Getting There Without Directions

I can barely remember now, but before the age of MapQuest (and, subsequently, Google Maps), if I needed to go somewhere I’d never been to before, I rarely planned my route. If, for example, I wanted to go to a furniture store in a suburb on the other side of town, my process went something like this…

  1. Get in the car and start driving in the general direction of my destination.
  2. Once in the general vicinity of the destination, consult a map or get exact directions from a knowledgeable human.

This makes perfect sense to certain kinds of people, but various of my friends and past significant others found it absolutely maddening. How can a person get in a car and start driving if they don’t know exactly where to go?

I was thinking about this today in the context of product development. Recently, I wrote about the value of “process,” and I think this makes for a pretty good analogy.

The Web is a very forgiving platform in the sense that building things for it is very easy, and making changes is often trivial. It’s all just pixels and code. I love this because it allows for experiments and mistakes. It encourages mistakes, because you can learn and adjust so quickly.

I have no problem putting something imperfect into the hands of the crowd and then watching it to see how and where it falls short – within reason. If the breaking of something will result in loss of life, or a lot of money, I’m very very careful of course, but such situations are rare.

I have no “brand” to protect – or, rather, a willingness to experiment is consistent with my “brand” – so this is easy for me.

What’s really difficult sometimes, though, is to get clients and stakeholders to feel comfortable with things unfinished and imperfect. Companies are understandably careful about everything they unveil that has their mark on it. When careful goes too far, however, one pitfall is a culture of fear, where people are afraid to make mistakes or deviate from what is safe and known and familiar. This is the same kind of culture where people are unwilling to deliver bad news to the boss.

Not to venture too far into another analogy, but I once had a music teacher say to me, “if you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud.”

I love this philosophy, but to make it work for a company or a client requires certain controls. Some options are…

  • Brand it with beta. This is a popular Web 2.0 approach. Just put a “beta” badge on it, and people will know it’s a work-in-progress.
  • Launch a laboratory. Google and Digg have pretty nifty public ones.
  • Encourage your employees. There’s no encouragement like time and money. Google, again, is the obvious example. They famously encourage their employees to use 20% of their time to work on side projects. Some of these – like Gmail – have become key parts of Google’s portfolio.
  • Limit exposure. Create a panel of people with whom you can share your wild ideas and works-in-progress. Or do live A-B testing, where the experimental stuff is only put in front of people who meet certain criteria.

That’s four ideas, and there are certainly lots more, so get in the car and start driving. Make loud mistakes.

One Reply to “Getting There Without Directions”

  1. “I have no problem putting something imperfect into the hands of the crowd and then watching it to see how and where it falls short – within reason.” While I understand the point you’re making, the definition of “within reason” used by developers versus companies and customers makes for a lot of falling short. From my user perspective, the development process seems to often be a mask for “half doing” the job.

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