners. Why is it that the app just does not look as good as the static design? In most cases that I have personally encountered, it is actually not the developer’s fault, nor the designer’s. It is simply the lack of understanding between both parties that leads to a product that is executed very differently than intended.
Solution: functional designers. Here is what they do:
Functional designers are a hybrid between a developer and a designer. They know how their design will transform in to executable code. They understand that the great looking birthday input field that automatically calculates the the day you were born based on your inputs needs a specific library that might not really work on HTML based hybrid apps. They can foresee that the video GIF that pops up as a loading screen- you know the one that the client/ product owner was so excited about- might burden the UI thread too much resulting in a slow app.
They do however understand that colors, fonts, Material guidelines, iOS guidelines and general usability trends need to be followed to ensure a great experience. Functional designers are able to imagine and conceptualize new concepts and implementations, breaking away from the standard pre-set designs. They are able to blur the lines between what looks good and what could actually be developed in the timeframe set to serve both design and functionality.
It has become relatively easy to just search for a theme or pre-designed layout, customize it a bit to fit the requirements needed and boom: exportable designs are ready to be developed. If you are a savy functional designer, you might even have a Sketch plug-in set up to export to Xcode or Android Studio right away so that you can start developing. If you want to develop a brand new experience on your own, that too has become an easier endeavor than say, 3 years ago.
Just recently I was introduced to Supernova.studio by one of our team members (a talented functional designer himself). This brand new product allows functional designers to export the Sketch files and “re-assemble” them into executable iOS and Android code, building the foundational blocks for developers. I believe that this is just the start of a disruption that will soon blur the lines between designers and developers.
Why isn’t everyone doing this you ask? You need experience to understand how to follow the guidelines yet breakaway to be unique. You need the eye for design, attention to detail and at the same time deliver work that does not force developers to stretch timelines and go insane in the process. You need to forecast trends, understand usability, and also comprehend what challenges developers will face with your design and come with solutions.
So where do you find a functional designer? Similar to full stack developers, they do exist and are out there. Most likely they have “evolved” from either a developer or a designer to a hybrid of both. As the software industry changes and adapts to new languages, so will the professionals working in the industry. Are we already seeing a hybrid of several specializations? Is it perhaps time for the indie developer that designs, develops, tests and deploys to shine? With technologies like React Native and tools like Sketch (and now Supernova), perhaps we are already there.