April 2024

What’s the recipe for a successful handoff?

After finalizing and polishing their work in Figma, designers often expect developers to magically make sense of it. However, as that's not usually the case, things can end up looking pretty grim. What's going wrong?
Eugenia Valentini
Product Designer, Belka
Federica Vacca
Frontend Developer, Belka
An exchange between Gigi, our apprehensive designer, and Fede, our exasperated developer.

Ever experienced the thrill of Apple's "big-reveal moment" when they unveil a shiny new product? Well, that’s not how it works with design handoffs. Instead of being thrilled, developers might be crossing their fingers hoping what they receive is understandable. And whatever thrill designers originally had fades when they realize the final product doesn’t match their vision.

We've had our fair share of handoff challenges. The frustration was real, and when the blame game started, we knew it was time to take a step back. As a team, we reflected on what was causing issues in our handoff process. Here are our insights.

What is a design handoff?

Handoff is when the cool stuff designers have created gets handed over to developers for implementation. There are different types of handoffs depending on what we’re creating, including flow, design system foundation, and component handoffs. 

The main focus of our work with design systems has been component handoffs. As we frequently create new components or modify existing ones, these handoffs are a regular part of our work. Improving this process is an opportunity to speed up both development and design efforts. 

Before we dive into the design handoff recipe, let’s take a closer look at the problems we face.

Common design handoff problems

Lack of communication

"The moment my design goes into production, I'm all excited… but then what gets developed is different. It’s like ordering your favorite pizza and getting a soup instead!” — A disappointed designer

As a designer, if you think your files can magically make sense to the developer without having a chat first, you're starting on the wrong foot.

When there is insufficient communication, the designer's intention and the developer’s interpretation may not match. Design tends to assume too much, and development then feels like navigating through files without a compass. 

Technical feasibility issues don't come to light in time. And the final product may not match the original plan either. After all, nobody wants a soup when they are expecting a pizza!

Poor or inadequate documentation

“Sometimes when I look at the designer's documentation for the first time, I have to decipher a puzzle instead of thinking about how to structure the code.” — A disenchanted developer

Dealing with inadequate documentation is like baking a cake from a recipe that’s missing half the ingredients. As a developer, you rely heavily on documentation. Without clear and comprehensive guidance, understanding the intricacies of a project becomes a guessing game.

It's not just a hiccup; it's a hurdle that can slow down the entire process. Poor documentation often leads to unnecessary back-and-forths, delays, and a collective sigh of "why wasn't this clearer from the start?"

It all comes down to an outdated handoff mindset!

Traditionally, the handoff represents the make-or-break moment between the design and development phases:

  1. Designers design components.
  2. HANDOFF! The one and only moment for designers to explain their work to developers.
  3. Developers develop components.

From the handoff moment, developers are expected to work independently and designers to conclude their involvement. In this process, it's easy to encounter the problems listed above. 

The handoff mindset that frustrates designers and developers alike

Belka's secret recipe for handoff

If our team wanted a handoff process without frustration and hiccups, we had to leave this outdated mindset behind. It was time to rethink our approach and foster continuous collaboration.

So we did what every Italian grandma would do: a secret recipe. 

Let's go through the four steps that turn the handoff process from a potential headache into a smooth collaboration.

Belka's not-so-secret-anymore recipe for a successful handoff

1. Choose the ingredients

This is the moment to ask questions and prepare for the cooking process.

Figure out your documentation approach together 

Designers, before you start documenting, clarify with developers how much detail they need. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Some developers like it short and sweet to avoid information overload, while others appreciate every minute detail. Some may want every tiny interaction prototyped; others are cool as long as the main components get some love.

Align the development framework

We can't stress this point enough – effective communication requires speaking the same language. The naming of components and properties is a big part of it. And that naming style is heavily influenced by the development framework of choice. So, designers, just ask developers about their framework preferences. This way, you can align your naming conventions with what's cooking on the development side.

2. Prepare the dough

With the ingredients chosen, it's time for the designer to start the cooking process. But don’t forget about collaboration!

Speak the language of the development team

A design system component getting ready for development should reflect the language of the development team. That's why, as a designer, it’s crucial to understand what variants and properties are. Because that's the lingo developers are using. If you're feeling a bit lost when setting up a component, why not have a chat with developers? Again, no need to wait until the ‘handoff’ moment.

Put it into context

As designers, when we sketch out a component we need to understand its different variants and how they work depending on their context. But here's the thing: development always comes after design, and sometimes a chunk of time might pass in between. 

So, when it's time to bring that component to life, everyone should be clear on the different scenarios it's meant for and how it should be used in the product.

Don't simply drop the component into a Figma file and call it a day. Take a step further by embedding it in the context of a screen to clarify when it's more fitting to use one variant over another. This helps not only developers but also other designers who will use that component in the future.

Provide onboarding for navigating your files

Ever signed up for a new digital product and felt lost? Well, the documentation of a component library isn’t too different. So, why not borrow product onboarding strategies and create guiding resources for your files? 

You can slap a 'Read me' page at the start of the file. Or get creative and record a video with your charming face to explain where to easily find things. Quick tip: group components semantically or functionally for smoother navigation through your design system.

3. Bake it

Now that the dough is ready, it is time to bake! This is when developers get busy. And that's why many consider it the 'handoff.' But even if the components are ready from a design perspective, we should keep the communication channel open. 

As a designer, while you may try to get everything on point, errors can slip through, and some gaps in documentation are hard to avoid. As a developer, when you start bringing components to life, you might encounter difficulties or doubts. This is the moment to reach out to designers instead of going solo, assuming it will work as is. Beware: moments like these can lead to discrepancies between the design system and the developed components.

4. Give it a taste

So, the design system components are all baked! Time to eat? 

No chef in the world would dare send a new dish out of their kitchen without making sure the recipe turned out as intended.

For developers, it's a good idea to give those components a little test to make sure everything’s working well. As a designer, you're the chef behind that recipe. Take a moment to check what’s been baked before it’s released. This is your opportunity to catch any errors that might have slipped through.

And here's the cherry on top: our development team uses Storybook to bring components to life. It's a handy open-source tool that plays nicely with our design system. The cool part about Storybook? It's not just a developer thing - it's designer-friendly, too. Designers can jump in to make sure the components are just as we laid them out in the specs, all on Storybook.

Ready to try out the recipe?

The outcome of this recipe is a handoff process with improved team communication, outputs, and efficiency. 

Before you get too hungry, we’d like to leave you with our final thoughts for an even better handoff recipe. 

Involve everyone from start to finish.

Communicate as early as possible to identify any doubts and issues on time. Handoff doesn't begin when designers finish their part. It is a collaborative process that starts from the project's very first steps and keeps both designers and developers in the loop.

Handoff is much more than tools.

While using the right tools can streamline the process, a tool is no magic solution. You won’t get anywhere without a structured process, constant communication, and the ability to empathize with each other's roles.

It’s not one-size-fits-all.

Every client, company, and team has its own needs. Focus on how your team works and find processes that align with your workflows. Your tools and methods are not set in stone. Questioning your methods is the first step to developing better product solutions.

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