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Cognition

The Cracks

The holiday break is one stretch of time during the year when I completely remove myself from the business of building the web. Stepping outside our community to engage with old friends and family members provides a much-needed recharge and change of perspective.

In the course of conversation, what I do for a living sometimes surfaces with an innocent query like, “So are you a programmer or a designer?” To which I usually try to quickly think of a vague enough response to diffuse the line of questioning. I could just choose an answer and call it a day, but not without feeling an awkward guilt from not telling the truth.

While my title at Happy Cog carries “designer,” my discomfort has very little to do with the job title itself and more with what I am trying to achieve. Choosing to tell someone that my role is to either create a site’s graphics or write its code isn’t really true. If part of my day is spent in a text editor writing CSS for a layout, does that make me a front-end developer? What if I’m drawing user flows on whiteboards for an afternoon, or in Photoshop fine-tuning typography, or talking on the phone to clients about content strategy? Even for code-averse designers, design doesn’t screech to a halt once a client approves aesthetic choices or after a site passes usability testing flawlessly. Likewise, a site’s underlying structure and styles aren’t born in code, and its content isn’t created in a vacuum. We all work toward the same thing: the execution. It’s the only part of our process that users get to interact with, so we better make it great.

When users have a good experience on a site, it’s rare that they even think about the circus that went into making it happen. The design system is cohesive, content is digestible, patterns are recognizable, taxonomy is organized, markup is semantic, styles are cascading, assets are compressed, server-side caching is humming swiftly, and all is well with the world. Things just work.

Cracks in the experience begin to form when role-based processes break down. Sometimes these cracks are small. Maybe a piece of content is buried, or a button is styled with more padding than intended. Perhaps someone tagged something incorrectly, or a style is written using the wrong values. Over time, large gaps can form. A once-sturdy navigation can no longer support a site’s overgrown taxonomy, or a headline obfuscates an improperly sized feature photograph.

Cracks develop not because we didn’t read enough design books or master all the shortcuts in Sublime Text. Somewhere along the way, one person’s knowledge was not sent, received, or acted on. The more we intentionally overlap our roles in the journey toward the execution, the easier it is to patch up those cracks—or avoid them altogether.

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