Watching Out For “What If…” In Product Development

The guys at 37 Signals have a list of what they call “red flag” words that often come up in business communications and can get teams into trouble. Words like “only” and “can’t” (as in, it should only take you a day to add this feature, and we can’t ship the product without it) lead down rat holes of feature creep and finger pointing.

For me, one of those red flags is “what if…”

What ifs are the sparks that ultimately generate every interesting, fresh, unconventional idea. They are the stuff of all the brainstorm sessions and experiments that characterize the really exciting parts of the product development process. What ifs produce ideas, and ideas are easy, so when a team is in the slog of getting things done, it’s hard not to get way ahead of them with lots of big and interesting ideas. You start to anticipate every possible scenario and edge case. You think about ways your product might tap into new markets before you’ve even addressed its core market.

Ideas are also impatient. They pile up behind the older ideas, and they push and they push until a few get through. And then a few more, and a few more, and while you may have started with something simple, you now risk ending up with this:

over-engineered light switch

(Click thumbnail to enlarge. Photo courtesy John Maeda)

On the other hand, what ifs can be part of a sanity check. Asking “what if…” can be like hitting the pause button, allowing you to step back, size things up and gauge whether they’re on track. What ifs can also help you subtract and simplify. It’s a great exercise to look at your ideas and ask, “what if we got rid of…” and “what if it just…”

I think the “It’s about time” clock is a great example of this kind of thinking:

the ‘it’s about time’ clock from iO Design Collective

These guys asked themselves how many people really need precision around what time it is and effectively said, “what if clocks only told you what you need to know – in plain English?”

This isn’t to say that thinking small is always better than thinking big. Each has its place, but either way, “what if…” is a phrase to look out for in business communications. When you hear it, make sure it’s leading you in the right direction.