Start with a cupcake

The quicker you can get feedback on what you’re thinking the better your idea will be. Usage is oxygen for ideas.

The above drawing is adapted from a Peter Merholz presentation, and shows two ways to plan out baking a wedding cake. The classic way people think about baking has them focussing of the individual ingredients, each of no value to the end user. You can deliver the base first, then the filling, and finally the icing. Only at the end of the final phase do you have something edible; something you can learn from.

Alternatively you could start off with a cupcake. You’ll learn the flavours you like, uncover any problems in your kitchen, and in general you’ll fast forward the feedback loop. You can then step up to a regular size cake, safe in the knowledge your ingredients are all fresh, your oven works, and your flavours are nice. Only then can you deliver a wedding cake.

The key difference in approaches here is how quickly you get feedback.

Every iteration in a product or even a feature must deliver value, both to the customer and to the business. There is no value in icing or a cake base as a standalone product. They can’t be consumed, tested, or improved upon independently. You can’t validate the idea behind it, or make a better estimate of the cost benefit analysis.

This cake metaphor ties in nicely with Galls Law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Sadly you can only learn this the hard way. We all get excited dreaming about all the amazing things this product will do. As a designer you envision it all. One cohesive beautiful thing. As a developer you map it all out, every method, class, and edge case. All that enthusiasm dies away when the bloated project crashes and burns and you’re stuck sifting through the ashes, seeing if anything is worth shipping. It’s frustrating. The pain doubles once you see the perfect little cupcake in your rear view mirror. A small piece of value you could have shipped months ago, that your customers would have loved, and that would have taught you so much.

The pain trebles once you realise that this little cupcake was all anyone wanted.

Next time start with a cupcake.