Perfect is the enemy of done – or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA celebrated the one year anniversary of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars.

As someone who has been taking pictures since the ’60s, I still find it amazing that we can tell a satellite orbiting Mars to take a picture of a Jeep-size spacecraft parachuting to its landing 62 million miles away and have the photo on my laptop 20 minutes later.

The photos and video of the landing and all that led up to that event reminds me of the oft-quoted remark “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

Does it need to be “perfect”?

While shipping something and iterating its benefits, features and quality are perfectly acceptable strategies for many products and services, I think we shortchange ourselves if we don’t keep in mind that there’s a time and a place for “better than done”.

I was trained by engineering professors during my college days, so “perfect” means something well beyond “done” to me, often well beyond four decimal places.

Perfection is extremely difficult to achieve and even harder to prove , so let’s settle on a “Much better than where it is now” definition so we can keep the engineers happy.

Using that definition, perfect makes no sense for most work under most circumstances. For example, software programs are never “perfect” and while you can always sand a surface with a finer grit of sandpaper, does it matter if you take an 800-grit-smooth surface to where 10000 grit will smooth it?

Perhaps a better question is this: Is the cost and time investment worth going past “good enough/done” to reach for those “perfect” four, nine or 27 decimal places?

Going beyond a seemingly ridiculous number of decimal places is one reason why Curiosity made it to Mars and still rumbles across the Red Planet today – yet it’s unlikely that Curiosity is perfect.

BUT… it is extremely well-designed and resilient.

Design and Resilience

My point is this: while perfect is certainly the enemy of done for much of the work that you and I deliver, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put serious thought into the design and resilience of our best products and services – if not all of them.

It’s not unusual for us to design something based on immediate and short-term needs, never taking the time to consider what happens if it encounters situations and customers our short-term design never considered.

The information we don’t have is often as important as what we know and assume at design time.

When you send a product like Curiosity to Mars, you don’t get an opportunity to replace a part you didn’t think through as well as you should have. You can’t make a service call or throw a tarp over it while you rip it apart to figure out how to resolve today’s problem.

Instead, your design time process has to include what *could* happen and how your product would react and extract itself from an unexpected situation….long before you load it onto a rocket, pallet, download page or Fedex box.

What if your product…

  • Finds itself being used by a customer 10 times bigger than your design-time’s “Ideal Customer”? Or 10 times smaller?
  • Is being used in an unfriendly environment? A high-security or low-security situation?
  • Lasts 10 years longer than you expected? Remember – the work or result it provides still reflects on your business.
  • Cost 250% more to replace once it’s installed – and that installation takes 253 days  (the time it took for Curiosity to reach Mars).

When Curiosity lifts off, it was too late to turn a screw, change a part’s materials, or sand and polish it to an even-higher tolerance fit.

Think about your best stuff – no matter what you do. What would happen to it under the conditions described above? Would it be worth more if it handled those things without breaking a sweat?

How would you react when that extra bit of design effort pays off? What revenue will result? What will that first few seconds of success feel like?

PS: The sum of *all* NASA spending over the last 50 years is $800 billion. Lots of money. Yet that 50 years of exploration and discovery were cheaper than the government bailout of Wall Street, which cost $850 billion. A stunning comparison of ROI, even before thinking about the spin-off technologies from NASA’s work that have trickled down to business and industry, much less the things that impact our daily lives.

How to Win The Three Inch Tourism War of Words

tourismbrochurerack

When I’m on the road, I always take a look at tourism brochure racks.

Take a look at this rack in the Havre Montana Amtrak station.

It’s a typical floor-standing tourism brochure rack that you might see around your town or at the local chamber of commerce office.

I took the photo at this height and angle because I wanted to simulate the view the “average” person has when scanning the rack for something interesting to do or visit.

The critical part is that this is also the likely view they have of your brochure.

If you’re the tourist and this is your eye level view:

  • Which brochures get your attention and provoke you to pick them up?
  • Which leave you with no idea what they’re for?

A critical three inches

The critical question is this: Which ones easily tell their story in the top three inches?

