Falling in love is dangerous. It makes you irrational, moody and stupid and more often than not, sets you up for pain in the future. Its also feels incredible and makes life worth living. As it turns out, this isn't just true in relationships. It's also true in product design.
Everything that gets you excited to wake up in the morning and work on a product or a business, and makes your product worth the effort, puts you at the risk of becoming an irrational, moody and stupid product designer. It usually starts with an inspiration. An epiphany, a sudden aha moment when you feel like everything has suddenly clicked into place and the fog has lifted. You start gathering feedback and interviewing users, but your confirmation bias is like an irresistible sunrise you can't look away from. Soon your mind is knitting together a story of your product into a vision that's so huge and significant it's almost zen-like.
I've suffered from this in the past and still struggle to resist the urge everyday. As an engineer turned CEO, the hardest part about leading a product team is balancing obsession with rational decision making. Don't get me wrong - obsession is important. It's the strongest driving force for creation in history. When a person is obsessed, there's nothing they cannot do. In product design, however, this is a double edged sword. The side effect of becoming obsessed is that it acts like horse blinders, narrowing your field of view, making you oblivious to your blind spots and prematurely focusing you towards a singular vision. The problem is that in the early stages of product development, your peripheral vision usually contains the most important and useful insights. You will inevitably need to course correct during the product design process and you might even need to pivot.
So how do you recognize this tendency and help yourself avoid it? Here are 5 steps I've taken to keep myself rational during the early stages of product design.
- In my experience, the first step is acknowledging this tendency in your team and deliberately treating a new product idea for what it is - a hunch at best. It's hard to keep a team motivated to build a product without getting emotionally attached to it but the goal with any early stage product discovery process, is to learn as much as you can about the problem and the user, and then figure out all the possible ways to solve it (which may or may not look anything like your initial inspiration). You need to be open to several alternatives for solutions, not just the ones you are most comfortable with developing.
- Don't get fixated on a product direction as a manager and don't dismiss ideas from your team that aren't clearly aligned with it. Ideas are fragile. They need to be nurtured. Often the most bizarre ideas, or a fleeting afterthought, tend to become your biggest idea with just a 10% tweak. Don't ignore these fleeting thoughts because they are your team's peripheral vision kicking in to save you from yourself. Give them the attention they deserve.
- Caring more about the problem than the solution is easier if you, as the product leader, are a target user of your product. If you're a robotics engineer working on a construction robot for example, you're naturally more excited and knowledgable about the robot than the construction. This is a dangerous combination and can lead you to make bad product decisions for 2 reasons. (1) You might try to shove a robot solution into a problem that might not need one right now and (2) If all your knowledge about the problem comes from user interviews, you can either get caught up in confirmation bias or kill a good idea because you got some negative feedback from the wrong person early on. An easy way to solve this problem is ensure that your product team has at least 1 or 2 discerning target users of the product. If this isn't possible, forget about the product for a while and spend some time working alongside or shadowing your target user. Naval Ravikant (founder of Angellist) has a good quote. "To write a great book, you must first become the book". This holds true in product design as well.
- Perfect is the enemy of done. The more you fall in love with your product, the longer you'll likely take to release it. You never feel like it's ready. Later in the process, if you learn you need to pivot, you feel like you're abandoning your baby. Try to avoid trying to build the perfect product. This doesn't mean your first version should be terrible, but it should have an almost comically narrow scope. Reduce the idea to the smallest possible version of the product that will still accomplish a goal for users and then do a great job at it. Paul Buchheit has an article that I come back to often - "If your product is great, it doesn't need to be good".
- Lastly, don't overthink it. Don't get stuck in an endless cycle of brainstorming meetings. Just try it. Get your MVP out to people, but be willing and open to fail or learn that you're wrong. I've found that very often, users don't know what they want until they start using it. This makes user interviews very very difficult because you're never sure how much to trust the interview. An antidote to this is to treat an early product experiment as a side project and get it out to users before you've analyzed every problem that might come up with it. At the same time, be mindful of what you don't know and deliberately list your "unknowns" as a list of questions you need to answer through the product discovery process. Prioritize the questions that could have the biggest impact on the product and try to de-risk them first.
Jon Stewart has a quote that stuck with me. "Have a clarity of vision, but a flexibility of process". I've realized over time that "vision" in the product design sense can mean many things depending on how you define it. Vision is a great motivator, but in the earliest stages of product development, I think it's overrated. What I mean is that prematurely attaching a vision to an idea can be deflating if your assumptions are wrong. Conversely, if a small side project you are building starts gaining traction you can almost always project that story into the future in any way you want and get excited about the big vision. Incidentally, this is the story of some of the biggest products around today. Uber, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In times of uncertainty, we want to latch on to anything that promises stability and so the urge to settle on a product direction quickly is huge. Depending on the size of your team though, setting the wheels in motion too quickly can derail you and burden your team with unwanted inertia, when what you really need is to stay nimble.
There's no shortage of books describing the process of product design, but I find that the hardest part is not following the process, but exercising the emotional detachment to be let yourself honestly follow the process. Hopefully, this set of principles I've had to learn the hard way, will be useful to you and set you up to be a rational product designer.
PS: I'm starting to write weekly articles about topics that interest me. They tend to be loosely related to product design, startups and hard tech (robotics, A.I., computer vision etc.). To get updated when I publish my next article follow me on twitter @neilxm.