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.

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.

The little things you cant sell

Ever used a product and thought, “the person who designed this couldn’t possibly have ever used it themselves”?

I sure have (Microsoft Outlook comes to mind for me).

Likewise, you’ve probably had an experience like that with a product that just seems brilliant, simply because it is so intuitive that you know someone used it, tested it, used it again and really put thought and real-life testing into it before you got your hands on it.

You know this because you can just pick it up and figure it out quickly and as your experience deepens, you find more and more ways that it just works – and exactly as you expect it to. You hear a lot about this stuff during discussions of the iPhone and iPod.

A week or three ago, I was watching James Dyson’s presentation at MIT. You can find it at http://mitworld.mit.edu, where there are a ton of pretty interesting talks to check out.

It was a fascinating hour- classic stuff from a technical person who feels he isn’t a marketing person – as Dyson implicitly defined himself as throughout the presentation.

One of the things he discussed was what they decided to emphasize in their advertising as opposed to what really transformed their first-time customers into loyal, repeat customers.

“It’s the little things you can’t sell”, Dyson noted.

For example, he said that a vacuum that doesn’t lose power as you use it is a big selling point, while a litany of tiny design features that the owner will notice over time would make them appreciate the vacuum more than any other they’ve owned – yet they could *never* sell the vacuum by bringing those things into the conversation.

He was talking about small conveniences that would likely never cause you to buy a Dyson, but that once discovered, add up into a customer experience that is unparalleled.

Is that what you’re creating for your clientele?

What are the little things you can’t sell?

Scoble learns what Kennedy’s been telling us for years

That is, Design matters, but not nearly as much as you’d think IF your content is strong.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a slam on Robert, it just is.

What is “it”?

Content, but not just *any* content. Relevant content.

If you have it, the rest is a bonus. If you don’t, the rest is lipstick on a pig (hey, I promise this is a swine flu free blog).

Read more about Scoble’s design discoveries after he “VGA’d” his blog in today’s guest post.