Easing The Path from Design to Development

As a web developer, I have the pleasure of working with a lot of different designers. There has been a lot of industry discussion of late about designers and developers, focusing on how different we sometimes are and how the interface between our respective phases of a project (that is to say moving from a design phase into production) can sometimes become a battleground.

I don’t believe it has to be a battleground. It’s actually more like being a dance partner – our steps are different, but as long as we know our own part and have a little knowledge of our partner’s steps, it all goes together to form a cohesive dance. Albeit with less spandex and fewer sequins (although that may depend on the project in question).

As the process usually flows from design towards development, it’s most important that designers have a little knowledge of how the site is going to be built. At the specialist web development agency I’m part of, we find that designs that have been well considered from a technical perspective help to keep the project on track and on budget.

Based on that experience, I’ve put together my checklist of things that designers should consider before handing their work over to a developer to build.

Layout

One rookie mistake made by traditionally trained designers transferring to the web is to forget a web browser is not a fixed medium. Unlike designing a magazine layout or a piece of packaging, there are lots of available options to consider. Should the layout be fluid and resize with the window, or should it be set to a fixed width? If it’s fluid, which parts expand and which not? If it’s fixed, should it sit in the middle of the window or to one side?

If any part of the layout is going to be flexible (get wider and narrower as required), consider how any graphics are affected. Images don’t usually look good if displayed at anything other that their original size, so should they behave? If a column is going to get wider than it’s shown in the Photoshop comp, it may be necessary to provide separate wider versions of any background images.

Text size and content volume

A related issue is considering how the layout behaves with both different sizes of text and different volumes of content. Whilst text zooming rather than text resizing is becoming more commonplace as the default behaviour in browsers, it’s still a fundamentally important principal of web design that we are suggesting and not dictating how something should look. Designs must allow for a little give and take in the text size, and how this affects the design needs to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that the same font can display differently in different places and platforms. Something as simple as Times will display wider on a Mac than on Windows. However, the main impact of text resizing is the change in how much vertical space copy takes up. This is particularly important where space is limited by the design (making text bigger causes many more problems than making text smaller). Each element from headings to box-outs to navigation items and buttons needs to be able to expand at least vertically, if not horizontally as well. This may require some thought about how elements on the page may wrap onto new lines, as well as again making sure to provide extended versions of any graphical elements.

Similarly, it’s rare theses days to know exactly what content you’re working with when a site is designed. Many, if not most sites are designed as a series of templates for some kind of content management system, and so designs cannot be tweaked around any specific item of content. Designs must be able to cope with both much greater and much lesser volumes of content that might be thrown in at the lorem ipsum phase.

Particular things to watch out for are things like headings (how do they wrap onto multiple lines) and any user-generated items like usernames. It can be very easy to forget that whilst you might expect something like a username to be 8-12 characters, if the systems powering your site allow for 255 characters they’ll always be someone who’ll go there. Expect them to do so.

Again, if your site is content managed or not, consider the possibility that the structure might be expanded in the future. Consider how additional items might be added to each level of navigation. Whilst it’s rarely desirable to make significant changes without revisiting the site’s information architecture more thoroughly, it’s an inevitable fact of life that the structure needs a little bit of flexibility to change over time.

Interactions with and without JavaScript

A great number of sites now make good use of JavaScript to streamline the user interface and make everything just that touch more usable. Remember, though, that any developer worth their salt will start by building the interface without JavaScript, get it all working, and then layer that JavaScript on top. This is to allow for users viewing the site without JavaScript available or enabled in their browser.

Designers need to consider both states of any feature they’re designing – how it looks and functions with and without JavaScript. If the feature does something fancy with Ajax, consider how the same can be achieved with basic HTML forms, links and intermediary pages. These all need to be designed, because this is how some of your users will interact with the site.

Logged in and logged out states

When designing any type of web application or site that has a membership system – that is to say users can create an account and log into the site – the design will need to consider how any element is presented in both logged in and logged out states. For some items there’ll be no difference, whereas for others there may be considerable differences.

Should an item be hidden completely not logged out users? Should it look different in some way? Perhaps it should look the same, but prompt the user to log in when they interact with it. If so, what form should that prompt take on and how does the user progress through the authentication process to arrive back at the task they were originally trying to complete?

