9 tips for non-technical entrepreneurs working with developers

March 25, 2015

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Though web developers and designers might seem like superheroes, they aren't. Like most humans, they need solid instruction when tackling a given project. 

Unfortunately, non-technical entrepreneurs often don't give the necessary instruction. The communication suffers, either because it's lacking, vague or based in unfair expectations, and efficiency and productivity slow as a result. 

Thankfully, two of Chicago's finest developers shared some tips with us that will help non-technical entrepreneurs better engage and prepare the developers and designers they work with. Try these nine tips and watch productivity soar.

Send examples

Do this. Do that. Do what? Developers and designers thrive off of specificity. And, according to Sarah Holden, a full-time freelance developer who also serves as an instructor at General Assembly's Chicago branch, providing a list of websites with examples of the design and functional features you want can be extraordinarily helpful. Be sure to detail where on the site said features are located.

Brush up on technical terms

Polish your grasp of technical terminology. For example, Holden, who also does some design work, has noticed people use "responsive" for "interactive".

“I often hear people say that they want something to be responsive, when what they mean is that they want it to be fast or interactive,” Holden said. “But to a web developer responsive means to optimize a website so that a user can have the optimal experience across different screen sizes on various platforms."

Furthermore, Holden said people confuse web app with phone app. Web apps, she said, are essentially software or computer programs that operate through a web browser. Phone apps are applications or software made specifically for your phone. If you want a phone application, be sure to call it that.

Don't be technical for the heck of it 

With that said, Holden suggests that non-technical entrepreneurs know their language limits.

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“If you don’t know the technical term, I would recommend avoiding using a technical term to just put one in there,” she said, adding that misuse can lead to confusion.

Talk on the phone

All forms of communication are valued during a given project. However, speaking on the phone is a must for Holden (pictured right).

“As far as first conceptualizing a project, my main barrier is missing information, and not as much miscommunication,” Holden said. “Where the problems come in and where the finished project is different from what [entrepreneurs] originally wanted, usually is when there’s information that’s missing, lacking or left out. If at all possible, get [the developer or designer] on the phone or Google Hangout. A lot of time I find that when I’m actually talking with somebody, versus written communication, that’s where those little things come out that they might not think to write down.”

Communicate at the beginning

Staying connected during a project is important, but communicating prior to putting a plan into action is crucial, Holden said.

“Hollywood would lead you to believe that a developer can code an entire site on a bus ride home. The reality of it is that sites take time to develop, and changing features after they have already been developed always seems to take even more time,” she said. “You'll end up paying way less in the end and saving yourself countless hours by taking the time to communicate up front.”

Ask the right questions 

Asking questions is a great start to a productive relationship. But as Abi Noda, head of engineering at Dev Bootcamp's Chicago branch, points out, the right questions need to be asked.

He said he is frequently asked by entrepreneurs how much work a given project will take or how complex it is. Instead, Noda suggests asking, “What’s more complex?”

“Estimating in technology is kind of scoffed at as being something that is very, very difficult," Noda said, adding that comparing two or more courses of action is a better gauge. “It’s much easier to compare two things and the relative complexity between them than to come up with a time, hour-based or cost estimate."

Break projects into short-term tasks

Noda also believes segmenting project timelines can be helpful for developers and designers. He recommends that entrepreneurs look at things in two-week — or at the most month-long — intervals. How much work can be accomplished in that time? That’s a question worth asking.

Provide sitemaps and wireframes

[ibimage==45654==Original==none==self==ibimage_align-left]To be as specific as possible, entrepreneurs should always come prepared with sitemaps, wireframes and a clear description of expected user behavior, Noda (pictured left) said.

“Those are just the bare basics for even having a chance for getting a designer, developer and entrepreneur on the same page.”

Limit interruptions 

Lastly, Noda said that whenever he is managing a team, he implores them to limit interruptions, be them meetings, context switching or other distractions.

Context switching, or the act of having developers or designers switch from one task to another, is something Noda said entrepreneurs must be aware of.

“That is so costly to both designers and developers in terms of their productivity,” Noda said. “It’s something that can literally be the difference between almost nothing getting done in a day and a lot getting done in a day.”

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