In product design, continuous improvement has been hailed as the holy grail of innovation. Academics and industry pundits extol its virtues, depicting relentless progress and unending success (Sanchez & Blanco, 2014). Yet, in the messy reality of the real world, it often feels like a mirage—an elusive ideal that rarely materialises. As a designer, I find myself torn between embracing the notion of continuous improvement and yearning for the satisfaction of a job well and truly completed.
This article delves into the paradox of constant improvement and explores how it can be tamed to deliver tangible results.
Continuous improvement has its merits, no doubt. It keeps us on our toes, propelling us forward in an ever-changing landscape. The ability to adapt and evolve our products and services is essential. However, the main problem with this approach is the perpetual feeling of unfinished business. There's no moment of triumph, no final tick on the to-do list. Our desire for gratification through completion is left unsatisfied, and it seems as though projects linger in a state of eternal limbo.
The Golden Age of Finality:
Reflecting upon the past, there was a time when projects had clear boundaries. We would receive a brief, create a design, collaborate with developers, and proudly deliver the finished product to the client. Job done; project complete. The days when a sense of closure provided a dose of gratification. However, the landscape has changed, and the ever-present cycle of iteration has become the new norm—a process that only seems to cease with the finality of death.
Despite continuous improvement being frequently included in project plans, its successful execution has yet to be achieved. While the intention to iterate and improve is present, various factors often hinder its implementation. Tight timelines, resource constraints, and competing priorities can impede the dedication of time and effort to refine and enhance a product truly. Without a genuine commitment to allocate resources and foster a culture of continuous improvement, projects may fall short of realising their full potential for growth and innovation.
Shiny Object Syndrome:
While continuous improvement should be our mantra, we must acknowledge the temptations of shiny object syndrome. It's the phenomenon where we grow weary of constant improvement and eagerly jump onto the next big thing, abandoning our ongoing projects to languish in obscurity. The result? Unfinished backlogs and neglected users are left to fend for themselves, caught in a perpetual state of frustration. It's a disheartening reality when we realise that our initial intentions of progress can unwittingly morph into indifference and neglect.
The Perils of Leaving a Capability:
In our quest for perpetual improvement, we often leave clients with a mere capability—a set of tools and frameworks—without the necessary resources or mindset to continue the journey. It resembles Schrödinger's cat - neither alive nor dead, trapped in a never-ceasing cycle of uncertainty. The product becomes a relic, its potential locked away as the investment, time, energy, and resources wane away. It's a poignant reminder of the importance of delivering a solution and enabling others to carry the torch of progress.
While acknowledging these challenges, I still believe in continuous improvement. However, it's crucial to strike a balance between completion and enhancement. Rather than perpetually tweaking and iterating, we should focus on designing products well from the start and delivering them to users. We can avoid the trap of eternal refinement by ensuring a solid foundation. From the outset, a functional, efficient, and user-friendly product provides immediate value and establishes a firm groundwork for future improvement.
The Designer Mindset:
The designer's mindset plays a crucial role in influencing the outcome of continuous improvement efforts. By acknowledging the availability of dedicated time for refinement and enhancement after the product launch, we can alleviate the pressure of attaining perfection right from the beginning. Instead, our focus can be on releasing a product that is 80% satisfactory, allowing us to gather valuable user feedback and iterate more effectively. This change in mindset facilitates more efficient development cycles and nurtures a culture of continuous improvement while upholding quality standards.
However, it is important to consider the implications of such an approach. One example that highlights potential drawbacks is the release of the game Cyberpunk (Cyberpunk 2077’s Disastrous Launch May Benefit Gamers in the Long Run, 2020), which followed a similar mindset of delivering an unfinished product and testing and iterating along the way. Unfortunately, this approach was met with significant backlash from players dissatisfied with the game's state.
Another crucial aspect to consider in releasing an 80% satisfactory product or service is the decision-making process regarding its completion. Identifying when a product has reached the 80% mark requires careful consideration and collaboration among various stakeholders. The criteria for determining this threshold may vary depending on industry standards, customer expectations, and project goals. It is essential to involve key decision-makers, including designers, developers, product managers, and user feedback, to ensure a comprehensive evaluation that balances the need for iterative improvement with timely product delivery.
