Expression Blend not for Designers, but for Integrators

Dennis van der Stelt - SQL Data Services & Silverlight 3 @ SDN Event Last Friday I was at the SDN Event in Houten, where I followed several UX tracks, and spoke with the speakers afterwards. I was trying to find out how they worked with Designers and Developers and the technique’s Silverlight and WPF.

And almost everybody agreed (except Kevin McNeish for some reason) on how to let these two groups cooperate. You will need someone called an Integrator. Somebody who can merge the work of the designer with the work of the developer.

Expression Blend is not a tool for Designers. Maybe Microsoft would really like the idea that Designers would work with it, but you cannot really design in it.

You probably can educate your Designers to let them work in Blend, but personally I think that’s rather strange. Because with Microsoft’s Philosophy about “People Ready” and “User-centered design” where the application is adjusted to the person’s specific needs. This one doesn’t seem to fit in. It looks like they’ve created a new role within the development process.

So how do you need to work with a “Integrator”.

Well, it really depends on how much your designers are willing to “bend” towards the tasks of an Integrator. If they only make the design as pictures, then the Integrator must build the entire interface in XAML.

I also may be possible that a Designer (or someone else) can do the work of a Front-end developer, and build the interface architecture in Blend. The Integrator will then connect it to the work of the Developer.

With the interface architecture ready (build by either a Front-end developer or the Integrator), and you have “learned” Designers how to Style the different elements in the interface, then they can do this styling themselves right inside Blend. But you do need to teach them how to work with the different styling types, bindings, resources, etc.

Luckily most difficulties are with integrating the Design. Development on the other hand is a bit more straightforward and can be applied through patterns as MVVM. This article by Josh Smith in the February 2009 issue of the MSDN magazine explains how you can work with this.

Conclusion: When working with Silverlight or WPF, and have both Designers and Developers, make sure to get yourself an Integrator (or someone who can fill in that role). Having a naming-convention like I explained in this post will just not work in this scenario, because you cannot expect Designers to be able to build the entire interface in Blend themselves.

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6 Responses

  1. Erwyn van der Meer says:

    I think Blend *is* a design tool. For example for designing UIs, interactions and animations. It is not suitable for creating graphics. Those are better created with other tools and then imported into Blend.

    Surely UI designers will need training to become effective in Blend, just like developers need training to become effective in using WPF or Silverlight.

    If you want to introduce an additional specialized role called Integrator for working with Blend, I think you better make sure that that person is also a good designer.

  2. Probably the problem is with the definition of a “Designer”. The way I see it, a designer is not technically and thinks about the application pure visually. From that point of view Blend is a hard tool to learn.
    If you see “Designers” as front-end Developers, then yes, Blend will work for those people. Web-Designers who also build site’s may also be able to work with it.
    It’s like I said, what is the definition, and what may you expect of them in terms of technically implementation of a interface.

    An Integrator is someone who knows a lot of both the technically and the design side. So he’d probably is also a good designer. Though it may not be as good as someone who’s primarily a Designer.

  3. Erwyn van der Meer says:

    Blend is intended to let Designers design and create a user interface including animations and user interactions. The same person or another Designer may use tools like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop to create graphical elements that are included in the design.

    I agree that Blend will probably take a more technically inclined Designer to take full advantage of this and it takes effort to learn. But when you find this type of person, you have the must productive and full fidelity workflow in creating graphical WPF/Silverlight applications.

    No more of the Designer drawing stuff that cannot be turned into reality or has to be changed significantly because of inherent platform limitations.

    But isn’t learning tools always part of the equation? I also cannot image someone being productive in the other “pure” Design tools right off the bat without education and gradually building up experience.

    When a Designer works with Photoshop you have to “get” the concept of layers and how they “shine through” one another. If you just have the final 2D result in mind, you will have a pretty hard time getting there.

  4. AvdMeulen says:

    I do agree with you more or less, that tools must be learned. Tough I still believe that Blend is not a Design tool. I know you can create your interactions & animations inside it. And this can be done by Designers which have learned the tool.
    In a lot of scenarios I’ve experienced, most applications (specially LOB apps) are not be able to “connect” with the code. Because of the setup of the application, the way pages are loaded, validation, events, asynchronous, etc.
    It happened to me more than once that when a designer builds a interface in XAML, there were still lots of changes and split-ups necessary to connect it with the data model and the navigation. (for example transition animations aren’t able to fit in the way the navigation of the application works. Breakouts or help panels became pop-outs.)
    So yes, Blend is indeed able to be used by Designers, but when you connect it to your Developers, you still have a challenge. Off course you can make “contracts” and default setups for your interface that connect well with the code, but somehow I think this will limit the creativity of your Designers.
    On the other hand, the tool lends itself perfectly for the “make-it-pretty” technique, where basic interface is already made so the logic will work with that, and the designer has to “fluffen” the interface.
    But I really despise this way of working, because the User Experience part will fail. Because your application was actually designed by the Developer.

  5. Erwyn van der Meer says:

    Thanks for the explanation about the disconnect that might still happen between Designer and Developer when using Blend. This better explains the need for an Integrator role to bridge this.

    It would be ideal if this role doesn’t have to be performed by an extra person, and the Developer can fulfil this role.

    You always need some kind of specialization. I think a UI Developer specializing in WPF should become able to fix up the XAML produced by the Designer. A developer specializing in realizing complex business logic or data/service access might not have those skills.

  6. grrd says:

    i am an experienced Graphic Designer.

    and i am struggling so much to learn Blend. To me it seems that Blend requires a special kind of mathematical-logical thinking… which i don’t really have. It seems to have been totally built around developers’ needs/built around the code. From a design perspective it seems totally counter-intuitive.

    Have been at this for 6 months now and i feel like i am totally stuck.

    i would be lost with our “integrator”.

    not sure how long i can handle this anymore.

    p.s. this comes from a person who had zero problem slearning Flash (including ActionScript)

    thanks for listening.

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