Product, UX, Engineering — why so tense?

Product, UX, Engineering — why so tense?

Photo by Ivan Vranić on Unsplash

Tension (noun) — A strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.

— Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Have you ever heard the phrase “a healthy tension between Product, Engineering, and UX”?

I have. I’ve heard variations of it said at multiple companies that I’ve worked at. I’ve read it online many times too.

I used to agree with it.

Then a colleague sent me an article by the agile-insight-factory John Cutler, who said:

Healthy tension assumes no one can think beyond their functional silo, look at the data, or leverage the respective backgrounds and skills of their teammates in a productive, non-tense way. Someone wins, and someone loses. — The Healthy Tension Trap

He’s got a point. “A healthy tension” implies that Product, Engineering and UX should pull in opposite directions and this creates some kind of harmony. It’s like a triangle or a suspension bridge. I’m not really sure. It’s “healthy” because we associate tension as being a bad thing, but in this case apparently, it isn’t.

Tension (noun) — A relationship between ideas or qualities with conflicting demands or implications.


Is there something about the Product, Engineering and UX relationship that means they need to be seen as having conflicting demands? Let’s have a look at the goals of these three disciplines:

  1. The goal of Engineering is to make a product that is useful for its users and valuable for the business.
  2. The goal of Product is to make a product that’s useful for its user and valuable for the business.
  3. The goal of UX is to make a product that’s useful for its user and valuable for the business.

You might say: “But they all have different focuses — UX is thinking about visual consistency, Engineering is thinking about code maintainability, Product is thinking about return on investment”.

That’s true. However, Product, UX, and Engineering are all tangled together. They’re inseparable. The UX is built in code and the return on investment relates to the effectiveness of the UX and the time it took to build. It all comes back to usefulness for the user and value to the business.

So, I’m not seeing any conflict.

By promoting this concept of “healthy tension” we encourage the idea that the disciplines should have different goals. Encouraging this split also allows people to avoid the challenges of collaborative agile development. Stephen Frein expresses this idea well in Tech Beacon:

The great fantasy of many software developers is to deal with code instead of people. While both present interesting challenges, machines are much more tractable than their owners. — Why agile teams need to share the product owner role

So what replaces “a healthy tension”?

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

Partner (verb) — Associate or work together as partners


Let’s reframe this discussion.

The DevOps movement is all about breaking down the barriers between development and operations. Development is about change and Operations is about stability. These used to be seen as conflicting goals, but DevOps turned this on its head. Today teams that embrace DevOps are the gold standard of high performance software delivery.

Etsy is one of the pioneers of DevOps. Who better to help us understand how to break this concept of tension than their ex-CEO Chad Dickerson? His advice to VPs of Engineering was simple:

Partner absurdly closely with product. — Advice for a new executive

That works for me. Product, Engineering, and UX all understand each other well and work very closely together to achieve a shared goal.

Absurdly (adverb) — To a very surprising extent


How do you go about partnering absurdly close? Here are some ideas (taking cues from Chad Dickerson and from this excellent article on UX collaboration by Sari Harrison).

  1. Over-communicateKeep talking to each and approach the same conversation from multiple angles until you’re sure you’re on the same page. Write it down. Refine it. Keep talking.
  2. Acknowledge and understand the value of each others’ expertiseBuilding that respect will mean that challenging each other’s ideas won’t be seen as an attack on their value or skills.
  3. Understand each other’s processesThis will help you collaborate more closely and will also help you to understand the value of where people are spending their time.
  4. Find your boundariesThis doesn’t have to be a formal document if that doesn’t feel right, but as you evolve your relationship you’ll start to understand who takes the lead where.

So let’s replace “healthy tension” with “partnering absurdly closely”.

Product, UX, Engineering — why so tense? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Publication date: 
06/16/2019 - 09:38

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