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Missing at SXSW 2015: Conversations Between Engineers and Designers

“UX, meet Engineering. Engineering, meet UX. You two should talk.”

As anyone who has been immersed in the madness that is the SXSW Interactive festival can tell you, there was a palpable obsession in Austin last week for the latest news in design and technology. Everyone wanted to know what the cool new thing is going to be, and when they can start integrating and playing with it. But there was a distinct lack of discussion around how individuals and companies can really grow their own innovation at home.

Combing through the hundreds of classes at SXSW, there were myriad opportunities for engineers to learn the ins and outs of the hot technologies, and countless rooms packed with user experience (UX) professionals discussing the latest trends in design. But you didn’t see these folks talking to each other, and there weren’t many structured opportunities to do so.

That we continue to overlook this fundamental relationship between design and engineering may be one of the biggest problems in the software world today.

It’s easy to fall into the track of thinking that says, “I’m an engineer, I need to learn more engineer stuff” and “I’m a designer, so I need to learn more UX stuff.” I get it — we live in a world of specialization, and we are trying to be better specialists. However, the value of that specialization is fundamentally determined by the ability to get those people to talk to one another, to challenge each other’s limits and to get amazing things done. Let’s face it — engineers and designers are different types of people who speak a different language, and this doesn’t usually happen without some effort and structure.

At the heart of every great technical innovation is a deeply entrenched partnership between design and development, yet we don’t spend much time figuring out how to nurture that relationship and maximize innovation. This is where we may be missing out on opportunities to elevate our products through the kind of innovation that can only happen when UX folks and engineers are working in harmony.

To paraphrase John Lasseter, of Pixar fame: Design challenges technology, and technology inspires design.

Put in a more pessimistic light: Design without technology is just a pretty picture, and technology without design is, well, not a pretty picture at all. Seems obvious, right?

Then why aren’t there more structured opportunities for engineers and UX designers to come together at one of the largest gatherings of tech and UX professionals in the world?

So I’m going to propose a new class for SXSW 2016: “UX, meet Engineering. Engineering, meet UX. You two should talk.”

Mason Foster is a seasoned user-experience (UX) leader with strong opinions, big ideas and a sensibility for getting things done. He is currently the director of UX at MuleSoft, a San Francisco-based company that makes it easy to connect applications, data and devices. Reach him @MuleSoft.

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