February 16, 2012, 9:39 AM

IRWD 2012: Getting web designers and I.T. to work together

Schwinn Cycling Sports Group’s designers plan ahead with tech developers.

Lead Photo

David Kersting

It’s a game familiar to anyone involved in web design: The vision-heavy designers vs. the performance-minded developer geeks. The former typically are in a rush to get the latest and greatest web features up and running, the latter trying to figure out how they’re going to fit another must-have project into their already overworked schedule while still ensuring the site loads quickly and doesn’t crash.

The opposing interests have been known to frustrate both sides and result in projects that could have benefited from better planning and cooperation—but there are ways to overcome such difficulties, experts said at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference Wednesday in Orlando.

It’s crucial for design and user experience teams to lay out a project’s business goals and scope ahead of time in coordination with the technology developers who will actually do the work, said David Kersting, director of e-commerce technology at Dorel Industries Inc.’s Schwinn Cycling Sports Group, in a conference session titled “For designers: How to get your IT department to support your user experience initiatives.”

“The answer is inclusion—get I.T. involved from the beginning,” agreed Alex Schmelkin, president of Schwinn’s web design firm, Alexander Interactive, who shared the session podium with Kersting. “Involving I.T. at the right time, in the right way,” he said, helps to get full cooperation and support from technology developers.

Schwinn has learned, for example, that by having “designers and HTMLers in the same room,” project managers realized they could design a page to let users click to see product details in real time, Kersting said. “Designers didn’t realize they could do that.” The result, he added, is a better user experience on product pages.

In other cases, combining both teams in the early stages of project planning can help to prevent problems that might crop up later on. Kersting gave as an example a project to design a form for online customers to enter their ZIP codes during the purchase process. “What if the customer enters the wrong ZIP code?” he said. It’s good to figure out ahead of time with designers and I.T. developers to build a form that would automatically help correct the customer’s mistake, he added.

Both speakers suggested beginning design projects with rough sketches reviewed by designers and I.T. developers. “They can be rough drafts of what designers are looking for,” Schmelkin said, adding, “I.T. folks are aware of the latest and greatest technology, and what it can do.”

It also doesn’t hurt to make mistakes early on in design projects when designers and developers are working together, Kersting said. In one project for Schwinn’s Sugoi brand, for example, designers got buy-in from top executives for a design that would let site visitors hover over product images with a computer mouse to instantly activate a pop-up window with more product details and a Buy button. I.T. staffers explained, however, that they could not build the feature within the constraints of the project’s schedule, but that similar functionality was in the works for the company’s Cannondale bike brand and would eventually become available for the Sugoi site. Sharing the Sugoi plans early on with I.T. prevented the original design from going too far without upsetting expectations, while designers also realized their desired functionality could be included later on.

­­Designers can also contribute to better cooperation with I.T. developers by acquiring a general understanding of key technology tools. “Learn how to speak the language,” Schmelkin urged designers. “You don’t have to program [software], but learn to talk the language.”

Using and having a basic understanding of such development terms as Java, PHP, Ajax and CSS—which all pertain to technologies used in building and designing web pages—will be appreciated by I.T. developers and provide for a better camaraderie among design and I.T. teams, he said.

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