Beware of chasing the dangling carrot in front of your nose

Are you a designer — perfectionist? Read my lessons learned on chasing “the perfect” in the product design and how to avoid falling into the traps of perfectionism.

Tom Kupka
Published in
6 min readMar 1, 2018


Carrot: OpenClipart-Vectors, Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

You all know the story about the donkey and the carrot. The carrot was dangling in front of the donkey, but always remained just out of its reach as the cart kept moving forward…

Using the metaphor of the donkey and the carrot seems to be a great example of how we can look at perfectionism in the product design.

The dangling carrot can be your motivation driving you towards your goals and visions. However, it is important to be also beware of the risks, that your goals and ideals may not be actually delivered; as in the story, the carrot always remained just out of reach of the donkey.

In the following article, I will tell you what are the traps of chasing “the perfect” and how to avoid falling into them.

  • How important is to stay comfortable with the product imperfections during its lifecycle, especially when it is MVP.
  • How I learned to step back to see the whole picture first — in order to see the priorities.
  • I will also share some thoughts on how a positive team culture can improve products, collaboration and creativity.
  • Finally, I will explain why it does not worth chasing “the perfect” in the iterative design — in order to achieve goals and staying more productive.

Relax, design keeps evolving on the go

In the past, I had an opportunity to design a new enterprise product from scratch. The main challenge was the difficulty of accepting that for some of our visions and usability improvements you would need to wait some time.

My challenge was learning to stay comfortable with imperfect things. I had a clear vision, but it was far from the actual design — and this was frustrating.

As we tried to focus on the MVP, we needed to deliver core features first and therefore many UX improvements were due to not having such a priority, so the product could survive.

Now, after 4 years, I am pleased to see that most of the vision was fulfilled, and the user experience became exceptional — based on the regular feedback from our usability lab and customers.

I learned, that for “the perfect” results you sometimes need to wait.

You just need to set priorities, be patient and with perseverance keep iteratively incorporating the feedback.

Can’t see the forest for the trees?

There was a time I joined a lesson to learn painting with acrylics to explore the right hemisphere of my brain. Besides that, I learned something crucial regarding prioritization.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

During the class, the teacher often told us: “take a step away from the canvas to see the whole picture”. He knew it was easy to spend hours painting a detail, easily forgetting the rest of the landscape.

Even while painting, you first do rough sketches and contours with a pencil, then you lay out primary layers with solid colors to cover the canvas. If this would be shown to somebody at this point, it could be judged as ugly or strange. Well, that is ok, because you continue refining, adding layers and details step by step to achieve the desired image. In the end, you can tune the details.

The same analogy I see in the product design. You progress from low to high fidelity — from simple sketches and wireframes to the interactive prototypes and finally to reach the real product.

Being often immersed in the detail (in order to make things perfect) means you can’t see the whole picture anymore. The problem is that it often leads to bad prioritization and loss of time doing something that may not be so significant at that moment.

Doing a step back to see the big picture allows you to see the product, user, and business goals again.

I recommend to ask yourself few questions to remind you the mission. It can be any questions that would help you to see where you are and where you go from a high-level perspective.

  • How does my work contribute to the whole?
  • What is the user goal?
  • Does the prototype need a high fidelity at this moment? — Some discussions go better with lower fidelity, helping to focus on the concepts rather than on details.
  • Could somebody more skilled do that? — Don't sharpen the blunt edge of the knife. Try to focus on what you are good at.

This self-talk will help you to prioritize with ease and to focus on what matters. Make it your daily habit, an integral part of your mindset.

I also recommend this article from Tobias van Schneider, where he shares other great thoughts on prioritization, productivity and perfectionism — Perfectionism Ruined my Productivity.

There are forms of perfectionism defined by fear

Let’s face it — we all designers are perfectionists deep down, more or the less. We possess high standards of how things should behave, feel and look. Our eyes can see the difference between exceptional, good, average and bad. Any kind of imperfections are usually not acceptable and it creates this internal pressure that it needs to be fixed — otherwise, we are not happy with it. And someday we can’t deliver because we are chasing the unrealistic.

I always wondered why is that?

Let’s first look at the perfectionism from a psychological point of view.

Firstly, there is a positive aspect, that helps us to see a problem and the frustration can provide a driving energy which moves us forward to make things better. It is a great skill and I would even say an inner quality of designer’s eye. On the other hand, there is also a negative aspect as the other side of the coin, which is good to be aware of. This aspect is usually an unhealthy mindset that can be contra-productive. It is known that an individual, who gets obsessed with the quality of its work, is usually having a fear of critique or judgment.

The thing is, perfectionism tends to be rooted in fear rather than opportunity.

— Julie Zhuo

As Julie Zhuo well pointed out in her article Battling Perfectionism, I do agree that the certain type of perfectionism often lives in us as a hidden fear — a fear of failure, that what we present to the world could be judged. I believe that this brings also a wrong misinterpretation, that we could be judged too — well, to the extent how much we take things personally.

To put it back in the context of the design, the chance of falling in the trap of those negative aspects depends on each individual to be able to accept mistakes and failures in order to learn from them.

Design Critiques: Encourage a positive culture to improve products — Nielsen Norman Group

Secondly, based on my experience, it is dependent on a quality of collaboration and culture in your team — constructive feedback is the key, e.g. a feedback expressed badly (hating, critique without offering a better solution, etc.) increases fear, and blocks the creativity; therefore it does not allow any innovation.

Design Critiques: Encourage a Positive Culture to Improve Products” by Sarah Gibbons (October 23, 2016)

The Take Away

To conclude this topic, despite the disadvantages and traps of perfectionism, we can always take the best out of it.

I recommend to treat “the perfect” as your vision or like a compass, that tells you where you want to be. Otherwise, it can turn to the unreachable thing, that can make you sad and less productive.

Try to stay agile as this world is a dynamic, never-ending change of things.

Keep looking from the high-level perspective to see where you are, why and where you want to go. Doing so will help you to focus on the priorities, without being stuck in unnecessary details. Furthermore, it will allow you to invest your time and energy where it matters.

I hope this lesson learned can be inspiring for you as well! Tell me what you think in the comment section below! I’d love to get a conversation started on this subject.

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Tom Kupka

Senior Product Designer @Productboard. My thoughts, stories and ideas on UX and Product Design |