Whether you’re a digital startup in its early stages or an established, large-scale company, you will already know that it is incredibly challenging to propel a product from idea to launch without encountering any roadblocks. Product teams often have to navigate through seemingly endless back-and-forths, comments, and revisions that can hamper progress.
Although we’d certainly like to make the traditional design-to-development handoff a thing of the past, it is still common practice for designers to begin project work, hand it over to developers, and conclude their involvement in the project. With this structure in place, it is not unusual to experience friction between design and development.
As a reminder, a product team consists of both the designers and the developers. Designers are responsible for crafting usable and useful interfaces (UI) that enhance the user’s experience (UX) while creating a visually appealing product. Designers ensure that the users are able to achieve their goals and fulfill a need. On the other hand, developers engineer the designers’ work into the functioning product or platform that exists in the real world. They convert the designs into user-friendly applications by building features and functionality via code.
There is no question that both teams are equally important, but this doesn’t always prevent issues in the handoff process. The problem often lies in mistakenly separating design from implementation and designers from developers. This is what you want to avoid even before you reach the handoff stage.
It is possible for developers to code without any design work being done, but omitting the design phase means that the product’s functionality will not have been well thought out. This will almost certainly result in poor user experience – after all, it is the designers who prioritize the end-user and thus plan and structure the product in the most user-friendly way. Going straight into development means that the “finishing touches” of the product, such as interactions or micro-animations, will be missed, making its visual aspect both incomplete and ineffective. So although developers can build a product without the design phase, it’s the design that truly enhances the usability and overall experience of the product.
It is also feasible for designers to design without the development phase – that is essentially what they do in the early stages of product planning. However, it is impossible to eliminate the development phase altogether. Without development, there will not be a real-world product, only a collection of designs and prototypes.
Before we talk about how to perform a handoff effectively, let’s first define the purpose of a handoff.
The design to development handoff is a crucial point in the product creation process. It allows the design team to compile all the completed design materials and share them with developers to be built and implemented in the product. Handing over design details and assets also ensures that designers can communicate their vision with the development team. This is typically considered the last step of designers’ participation in a project.
In general, we distinguish between two types of design handoffs. The first is a traditional approach, whereby the design team completes the designs, hands their work over to development, and then moves on to their next project. The designers end their participation in the product creation process after the handoff.
The second approach – and the one we advocate for – is collaborative. Here, the design and development teams are working together from the early stages of the project up until its completion. Developers begin to provide their input at the wireframing stage (handled by the design team), while designers continue supporting the product’s development until it is ready to launch.
To perform a well-planned, seamless handoff, the product team needs to start preparing well in advance. They should also take note of some common issues that can be addressed prior to the beginning of the project to make the handoff more successful further down the line. Generally, the team can navigate these pitfalls by having a clear plan, and by cultivating early and continuous communication.
We can’t stress this enough: effective communication is non-negotiable if you want a smooth handoff that will also result in a great end-product. Clarifying everything from the onset of the project will help avoid feedback loops between designers and developers. Product teams have no time to waste – so set specific goals and ensure both teams are aware of them.
It is helpful to schedule regular check-in meetings – these should be quick and efficient, just to touch base and keep everyone updated on the progress of the project. This will help avoid misunderstandings that could otherwise lead to issues in the product and make the job more time-consuming. Take advantage of collaborative tools that will help simplify the process and ensure that the handed-over materials don’t come as a surprise.
Read more about bridging the communication gap between design and development.
As the design portion of the product is finally ready to be handed over to the development team, there are a number of essential items to be included in the shared file. Usually, the handoff will consist of the following:
Having a design system that is shared between designers and developers is an effective way to maintain the same standards and goals for the entire product team. Design systems exist to manage complexity and help create, iterate, and ship better products – they act as a unified visual language for the entire team, ensuring consistency in product design and saving time. Focusing on having a comprehensive design system also reinforces the idea that design is not just about the visuals, but also about making the product functionally accessible both to the product team and the end-users.
The design system should include the specifications, measurements, and style guides of components and patterns. Ideally, you’ll have shared the entire design system at the beginning of the development phase, in which case these details will already be specified. Pay attention to platform-specific guidelines!
(Find out more about how to build a design system.)
The wireframes will have already been shared with developers in the early stages of product planning. So by the time the project timeline reaches the design handoff, the design team should be able to provide descriptive, high-fidelity screen designs. These will help make user flows and other processes more understandable to developers.
By now, you should have a complete image of the product, so it’s helpful to identify and discard any other previous iterations and mockups of the designs and keep only the necessary (and latest) files. This will help avoid confusion and simplify the asset collection. In terms of naming, ensure that file names clearly indicate their purpose in an easily understandable way. So, component names should include the details of the variations of the components, and should follow a consistent format throughout the design.
List out the copy to be included in the product’s design, and make sure that it’s clear where all of it has to go. At this stage, design and copy should exist cohesively so it’s important to clearly record all the copy with its situation and context (e.g., whether/when a message should appear/disappear).
Prototypes can be incredibly helpful to the entire product team in the pre-handoff stage.
Interactive prototypes help illustrate the structure of the website or app, outline the primary UX flows, and even give a glimpse of the animations and interactions. It lets developers evaluate whether the interface design is realistic and how it might look and function across different devices and platforms.
