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Designers and Code: Why Mobile App Designers Should Learn to Program


Brian Harper

Harper quote

The idea that everyone can benefit from learning to code has gained mainstream popularity over the past couple years. Politicians, athletes and billionaires support Code.org. Online courses are popping up everywhere. And of course we offer a variety of bootcamps to teach you how to be a better programmer.

Someone even tried to teach a homeless man to make a living by coding and then wrote about it. However, all this buzz has caused backlash in the form of blog posts warning people to hold their horses and think about what they’re getting into. But as a designer interested in learning to code, I still believe that learning more about programming will be key to my success or failure as a mobile app designer in the coming years.

Why Designers should learn to code

The common argument made against learning to code is one of opportunity cost: “Why learn to code when you could spend time on literally anything else?” That argument can be applied to any investment of time, and it doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight for me. The bottom line behind all these counter-opinions is that learning to code is an enormous endeavor that won’t necessarily lead to fame and fortune. That’s a fair point for weeding out the get-rich-quick crowd, but it shouldn’t deter anyone who wants to design and create interactive experiences.

Traditionally, mobile app designers deliver documentation (comps and specs) to developers, who take care of implementation and iteration. This process can work well, but often results in an end product that diverges from the complete vision in a designer’s head. As designers, we can certainly improve our designs by learning more about usability, copywriting, research, marketing and psychology, rather than learning to code.

But no matter how good those initial comps and specs are, they need to be implemented correctly and iterated on continuously in order to be useful to the end user. I think the best way to make sure that happens is by empowering designers to implement and iterate on design decisions alongside developers. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing production-quality code from scratch. Being able to understand the relative costs of different design executions; tweak design parameters like colors, type styles and coordinates; and push changes using version control is enough to empower a designer to take total responsibility for their work.

What’s next

Web design as a discipline seems to be years ahead of native app design in this respect. Most web designers today are expected to implement or edit their designs in HTML/CSS. I think native iOS app designers will be expected to use UIStoryboards/Interface Builder to implement their designs in the very near future.

We don’t need to spend a lifetime learning to code at the expense of getting better at our own discipline, but I think Marc Edwards put it best when he said, “I have never, ever known a designer to be worse off for knowing more about code.”

Editor’s note: Brian Harper is presenting on this topic and more at CocoaConf Atlanta on November 15, 2013. He hopes to see you there or on __Twitter_._


Brian Harper

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