I walked into work with a dark cloud over my head. I was fuming mad. I probably looked like a Doberman Pinscher, ready to take a bite out of anyone who crossed my path.
This was years ago when I worked as a product designer at a small retail technology company in Minneapolis and, at the same time, led the marketing and quality assurance team. We had decided to make a new sign-making machine and I was working on a new keyboard design. It had to be perfect. I tweaked every aspect of the key layout--the color, the icons, the key placements. I felt enormous pressure to perfect every fine detail and make sure anyone could use the keyboard. And I mean anyone.
But something wasn't quite right. I had tested my fellow employees using the new design the day before and just about everyone had the same complaint. The keys were just too small. You almost had to be an elf to type fast enough, and none of the employees were elves. In every other way, the test subjects told me the keyboard worked fine--the icons were easy to understand, the layout seemed obvious. I was determined to make a new, improved design and show everyone that I could overcome the challenge.
During the day, I tweaked my layout and spaced the keys a bit differently. I attached the new layout to a prototype and tested a few more employees. Eureka! This time, everyone liked the size of the keys and commented about how useful it seemed. I was getting close. And, I wasn't stuck with a keyboard only an elf could use.
Then I did something really stupid.
I kept tweaking the keyboard design. I went back into my Mac program and kept adjusting the icons for each of the keys. I played around with the color treatment. My boss thought I was crazy. I felt like I was Steve Jobs on a personal mission. At some point that week, I started doing more tests and found roughly the same results.
Sadly, it was around this time that the CEO of the company came into my office and started asking questions. Why was it taking so long to come up with a keyboard design? Was there any way to speed up the process? Was I taking a long lunch?
I confessed I was still tweaking the keyboard design. The CEO at the time was a well-known entrepreneur who had started several other companies. He had a casual attitude. Maybe it was because he already owned two houses, a yacht, and a vacation resort in some tropical country and probably had more money than everyone of his employees combined. Still, I sensed he was a little frustrated. "It doesn't have to be perfect," he mused.
I yammered on about needing to make a few more design changes but eventually landed on one that seemed "good enough" and tested out well with some of the employees at the company. We did more tests, but didn't labor over the keyboard too much. It worked. Everyone was pleased. Even the CEO congratulated me on a job well done.
Still, I fumed about it for weeks. Looking back, I realized something. I was striving for design perfection like I was a Swiss watchmaker. I wasn't trying to make a useful design; I was trying to impress my boss. In reality, the marketplace would dictate whether the design was useful. All that mattered was whether the product became a success. (It did.)
Recently, design guru Don Noman told me how a product design does not always have to be perfect. It's the one word the best designers never use. Besides, what is perfection? It's really a matter of opinion. Everyone has a different definition.
If you are charged with designing a new product, keep in mind that the goal is usability, good design, functionality--usefulness. Striving for perfection in a world full of imperfections doesn't make sense. It just makes you a Doberman Pinscher.
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