Two product principles often forgotten

In the 7th century, Archilochus wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” A simple quote with a deceptively deep meaning.

Superficially it explains the difference in survival methods between a hedgehog and a fox. A fox knows many ways to trick, deceive and outmanoeuvre predators, the hedgehog knows one, but it’s a big one. The abstract meaning is that there are people who work best with a single big defining idea, and there are people who thrive when dealing with a variety of connected ideas.

Find your core idea first

The best product people I’ve worked with, designers and engineers alike, are comfortable in both categories. But they always fight to find their “one big defining idea” first. They know instinctively that it’s more important to get the big core decision correct than it is to artfully perfect secondary details. For example if they were creating a project management app, they’d spend days deliberating about “What is a project?” and wouldn’t proceed until they had the core correct. You’d be waiting weeks before there’d be talk about file uploads or calendar features, because none of that matters if the core is broken.

As designers they explore concepts. They understand the dangers of premature iteration; you don’t see files like app_ui_v1 -> app_ui_v4, instead you see wackyLeftNav, TopBarWithPhoto, and SingleScreenModal. They prefer many different ideas explored, rather than their first idea well refined.

They know that iterating until something is “not obviously broken” doesn’t guarantee a good product, any more than iterating on a recipe until it’s “not obviously inedible” produces good food. You can iterate your way to lots of places, including mediocrity.

The diagram I have used previously to explain this was one I borrowed from Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.

Quantity Can Guide You To Quality

If the first decisions are truly the most important it’s easy to get scared, and thus stuck. The product person’s equivalent of writer’s block. Often the best way to find a good idea is to force yourself to have lots of ideas. Focusing on quantity over quality un-sticks your brain and gives you the freedom to explore ideas that initially sound stupid. “What if a project is really just a list of to-dos?” “Could you manage a project entirely through Slack?” etc.

There’s a fun old story about the quality/quantity trade-off:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left hand side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced. All those on the right hand side would be graded solely on quality. We can learn a lot from what happened next…

The grading system was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group. 50 pound pots scored an “A”, 40 pound pots scored a “B” and so on. No marks for broken pots. Those graded solely on quality needed to produce only one pot, albeit a perfect one, to get an “A”.

At grading time a curious fact emerged. The works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

You can’t get good at something without the freedom to be bad at it first. If you believe every idea you present must look and sound great, don’t be surprised if you have very few of them. If you have very few, don’t be surprised if you pick a bad one. When you pick a bad idea, iteration won’t make it great, it just makes it complete.