Couple logged in and logged out states with the possible absence of JavaScript, and every feature needs to be designed in four different states:

  • Logged out with JavaScript available
  • Logged in with JavaScript available
  • Logged out without JavaScript available
  • Logged in without JavaScript available

Fonts

There are three main causes of war in this world; religions, politics and fonts. I’ve said publicly before that I believe the responsibility for this falls squarely at the feet of Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop, like a mistress at a brothel, parades a vast array of ropey, yet strangely enticing typefaces past the eyes of weak, lily-livered designers, who can’t help but crumble to their curvy charms.

Yet, on the web, we have to be a little more restrained in our choice of typefaces. The purest solution is always to make the best use of the available fonts, but this isn’t always the most desirable solution from a design point of view. There are several technical solutions such as techniques that utilise Flash (like sIFR), dynamically generated images and even canvas in newer browsers. Discuss the best approach with your developer, as every different technique has different trade-offs, and this may impact the design in other ways.

Messaging

Any site that has interactive elements, from a simple contact form through to fully featured online software application, involves some kind of user messaging. By this I mean the error messages when something goes wrong and the success and thank-you messages when something goes right. These typically appear as the result of an interaction, so are easy to forget and miss off a Photoshop comp.

For every form, consider what gets displayed to the user if they make a mistake or miss something out, and also what gets displayed back when the interaction is successful. What do they see and where do the go next?

With Ajax interactions, the user doesn’t get any visual feedback of the site waiting for a response from the server unless you design it that way. Consider using a ‘waiting’ or ‘in progress’ spinner to give the user some visual feedback of any background processes. How should these look? How do they animate?

Similarly, also consider the big error pages like a 404. With luck, these won’t often be seen, but it’s at the point that they are when careful design matters the most.

Form fields

Depending on the visual style of your site, the look of a browser’s default form fields and buttons can sometimes jar. It’s understandable that many a designer wants to change the way they look. Depending on the browser in question, various things can be done to style form fields and their buttons (although it’s not as flexible as most would like).

A common request is to replace the default buttons with a graphical button. This is usually achievable in most cases, although it’s not easy to get a consistent result across all browsers – particularly when it comes to vertical positioning and the space surrounding the button. If the layout is very precise, or if space is at a premium, it’s always best to try and live with the browser’s default form controls.

Whichever way you go, it’s important to remember that in general, each form field should have a label, and each form should have a submit button. If you find that your form breaks either of those rules, you should double check.

Practical tips for handing files over

There are a couple of basic steps that a design can carry out to make sure that the developer has the best chance of implementing the design exactly as envisioned.

If working with Photoshop of Fireworks or similar comping tool, it helps to group and label layers to make it easy for a developer to see which need to be turned on and off to get to isolate parts of the page and different states of the design. Also, if you don’t work in the same office as your developer (and so they can’t quickly check with you), provide a PDF of each page and state so that your developer can see how each page should look aside from any confusion with quick layers are switched on or off. These also act as a handy quick reference that can be used without firing up Photoshop (which can kill both productivity and your machine).

Finally, provide a colour reference showing the RGB values of all the key colours used throughout the design. Without this, the developer will end up colour-picking from the comps, and could potentially end up with different colours to those you intended. Remember, for a lot of developers, working in a tool like Photoshop is like presenting a designer with an SSH terminal into a web server. It’s unfamiliar ground and easy to get things wrong. Be the expert of your own domain and help your colleagues out when they’re out of their comfort zone. That goes both ways.

In conclusion

When asked the question of how to smooth hand-over between design and development, almost everyone who has experienced this situation could come up with their own list. This one is mine, based on some of the more common experiences we have at edgeofmyseat.com. So in bullet point form, here’s my checklist for handing a design over.

  • Is the layout fixed, or fluid?
  • Does each element cope with expanding for larger text and more content?
  • Are all the graphics large enough to cope with an area expanding?
  • Does each interactive element have a state for with and without JavaScript?
  • Does each element have a state for logged in and logged out users?
  • How are any custom fonts being displayed? (and does the developer have the font to use?)
  • Does each interactive element have error and success messages designed?
  • Do all form fields have a label and each form a submit button?
  • Is your Photoshop comp document well organised?
  • Have you provided flat PDFs of each state?
  • Have you provided a colour reference?
  • Are we having fun yet?

About the author

Drew McLellan is lead developer on your favourite small CMS, Perch. He is Director and Senior Developer at UK-based web development agency edgeofmyseat.com, and formerly Group Lead at the Web Standards Project. When not publishing 24 ways, Drew keeps a personal site covering web development issues and themes, takes photos and tweets a lot.

More articles by Drew

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