When I first started learning about web development, I discovered an instant infatuation with design. I would scroll endlessly through Dribble, thinking that everything on there felt perfect and was in an untouchable realm of its own – one I didn’t feel worthy of entering. I think that’s in part why I was drawn to web development – I wanted to be in the presence of designers and get to touch those (seemingly) infallible creations they produced. My curiosity for both development and design eventually led me down a path of learning and self-discovery, a path which brought me to my current role as a creative technologist. If that name is new to you (or perhaps sounds like what programmers in the 1940s were called), I’m right there with you! I’m still getting used to it and discovering what the role is myself, so come along and I’ll share what I’ve uncovered in these dark and inky corridors!
Design Is Not a One-Way Street
It wasn’t until I arrived at Wayfair that I got the chance to work on a team with dedicated designers and engineers. Being on a cross-functional team opened the door for a couple I’d never had: constant facetime with designers and a peek into how they crafted those gorgeous, gorgeous mocks.
My previous work experience at an agency gave me the understanding that it was the industry norm to engineer things from dogmatic design docs, with no way to ask questions. But at Wayfair, I was encouraged to give feedback. If something didn’t work because of a technical constraint, I could (and, in fact, was encouraged to) brainstorm solutions with a designer. Over time, this collaboration gave me the confidence that I could advocate for design changes on behalf of my code. I realized I could reduce the complexity of the dev work at hand by influencing design requirements earlier on. What a discovery! I used to think that every problem in code had to be solved with code, but working with designers made me realize that there were other ways to solve coding problems – many other ways.
The Perilous Gap Between Domains
My eyes were now open to all of the functions necessary to create the best-possible customer experience. I also started to recognize that between design and engineering, there were gaps of lost context and blurred intentions. Could I be the bridge between these disciplines?
I had a lot to share, so I eagerly created a few presentations aimed at teaching engineers about design and designers about engineering. I joined a team of designers to learn more about the craft and share what I could from my engineering perspective. Eventually, a project came along that put what I learned to the test – a magnum opus of my young Creative Technologist career.
The project I took on was updating the wayfair.com header to help customers better navigate the full breadth of Wayfair’s categories in one place. I would be responsible for the design all the way through to engineering, a challenge I was excited about but also quite nervous for. Over the course of its eight-month timeline, this project illuminated the great advantages – as well as some challenges – of the Creative Technologist role.
Be the Best Bridge You Can Be
I was able to be the single thread that connected every stakeholder and decision for the Wayfair header project. In the design phase, I was able to make design decisions based on my understanding of the underlying codebase and what was (and wasn’t) technically feasible. This frontend knowledge was extremely helpful during the engineering phase, as I could justify decisions to other engineers and share context about the “why” of what we were doing.
Of course, if I didn’t have the answer, I could always reach out to a nearby expert. I had a wonderful network of peers who supported me with every domain of the project (UX research, product design, product management, and engineering). I wouldn’t have known how to run a successful user test without User Research Lead Kiersten Chalhoub, how to approach the design process without Senior Design Lead Norman Wozniak, or how to effectively communicate with stakeholders without Senior Product Manager Liz Collins. It would have been impossible without them, along with the many others who supported me and this project along the way.
Designing is hard! There were endless questions throughout the process: Does this experience solve the customer’s needs? Can it be made simpler? Does it need to be made at all? Coming from an engineering background, I was used to refining and working within comfortable constraints. This new frontier of endless possibilities was, at times, paralyzing.
There’s a productive, fundamental friction between design and engineering that I grew to appreciate during this process. Inherent in design is the desire to discover and create, while engineering tends to be about defining and simplifying. Normally, these goals are spread across two different people or even two teams, but in my Creative Technologist role, I’m tasked with thinking about all of it. And, being frank, I sometimes felt that this responsibility hampered my willingness to innovate because I knew I would be responsible for building, too.
Along with the Creative Technologist role came some feelings of isolation. I was no longer an engineer, but also not a full-blown designer. It didn’t help that my new Creative Technologist title didn’t feel “figured out” yet. There wasn’t much online about the role and there was only one other person at Wayfair with the same title. I felt like an inept chameleon, not able to fully adapt to all scenarios. In hindsight, I wish I had been more vulnerable and open about what I didn’t know to my team around me since they were always there to help me.
Being a generalist allowed me to travel outside the world of engineering and opened my eyes to the other roles involved. Until I started in this role, I didn’t fully understand (or even know about) the challenges that other disciplines face. For example, I didn’t understand how frustratingly difficult design could be. I also didn’t ever think that the best way to influence code might involve going outside of engineering. I now have an earnest respect for every discipline involved in any product work and the vast array of interesting challenges that arise.
As for what's next, I’m excited to keep exploring the inky unknowns and trying to be the best bridge I can be for those around me. I encourage you to look around, too, and see if there are any bridges that need building in your neck of the woods!