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Collaboration Secrets: Design X Engineering

February 2023


Article credits
Elias Lind
Filipa Silva
Simon Child
Faith McAllister

There’s something very powerful about working in interdisciplinary teams to build and evolve digital products. This is the way we work at Spotify! In this post, we’ll focus on the collaboration between the disciplines of design and engineering. We started with the question: “What does a successful collaboration between design and engineering look like?” and decided to talk to engineers and designers throughout the company to hear about their experience of what works, what can go wrong, and how teams go about making the collaborations successful.

How we work as product teams at Spotify

At Spotify, we have a five-step process that allows different disciplines to align and get stuff done. We call it “The Scale” and it’s basically a remake of the classic design thinking framework.

Five phases, five goals

1. We understand potential user needs, wants, and pains 2. We think and brainstorm solutions 3. We build the product, tool or service and… 4. Ship these solutions as lightweight as possible to quickly learn from our users what works and what doesn’t 5. We take the learnings from the shipped product and tweak the solution to continue producing better results 

We believe that, in an ideal world, all disciplines are involved in all phases of a project, but their engagement varies. In other words, different disciplines have different weights in the various stages of the product design process. This goes beyond design and engineering but in this post, we’ll focus on these disciplines.

For instance, design, together with insights, might lead the way in the “understand it”  and “think it” phases by bringing in the users’ perspectives, facilitating ideation sessions, and exploring as many solutions as possible. Product and engineering get involved to ensure that what’s being explored has business value and technical feasibility. When the product team has agreed on a solution to test and design has mapped out the user experience, engineering leads the way into making the solution real. When the leading role shifts, this should not be seen as a handover; instead, the weights of the roles shift. When design is driving, engineering takes the front passenger seat and vice versa, but the collaboration should always continue. 

The Scale is not a one-time cycle either. Design and engineering will engage in a dance where the expertise of the disciplines dictate who’s in charge. This dance is the DNA of any successful tech team. We call this the DNE of the tech team – Design and Engineering – shifting weights and collaborating throughout the lifespan of a product or feature. 

How can we marry design and engineering? 

How do we succeed with this dance?How can we get our disciplines to dance well together without stepping on each other’s feet? What are the secrets?

Talking to our colleagues here at Spotify, many things work well in the dance between engineers and design. In general, both partners really value and enjoy working with one another!  Designers appreciate when engineers engage in design activities and ideate, co-create, and brainstorm. The technical perspective brings a different set of eyes to the problem that’s vital to any successful product design project, and this also enables engineering to take the lead in the shipping phase. Designers also state that they’re reliant on – and frankly blown away by – engineer’s ability to turn ideas into reality, magically transforming the concept on sticky notes into a working feature. 

On the other end, our engineering colleagues also stated being happy about partnering with design. Engineers value that design as a discipline can facilitate the space for ideation, creativity, and brainstorming in an organized way. They enjoy coming up with solutions collectively and feel reassurance that design can, and will, carry the torch of the users' needs as a way to light up the path of tricky product decision making. On paper, design and engineering are a great match and when things are good they’re really good. However, as in all relationships, they don’t always see eye to eye with each other. 

All good relationships face challenges! Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned from stories of teams here at Spotify.

Designers x engineers: the four main causes of friction

1. Lack of collaboration 

When speaking to engineers, working in silos was said to be one of the most problematic behaviors in the marriage between design and engineering.

One engineer told us: 

Another engineer also told us:

Why does this happen? 

One of the reasons is that many designers and design teams at Spotify work out of an agency model. This means that they’re supporting more than one team with designs and that they come in at different points to do design work. Also, even when working embedded in one team, designers are sometimes working in a different stream of work than the engineers. We all want to be efficient and move fast and this can result in a siloed way of working. 

2. Communication issues

As we know, communication failures can ruin any relationship! Our colleagues from design and engineering told us that terminology and lingo typical for each discipline can cause confusion and generate misunderstandings in the long run. Also, if designers and engineers are involved in different streams of work there is a big chance they get siloed and communication becomes less frequent. 

A concrete example we heard from an engineer was this: 

Also, unclear lingo might become a blocker:

Why does this happen?

When in parallel workstreams, good intentions of not wanting to bother each other might have harmful results to the team. On top of this, design and engineering sometimes gravitate towards different ways of working or conflicting priorities which can result in each discipline moving forward in the process in a way that is not understood or appreciated by the counterpart. 