Those top three inches are the most important real estate on a rack brochure because that’s the part everyone can see.

Everything below that point is meaningless if the top three inches can’t provoke someone to pick it up and open it. That cool info inside and on the back? Meaningless if they don’t pick it up.

Whenever I see one of these racks, I always wonder how many graphic designers put enough thought into the design of these rack pieces to print a sample, fold it up and test drive it on a real rack in their community.

If they tried that, do you think it would change the design? How about the text and background colors how they contrast? The headline? Font sizes? Font weights? Font styles?

I’ll bet it would.

I guarantee you it isn’t an accident that you can clearly see “Visitor Tips Online”, “Raft”, “Rafting Zipline” and “Fishing”  from several feet away.

Brochure goals

The primary goal of a brochure isn’t “To get picked up, opened, read and provoke the reader to visit (or make a reservation at) the lodging, attraction or restaurant”, nor is it to jam as many words as possible onto the brochure in an attempt to win an undeclared war of words.

The first goal of the brochure is to get someone to pick it up.

That’s why you see “Raft”, “Fishing” and “Visitor Tips Online”. Either they care or they don’t. If they don’t, you shouldn’t either. From that point, it needs to satisfy the reader’s interests and need to know. If you can’t get them to look at your brochure – all that design and printing expense is wasted.

Is that the goal you communicated to your designer when you asked them to make a brochure? Or was it that you wanted it to be blue, use a gorgeous photo or use a font that “looks Victorian”?

None of that matters if they don’t pick it up.

Heightened awareness

I wonder if brochure designers produce different brochures for the same campaign so they can test the highest performing design.

Do they design differently for different displays? What would change about a brochure’s design if the designer knew the piece was intended for a rack mounted at eye level? What would change if the brochure was designed to lay flat at the check-in counter or on a desk?

Now consider how you would design a floor rack’s brochure to catch the eye of an eight year old, or someone rather tall? Would it provoke a mom with an armload of baby, purse and diaper bag to go to the trouble to pick it up?

This isn’t nitpicking, it’s paying attention to your audience so you can maximize the performance of the brochure.

“Maximize the performance of the brochure” sounds pretty antiseptic. Does “attract enough visitors to allow you to make payroll this week” sound better?

Would that provoke you to go to the trouble to test multiple brochure designs against each other? To design and print different ones for different uses?

This doesn’t apply to MY business

You can’t ignore these things if your business doesn’t use rack brochures.

The best marketing in the world will fail if no one “picks it up”, no matter what media you use.

What’s one more visitor per day (or hour) worth to your business? That’s what this is really about.

Choosing a logo is like choosing a spouse

If I had a dime for every time someone got on my case because my blog (much less my business) has no logo, I’d have a lot of dimes.

It isn’t because I don’t want one. It’s that logo selection is TOUGH.

Selecting a logo isn’t like deciding on a salad dressing for your lunch. It’s more like choosing a spouse or a business partner. It’s a decision that you have to like now, 10 years from now and under a ton of different conditions.

I can throw a salad away if I don’t like the dressing. It’s difficult and expensive to throw out a spouse or business partner…and likewise, a logo.

Putting it in context

Things to think about while falling in love with that incredibly cool, glossy metal-look electric blue logo that looks great as it fills the screen of a retina display iPad.

If only that was the only place they’d ever see it. But…it isn’t

A few questions to ask yourself (and perhaps, your designer):

  • How will the logo look in a large format? Consider a trade show booth, billboard, the side of a building, signage, private jet or blimp.
  • How will the logo look in a small format? A good example is a favicon (the icon you see on the address line on your browser) or avatar.
  • How will it look in a browser? Consider what it looks like at 72 DPI, properly sized with other content on a webpage.
  • How will it look in print? Think newspaper ad, magazine article, business card and  letterhead
  • How will it look on a button, such as an election campaign button?
  • How will it look on a mobile device or as an icon? Consider different sizes from retina iPad to Blackberry to Mac to Windows.
  • How will it look on a colorless device, like a regular Kindle?
  • How will it look on your products?
  • Is the style timeless or trendy? Does that matter to you? Will you be tempted to change it in 2-3-5 years if the logo’s style dates your business?
  • Is the logo complex? Does it have fine lines or high gloss? These things don’t always translate well when resized, printed, etc.