Finding the Middle Ground:
The solution lies in discerning the nature of each project. Some endeavours, like a product website or a game, are best treated as a one-time creation, requiring a definitive finish line. On the other hand, complex platforms like social media networks demand ongoing improvement to remain relevant and competitive. However, some projects fall in between, where a shorter improvement lifecycle is appropriate, guided by carefully considered metrics and a predetermined cut-off point. Striking a balance between completion and ongoing enhancement can help us navigate the challenges of continuous improvement more effectively.
The user's perspective:
Continuous improvement in product design holds immense promise, yet its real-world execution often needs to catch up to expectations. Balancing the desire for completion with the need for ongoing enhancement is crucial. By acknowledging the challenges of perpetual iteration and avoiding the trap of shiny object syndrome, we can create products that provide immediate value while allowing room for future improvement. Equipping clients with the resources and mindset necessary to continue the enhancement journey independently is essential. However, we must also consider the impact on users. Small changes that occur frequently can disrupt their workflow and operational effectiveness. Users may become frustrated when they have just become familiar with a product or service, only to have to learn new features or functionalities. It's akin to supermarkets rearranging their shelves, causing customers to spend more time searching for items they previously knew the location.
When embarking on continuous improvement, it is crucial to consider the ripple effects of narrowly focused improvements. Changes in one area may have unintended consequences in other parts of the business, impacting systems, processes, and overall efficiency. Unfortunately, due to tight budgets, insufficient resources are often allocated to monitor the ongoing effectiveness of continuous improvements. We need constant checking and analysis to fully understand the ripple effects, which can lead to significant problems.
Moreover, the natural degradation of processes should be addressed when pursuing continuous improvement. Many projects need better documentation and more time for proper handover. As a result, the impacts of changes are based on guesses rather than accurate data. Uncontrolled changes and their ripple impacts can eventually necessitate a major redesign.
Considering these factors, product owners must question whether it is better to allocate resources to continuous improvement or to complete a project and acknowledge the need for future redesign. Additionally, it is challenging to anticipate how a product will evolve and interact with future developments. Creating a backlog of continuous improvement may not be suitable in the long run, as it is difficult to sustain a team continuously working on a project after the initial launch with a broad and holistic perspective.
Continuous improvement is not just a process but a mindset and cultural shift (Bhuiyan & Baghel, 2005). It requires engagement and mindfulness from all team members to identify necessary changes and ripple effects. However, implementing this mindset takes work and demands time and effort.
In conclusion, while recognising the challenges, continuous improvement remains a valuable approach in product design. Striking a balance between completion and enhancement is essential. By focusing on designing products well from the start and delivering them to users, we can provide immediate value and establish a solid foundation for future improvements. The designer's mindset plays a crucial role, embracing the understanding that perfection from the outset is unnecessary. A shift in perspective allows for efficient development cycles and a culture of continuous improvement without compromising quality.
Finding the middle ground is key, as different projects have varying needs. Some projects are best treated as one-time creations with a definitive finish line, while others require ongoing improvement to stay relevant. By carefully considering metrics and predetermined cut-off points, we can navigate the challenges of continuous improvement more effectively.
By embracing a balanced approach, we can bridge the gap between academic discourse and real-world application, ushering in a new era of effective and meaningful continuous improvement in product design. This requires addressing the concerns of users, assessing the ripple effects of changes, and ensuring proper resources and documentation. Continuous improvement can be harnessed with a mindful and engaged team to create products that provide long-term value and adaptability in an ever-changing landscape.
Bhuiyan, N., & Baghel, A. (2005). An overview of continuous improvement: From the past to the present. Management Decision, 43(5), 761–771. https://doi.org/10.1108/00251740510597761
Cyberpunk 2077’s Disastrous Launch May Benefit Gamers in the Long Run. (2020, December 25). CBR. https://www.cbr.com/cyberpunk-2077-disastrous-launch-benefits-gamers/
Sanchez, L., & Blanco, B. (2014). Three decades of continuous improvement. Total Quality Management & Business Excellence, 25(9–10), 986–1001. https://doi.org/10.1080/14783363.2013.856547
Photo by Rene Asmussen: https://www.pexels.com/photo/house-renovation-3990359/