There are no quick fixes in product design
Why quick fixes will do you more harm than good
Throughout my years in product design, I had been through numerous occasions where supposed “quick” or “small fixes” turns out to be complete scope creep, or they created problems that drains time in the future because of hasty decisions made in the past. It is a nightmare.
What is a quick fix
A quick fix is whenever one faces with a problem — without close examination — decided that the problem is a small one and thus gave it little time to work on. Sometimes one even made up a solution on the spot without consulting matter experts (aka Design by meetings).
So what is wrong with doing things quickly when you knew the problem was small? The problem is this exact “this must be a small problem” mindset.
Let’s break down why this is bad thinking.
1. You assume you understand the problem
Problem comes in many forms. Often, you need to spend some time to carefully study them in order to reveal their true nature. When you are just look at the problem from the surface and try to come up with a solution, it is like trying to finish someone’s sentence without understanding the context. You are no better than guessing.
The quick fix mindset makes you stop digging to the root cause of the problem and makes you jump right into the solution. It forces you to believe that you know it all, and prevents you from looking deeper.
2. You believe the quick answer is the right answer
Let’s just say the problem — is in fact — a small one. You want to find an elegant answer that takes the minimum effort to implement. That doesn’t mean that you would be able to find the solution quickly.
Since you already skipped ahead and decided that this will be a quick fix, you assumed that there must be a quick answer. You jump right to the first answer you came up with and assume it will work. You want it to work.
The problem here is that design is ambiguous; there might be many right answers — all depending on what you are looking for. But if you think there’s only one right answer, then you stop looking as soon as you find one. You can’t see the good ideas behind you by looking twice as hard at what’s in front of you.
3. You decided that everything is going to be okay
Now that you have picked a solution to work on, the next step is to execute it — the standard creating wire-frame and writing specification stuff. The problem now you see, is that since you already decided that you solution is the answer to the problem, it has to work for you. You became overly optimistic or even, tunnel visioned.
Should we talk to the developers to see whether our idea is feasible or not? Nah…my design is simply and shouldn’t be that hard to implement, there is no time for that. What if users do x instead of going through the desired path? Nah… I don’t think user will do that, it is an edge case.
You are likely to make bad calls with this way of thinking. You won’t see the damage you have made. Not today, not tomorrow, but when it is time to pay your debt, it will hit you hard.
4. You create design debt
The shortcuts you took and the little things you ignored will pile up. They became debts to be paid in the future. Since each components is intertwined with each other, the time it takes to solve a problem in the future is not linear, it is exponential.
Quick design almost always means there is a lack of documentation, both on describing how the feature is suppose to work, and more importantly, why the feature was designed that way. No matter how nonsense it seems now, the old logic exists for a reason. You have to be very cautious in adding new stuff while making sure you understand how the old stuff works, and if you choose to ignore the old design, you are very likely to walk into trouble.
Design debt — once accumulated — becomes a bad debt, one that is possible to pay. This is how a legacy system becomes untouchable. Touching one feature means going through the documentations of 10 other features. If you did not fully document how each these features work and why they were designed that way, chances are, the risk of changing it is too high and you are forced to stay away from them.
5. Your crappy design is permanent
If you messed up and the design doesn’t work, your crappy design is going to be permanent. Why? Because you have already worked on it. Your team, or even you would believe that you would improve it in the future. This won’t be the case.
The further away the promise, the easier it is to make. And the more painful it is to ultimately deliver. When the time comes to fulfill the promise, employees would rather be working on newer, cooler ideas rather than old promises. No one wants to put aside progress to make up for the past.
This thing has already been worked on, so it will get shuffled to the bottom of the to-do list. To your users, your crappy design is permanent.
Why do we like quick fixes
What is going on in our mind that makes us like quick fixes so much? I believe there are 3 main reasons.
We want peace of mind
When problem arises that wasn’t something we anticipated, we felt uncomfortable about it. Our first reaction is to find a quick way to make it disappear.
One way to do this is to trick yourself into believing everything is going to be okay. The logic goes “I don’t want to deal with this right now, so whatever came up is going to be a small task”. Hence, we became overly optimistic in both the severity of the problem and our ability to resolve it. It didn’t really matter how big the problem really was, as long as you can get away from it.
We want to work on something cooler
We tend to pay attention to things we care about (Don’t we all?). Small problems always comes with an unattractive batch on them. It feels small, it feels redundant. It feels like we were not going to have a fun time solving it.
More importantly, we are not going to gain much credit on fixing small issues. You might even want to hide the fact that the problem exists, because they shouldn’t exist in the first place if your designs were good. We would chose to ignore the small problems it if we were given the choice.
We are tight on schedule
This is most common reason. There is a deadline and the resources is tight, then this problem came up and it seems that you have to squeeze some time to fix it. You compromise for quality and tell yourself there won’t be next time, of course, there is always a next time.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to fix a problem with the minimum amount of effort if possible, that is what we should strive for. However, do not mistake you intention of using small effort to fix a problem translates to the problem being small.
Slow down. Fight the impulse of jumping to conclusion right away. Spend some time to investigate, bring in the expertise from different employees and discuss together.
If you are really in a rush, time box the time needed to investigate. It is better to spend some time to understand the problem now, than to realize a few months down the road your design doesn’t solve the real problem.
And if you really don’t have time to do all this, know that you are trading quality for speed. Your bad design will always come back to haunt you in the future. Know your debts and plan for it.
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