If these questions produce territorial, defensive, offended or angry responses from you, your staff or the designer, you have the wrong logo and/or the wrong designer.

Some bigger picture questions that might help you decide on a direction or between finalists on a list of logo concepts presented to you:

  • What does the logo say about you and your business?
  • What message does it send?
  • Does it need to send a message?
  • Is it consistent with your other materials?

That last one is really important. When you see something from Apple, you usually know it’s from them before you see the logo or company name. You’ve also seen inconsistent materials. Inconsistency is jarring. Uncomfortable. Is that what you want to do to people when they switch from a website to a brochure to a trade show booth? I don’t think so.

If the new logo is inconsistent with your current materials, that’s OK…if you are OK with changing your current materials. You’ll be tempted to use the existing supply until it’s gone. I understand that. I’ve done that. All I’ll suggest is that you consider where to use the existing materials and what impact that inconsistency may have.

Example: 10 boxes of letterhead with your old logo can be cut into notepad sizes piles in almost no time by a professional print shop. They can be bound on one edge like real bought-at-the-store note pads. Use them internally. Give them to a school, art project or senior home. Use one to level that annoying off-balance table at the local coffee shop. There’s a productive use for them.

Deadline decisions

These “bigger picture” questions are important to ask yourself because logos become unworkable at the worst possible time – right before a deadline. Examples include the run up to a trade show, product launch, strategic mailing or website design.

Deadlines often force last minute decisions that you later regret. They also have a price once you figure out what you really want.

Some of those things are why I don’t have one, but mostly because it hasn’t been important to my branding. For you, it might be huge.

A graphics person will ask you for colors, message, theme, whether or not you want words in the logo (go back to those first two questions on format). The more info you can give them about what you want, the better the outcome. If ” I don’t know” or “I don’t care” is your answer to the color/message/theme questions, it’s not a good start.

If you give your designer a blank sheet and just send them off to create something, I think you’ll be disappointed in the logo you get – no matter how good they are.

Why they leave

Why do they leave your site?

Why don’t they buy?

Why do they abandon a shopping cart after going to the trouble to shop on your site, select items and add them to a cart in the desired size and color?

This might give you an idea or two…

Do you see the future or the fingerprints?

While watching this, some will complain about the system running Windows, while others will wonder aloud why anyone would want to use it, grumble about specific features, or wring their hands over privacy implications much less the cost.

Some might even focus on the hassle of removing fingerprints from the advanced technology’s surfaces.

What do you focus on…the future or the fingerprints?

What’s your plywood?

“When youâ??re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, youâ??re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. Youâ??ll know itâ??s there, so youâ??re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

What’s your plywood?

PS: Thanks for raising the bar, Steve. Be well.

 

Producing Trust

Last time (in the context of being trusted, and what a business must do to re-establish trust), I talked briefly about vendors who announce software years before they plan to ship it, including firms that never ship what they’ve announced and taken payment for.

On occasion, early announcements are a legal requirement for some businesses. IBM and the terms of their consent decree, for example.

Delivery problems can be made worse by substantial changes in market conditions that can make the announced product irrelevant. In some cases, a failure to deliver is irrelevant because the product is so late that it no longer matters. The totally rewritten Netscape is one such example.

Sometimes the product doesn’t meet the expectations it originally set for potential customers even if market conditions havenâ??t changed. On very rare occasions, a failure to deliver is intentional/fraudulent but that’s for legal blogs to discuss.

How do delivery problems happen?

Delivery problems are frequently born months or even years before they reveal themselves. They happen because the firm involved has internal development (yes, management) problems.

While hidden, these problems can lull a business into taking advance payment for a product that they cannot dream of delivering in the short term – even though their intention is to do just that.

