Steven Kury: Digital Product Management, Leadership Development

Multi-disciplinary Personalities

Interactive media is a multi-disciplinary field.  It takes collaboration between a variety of disciplines to produce an interactive project that both engages the end viewer and accomplishes its business goals.  Depending on its scale, an individual project can require graphic designers, software engineers, usability experts, business analysts, music composers, marketing strategists, and video directors.

Regardless of the scale of an interactive media project though, two core disciplines must collaborate.  If their inherent differences are not understood and managed well, they can easily become at odds with each other and stifle the expected development of a project.

The first discipline is the artistic design group.  In general, their work process can be unstructured and highly conceptual, coming in a stream of consciousness fashion.  Consider the development of a full page print advertisement for a magazine featuring a picture of a car dashboard.  While the designer is working on another project entirely, the creative director could decide that he wants to add a dial and control to it that, while irrelevant to the function of an actual vehicle, is significant to the conceptual message of the advertisement.

At this point, he might ask the designer to stop working on the other project and immediately make this modification to the dashboard.  Adding this new dial to the advertisement is not complicated.  The designer merely has to adjust the layout of the rest of the dashboard to create space for the new dial and control, design them, and place them in the overall picture.  Most of the information that the designer needs to work with is in the graphics already in front of him, and this could be done in a few hours.

The second core discipline is the engineering group.  Their work is structured and logically thought out, and cannot be nearly as stream of consciousness and conceptual as graphic designers’.  Their work product is not a matter of “what you see is what you get,” and can be very intricate with a lot of inter-dependencies to be considered.  They have to mentally balance many variables in order to think out what the functionality must do, and focus their thoughts on it in order to develop it.

It is their nature to want to focus on one problem at a time until it is complete.  If a creative director asks an engineer to set aside a project that he is currently working on and make a “quick modification” to an unrelated one, such as adding this dashboard dial and control to a driving simulator, the engineer could be easily aggravated.  He has already invested a lot of mental energy absorbing the variables and interdependencies of the original project, and is focused on the logical problem that he is solving for it.  To drop all that information and get his head around the variables and inter-dependencies of the unrelated dashboard is both frustrating to the engineer and time consuming.

Interactivity can be a complicated matter because it is not a question of “what you see is what you get.”  The basic requirement for “what you see is what you get” is that it must fit the intended visual style and make sense to the viewer, not necessarily requiring any level of logic.  Interactivity, however, has to satisfy three requirements.  It must (1) do what it is supposed to do, (2) not do what it is not supposed to, and (3) fail gracefully if an attempt is made to make it do what it is not supposed to do.  This entails a fair amount of “what if” scenario calculation and forethought.

The first discipline is improvisational and conceptual: brainstorming ideas together on a basis not dependent on structured logic and mental focus. (The lack of structure is actually conducive to creativity.) Designers can implement their visual ideas almost as fast as they can conceive them.  The second group thinks in a structured manner, balancing variables and dependencies in a way that requires focus.  Engineers can take much longer to implement ideas than to conceive them.

I have met project managers and creative directors who did not embrace this difference, and it impacted their projects.  From my own experience, I once worked with a producer who didn’t embrace this difference, and was frustrated whenever her desired changes couldn’t be implemented on the fly. After a senior technical manager in the organization explained to her this difference in approaches to each disciplines’ work, she was still frustrated, just less so.  All she knew was that the developers worked their programming “magic” on the project, and that it functioned. She accepted the difference because she had to, but she never understood it.  Thus, she never capitalized on the differences in her staff.  She actually aggravated them.

Each discipline naturally attracts people with the intellectual strengths that are requisite to it.  There are people who can fit into both disciplines rather well, but they are the exception rather than the rule.  If you can’t locate one person who can do both well, you can still get team members from both disciplines to work well together if you enable them both to work in the way that is natural to them.

These differences in intellectual approaches to one’s work are resources to be capitalized on, not inconveniences to be suffered.  If a project manager from one discipline can appreciate what the other needs in order to create its work product, the project will be much more successful than if he can’t.

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Steven Kury, MBA, is a software product manager. Throughout his career he has contributed vision and leadership to a breadth of online applications. Contact him at or (717) 350-6781 to discuss how he could contribute to your system.