Spend less time perfecting and more time evolving

A case study in how “almost-finished” is better than never finished.

While we were redesigning our web app for Trading Paints last year, we took our time. We told ourselves the update wouldn’t go live until we had reached 100% perfection — after all, this launch would directly set the tone for our long-term future, and we’d only have one shot at introducing our new set of features.

Our well-intentioned mindset of perfectionism turned what should have been a small evolution into an astoundingly lengthy two-year redesign process (in Internet years, that’s practically a decade).

In those two years, we went through three different design and feature concepts, scrapping the first two iterations entirely and landing on a third. We threw away a lot of time and effort getting to Concept Three. Through all this, I thought I was going to scare away our lead programmer, who had to do a lot of re-work over that time.

The lesson we learned was that “good enough”, despite what others had always told us, is OK — that is, as long as you commit to evolving your product once you’ve shipped it.

It’s getting to the “shipped” status that’s the important part.

Our two scrapped redesigns would have been major improvements over our 2009-built Web 2.0 mess we set out to replace. Because of our Perfectionist’s Disease (well, stubbornness, really), our users had to deal with an icky, outdated, inefficient web app for two years longer than they should have.

It’s more important to ship a product in the first place than it is to ship a perfect product. Chances are, most of your audience won’t realize something nearly finished isn’t actually completely finished in your mind.

In our case at Trading Paints, our audience would have been delighted by any of the “imperfect” designs or features we built but didn’t release.

Eventually, at a certain point in our magical third concept, we shifted our focus to getting the damn thing out the door, promising ourselves we’d improve once we were live. This shift in our thinking led to a quicker launch, an end to two-years of wheel-spinning, and 25,000 happier users.

Self-proclaimed perfectionist Sean McCabe suggests curing perfectionism by aiming for 90%. This is solid advice for someone dealing with Perfectionist’s Disease.

Using McCabe’s 90% model, you shouldn’t spend so much time trying to perfect the last 10% when you can instead ship at 90% and evolve once you’ve reached that point. In our case, we had the opportunity to evolve and improve after we launched our redesign. In the case of a designer or developer doing project-based client work, evolving means aiming for the 90% mark and improving in your next attempt. If you’re a perfectionist, it’s awfully likely that 90% in your mind is 100% in other people’s minds.

We eventually launched the new Trading Paints earlier this year, still perfecting things and evolving features as days go on. Even after releasing an “almost-finished” product, our users have been delighted by the updates and pleasantly surprised when we drop in new features that we once swore we couldn’t launch without.

Our only wish is that we’d have stopped trying to be perfect two years sooner.

Note: This advice does not apply to brain surgeons.

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