Symptoms of a software business with development problems can include:

  • Inability to deliver a consistently high quality product.
  • They can’t name a date and deliver on that date occasionally, much less time after time.
  • They don’t know with any confidence if they will ship on a particular date until that date is too close to do anything about their ability to reach it.
  • They fail to design to a detailed enough level of granularity and get surprised during the development process, finding that something allocated to two days or two weeks instead requires four months of work.
  • They fail to focus on the task at hand and occasionally find themselves chasing a “bright shiny object” that has at best a tangential relationship to their announced product goals.
  • They work in a vacuum (insulated from their industry and/or their client base) and because of a substantial design/strategic product miscalculation, it is months or years before they discover it.
  • If they accept customization work requests for their core products, it tends to appear “duct taped” on, rather than designed-in.

Businesses that experience one or more of these issues simply haven’t decided to do enough enough to ensure compelling levels of consistency in the product they produce. They haven’t decided (or don’t realize they need) to focus only on the things that ensure an on-time delivery of a quality product. In some cases, they may not even be sure what “on-time” will be.

These things are not “just how it is”. They are decided.

Trust that upgrade?

Think about the one software package you use more than any other. Doesnâ??t matter whether itâ??s a development tool (like XCode or Visual Studio), an accounting package (QuickBooks?) or a firmware upgrade for your CNC machine.

  • Will you install the next upgrade without first checking to see if someone else has done the bleeding for you?
  • Are you confident that you can install the next upgrade right away, or do you wait a few days or weeks to see what the fallout is?
  • Do you install new upgrades right away with strong confidence that itâ??ll be solid?
  • Do you install and then spend a pile of time testing obvious things to make sure they still work?
  • Do you routinely wait for someone else to â??do the bleedingâ? for you before you decide to install or not?
  • Is it common to have to “back off” an upgrade because it broke too many things?

Put that hat on your customers.

What do they do?

Do they install what you ship on the day you ship it? Or do they put off updates until they have no choice – such as when industry specification and/or governmental rule changes require use of the upgraded version.

That’s an indicator of their trust in your development and testing process. In YOU.

Problems like this aren’t just about software businesses and aren’t about upscale quality. It’s about management consistently doing the things that create trust. This kind of trust applies to plumbers, coffee roasters, political candidates and construction companies – and many others.

You trust that even the cheapest generic milk from the store won’t have hair or bug body parts floating in it. You trust that when you flip a wall switch, the power will come on.

To produce high levels of trust in your work requires a decision: “We will do what it takes to become (or remain) the trusted party.”

Opening eyes with a slider

I spend a lot of time working with/talking with programmers.

If you spend time discussing software, websites, or life in general with them, you might get the idea that they are serial complainers.

While a few might live up to that, a substantial part of a programmer’s work is to find bugs – the ones someone *else* created, of course (sarcasm, anyone?). That penchant for bug detection, along with an investment in good design, is what makes things better.

It’s natural for programmers to point out the faults, just like it is for a woodworker to run their hand along a freshly sanded wood surface feeling for rough spots.

Destruction

That brings us to the slider feature the NYTimes used to make it easy to compare before/after tsunami images from Japan.

This simple feature demonstrates why a strong user interface, whether for software, devices or websites, is so important.

Comparing the images side to side like we would in the past is one thing. No one would say that the photos aren’t impactful, unsettling, disturbing, etc.

They’re hard to wrap your head around. Doing so using the slider brings it even closer.

The point?

The slider allows the photos – which haven’t changed – to really bring home the impact of the tsunami.

You might not have thought that was possible after seeing video and photos on the news and online for several days, yet there it is.

An innocuous little feature whose importance you might have a difficult time justifying in a meeting about possible new product features has suddenly changed everything about those images.

Imagine trying to place a value on this via email message to a vendor or client.

Yet the benefit is obvious, once demonstrated.

What can you do differently to open the eyes of others to the things you find seriously impactful?

While you’re mulling that over, please help Japan.

PS: Kudos to the NY Times and GeoEye for sharing this.