3. Feeling blocked by one another 

Our colleagues told us that working collaboratively can lead to one feeling blocked by the other. 

One engineer said:

On the other hand, a designer said:

Why does this happen? 

There are differences in mindset and methodology that amplify this feeling. Both disciplines want to solve a problem and get a solution up and running. The discipline of design teaches us to explore and test before selecting one solution that can be built and shipped. Engineers are taught to build and get things shipped and might feel they are being prevented from starting their work while a design exploration is ongoing and there's not a decision on one solution to be developed yet. As one of the designers put it:

4. Differences in opinion when it comes to decide what is essential and what is extra

We’ve heard from an engineer:

Why does this happen?

The different perspectives design and engineering bring to a project come with different priorities from both sides. For design, it’s important that the product user experience is good enough before lauch since it’s needed for adoption. Without users in the tool, there is no way to correctly track and test adoption. On the other hand, engineers want to nail the functionality and have it out so users can benefit from it as soon as possible. 

This potential priority friction might actually create an ideal balance between the two disciplines when handled well! 

How can we make this relationship successful? 

1.  Collaborate closely

Almost all friction can be solved by having all disciplines on the same page. When speaking to project stakeholders, collaborating closely as a team was mentioned over and over again as key for success! 

One engineer mentioned:


  • Create rituals for gathering feedback. Design syncs or critiques are good ways of doing this – a weekly meeting in which everyone gives feedback on the user experience of the product and decides on next steps.  

  • Participate in each other’s work and meetings. Do stand ups together, participate in demos, comment in docs, and engage on Slack.  

  • Sit in the same room and work together! Designers enjoy seeing engineers magically bringing solutions to life and engineers appreciate the designer's feedback when doing so.

  • Start a joint Slack channel to keep the conversation active.

  • Include design and engineering from the get-go of the workstream and avoid classic handovers (shift the weight of the work instead). 

2. Have an interest in and opinion on each other's work

At last, we’ve learned that both disciplines would like their counterparts to know more about their own work and methods. 

A designer said: 

And an engineer mentioned:

Learning about each other's work helps build empathy but also better participate in all moments of the development of a product. It enables better feedback too!


  • Set up a ways-of-working workshop at the beginning of a project to learn how each discipline would like to contribute and what they expect from others. 

  • Don’t assume that your counterpart has collaborated with your discipline before. If not, teach them the basics on how you go about doing your work and how they can contribute. While you’re at it, teach them some discipline-specific lingo!. 

3. Be kind to each other Remember the problem we mentioned about the frustration of waiting for someone else to complete their work? For this, follow the advice of a fellow engineer who told us: 

So, when you’re feeling frustrated with each other, try to remember that everyone’s work is bringing something special to the table and kindness is key to overcoming the difficult moments. 


  • Get to know each other as people and colleagues. Schedule a 1:1 with your closest project colleagues to get to know them. Having a personal connection always helps when the work ties are affected by stress or conflicting priorities. 

  • In Swedish (because, Spotify is Swedish, of course) we have a concept called snälltolka which directly translates to “interpreting kindly”. When you’re frustrated or stressed with your counterpart, try to interpret them kindly and choose to see their action as their best attempt at solving the problem and moving everything forward. 

In summary

So, what have we learned about the relationship between design and engineering? 

Relationship problems arise from the disciplines working in silos, a lack in communication, colleagues on either end feeling blocked and us not knowing enough about each other's workflows and focus. How do we overcome this? In most cases, it’s about collaborating more thoughtfully. This can be done by learning about each other’s preferred ways of working, engaging in thoughtful communication, being kind to one another, and becoming friends. 

Because, as we all know, friendship is the foundation of any good relationship. 


Elias Lind

Product Designer

Elias is a UX designer working with data collection at Spotify. When he’s not working (and sometimes whilst working) he enjoys singing, dancing, weaving ideas together with friends and teaching kids how to play safely with fire in his local scouts troop.

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Filipa Silva

Product Design Manager

Filipa’s current work focuses on designing solutions for people who work with data at Spotify. Originally from Portugal, she now lives in Stockholm.

Simon Child

Senior Art Director

Simon is an art director and casual illustrator who's often designing with his needy Patterdale Terrier, Franklin, at his feet.

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Faith McAllister

Content Strategist

Faith supports the Spotify Design community by editing, writing, and curating stories on the blog. When she's not adding to her long list of favorite words, Faith leads yoga classes and sound baths around London.

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