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Learning programming made me a better designer

February 22, 2013

At 37signals, our designers write code. Not just HTML and CSS — Ruby and JavaScript too. We can all get reasonably far implementing an idea before calling in a programmer for help.

I was lucky to get a crash course in Rails when production for the new Basecamp was kicking into high gear. But even after a year in the trenches, I wasn’t confident I was Doing It Right™. So last fall I took the Rails for Designers class at The Starter League. Obviously, the class helped me get better at programming. I wasn’t expecting it to transform my design process — yet that’s exactly what happened.

Before you can walk, you have to stand on your own feet.

An interface isn’t just a series of static screens pasted together. It’s a flow, with inputs and outputs. You can’t truly evaluate an interface until you can use it, and you can’t use it until you build it. Anything less than the real thing is a fuzzy approximation.

It’s fine to bring in a programmer when you’re confident that your idea is worth building, but what if you’re not so sure? Now you’ve used someone else’s time and mental energy to make something that might hit the dumpster. That stinks.

This hit home recently when we started working on a new app. Before, we’d make a static mockup or build a few working pieces and then call in a programmer assist. This time, we’ve been able to stay in the prototype phase much longer – almost 2 months – without having to use up a programmer’s time to test concepts and explore ideas.

You don’t have to be a code master. I am most definitely not. If you can just make things functional, that’s enough to evaluate and a huge head start for a real programmer to make it great.