You will have already prepared some prototypes and mockups before the handoff. At this stage, it’s best to organize these into annotated flows and interactions so that developers know how to approach the code.
Tip: Creating and reviewing prototypes at a wireframe level will decrease the number of revisions executed on the high-fidelity designs.
Animations are those small elements that are not always necessary and yet can offer a much-needed enhancement to UX. If your product includes animations, screen-capture their flows and provide the developer with a detailed specification. If you can only provide static visuals, this step might require a conversation with the developer to clarify your needs.
Tip: It is possible to have dynamic animations in your prototypes. This can be done by incorporating lottie files (.JSON) into the design.
To maximize clarity and minimize misinterpretation, it is helpful for designers to add detailed notes to the files that they will pass to development and document the steps required in each flow. This can be done directly on the designs via useful tools like Figma (our personal favorite), InVision, and Sketch. To avoid missing designs, have a list of all the features and flows that need to be designed. It is also helpful to flag the status of each item – whether it is in progress or completed.
Following the previous point, it’s essential for designers to provide a resource with all the necessary design files and assets to make developers’ job easier and prevent setbacks. These can be shared via a tool that was previously agreed upon – for instance, Figma allows teams to handle everything from creation to collaboration directly, keeping everything in one place for a smoother workflow.
At the same time, the lines of communication need to be kept open so that any questions and concerns can be addressed once development has begun. This is why the handoff doesn’t just mean dumping all the design files to the development team.
In a traditional design to development handoff, the handover of material would occur after the designer has completed crafting all the possible components and flows – that is, at the end of the design phase and before the development phase begins.
But, in an ideal scenario, the order of things should be different.
Instead of treating the handoff as 1) a one-person job and 2) the last step in the designers’ scope of work, the product-building process should be collaborative from the start to the finish of the development phase.
Major product design decisions and objectives are typically set far before the development process starts.
According to the design strategy at Mäd, at the start of the project, the design team creates wireframes that are shared with the development team. It is at this point of the process that the developers already become involved: they can provide feedback on the feasibility of the wireframes before the designers start to develop the design system and roll out the UI.
The developers may set goals and come up with a development priority list based on the wireframes, as they will have an idea of the full scope of the product. They can provide the design team with a list of the most immediate flows they want to receive in order to complete a first version of the product (the ‘minimum viable product’, or MVP). This allows designers to hand over work in batches set by priority. It also lets the product team test what has already been done, and make any necessary changes without having to deal with the entire product.
That way, a handoff is still happening, but in a strategically planned manner.
When collaborating on a project, it is both the designers’ and the developers’ responsibility to set each other up for success.
After agreeing on how the task will be broken down, designers should make it a priority to share their work early and often with developers. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it encourages constructive feedback and collaboration – for instance, just running initial design ideas past developers can help point out any potential issues on the technical side.
Developers’ feedback can (and should!) influence design decisions throughout the project lifecycle. Both designers and developers are trying to solve problems, and both of them can generate diverse perspectives that the other hasn’t thought of.
Setting up a handoff meeting is a no-brainer in our books.
Having a proper handover session is crucial – especially when design and development are not within the same team (e.g., split between two or more companies). It’s an efficient way to compile what has already been done, outline the next steps, and address any questions and concerns.
This is also when the team can review specific timelines and expectations, and everyone’s responsibilities. Here, it’s important to communicate everything in clear and universal terms, avoiding jargon: minimizing the knowledge gaps between designers and developers will only improve the process.
Just like the beginning phases of design, the stages of building and iteration should continue to be collaborative. In fact, even after the handoff, it can be helpful to sit down together occasionally (physically, if possible) and take the opportunity to strengthen the existing solutions and improve flows.
This gives designers a sense of how the product feels and functions, and what the technical constraints are. Meanwhile, developers can give feedback and request the necessary adjustments as they go – they know best when it comes to feasible implementation. Both teams can visualize the product from a clearer, more realistic perspective: does the code need to be tweaked, or is it the design that doesn’t scale with the actual data?
Finally, both design and development should be involved in usability testing. This helps align the designers’ vision for UX and UI with the technical reality.
Design and development should not be divided into separate stages within the project timeline.
We may be able to develop a product without first designing it or design a product prototype without ever building it through code, but the only way to create a functional product that is both intuitive to use and visually refined is by unifying design and development.
It is also about learning to communicate and cultivating teamwork. Being a great teammate in a product team requires empathy and understanding – not only towards users and clients but also towards each other. The important thing is to involve developers in the design process and ensure they grasp the “why” of design decisions. Likewise, designers need to engage in the development stage and have an understanding of the technology that enables their design.
The constant collaboration between designers and developers will give each role a better understanding of the other, allowing all individuals involved in the process to grow and create better products in the future.
In the bigger picture, this is what results in a better product – and a more synergetic team.
So we’ve discussed why it is crucial to bridge the gap between design and development, and how product teams can achieve balance by practicing effective communication. We’ve also explored design systems and dissected the concept down to its constituent parts, providing a step-by-step guideline on how to craft a design system of your own. Finally, as the concluding chapter of our series about design and development, this insight has covered one of the most important but often confusing stages in product development – the design handoff. We hope that this series has been helpful in detailing how design and development should work in unison to bring stunning products to life.