Where Scalable Design is and How to Get It.

A four-part series on the principles of scaling a product team.

Caden Damiano
From the Desktop of Caden Damiano


Part 1: No Strategy = Failure

Human beings a predictably irrational.

And that makes predictable business growth predictably unreliable.

Just admit it, there are inevitable ups and downs in business. There is no one undefeated product designer. Some iterations the product flop and others nail the customer need on the head.

Because design is an iterative process, it depends on failure, micro failures if you will, to zero in on what makes the user tick.

You can’t, for example, pontificate on every scenario and roadblock a potential idea can entail before you build an MVP.

But at the same time, you can’t just jump into solutions without listening to users.

There are product managers out there that will push their designers to come up with half baked solutions to problems. Usually if you are treated like a sketch monkey at work, it is because you are letting the PM make you pump out deliverables without putting up a fight.

It’s not About the Nail

Sometimes you just need to listen and empathize even if you know what the solution is.

In human to human design, a PM suggesting solutions without thoroughly engaging with a problem is like the partner in a relationship that is always trying to solve their significant others problems.

Comically accurate, the above video illustrates an important truth. We know why a customer is not happy or is suffering pain, inconvenience or time scarcity without your product. It is probably also true that your solution might be a great ideal for a blatant problem, but if your user doesn’t feel listened to, or your message isn’t timed right, they will not care how “awesome” your product is.

Humans a fickle remember?

Your desired solution isn’t bad, it’s your strategy.

In the 2nd Boer War was Great Britan’s Vietnam.

For centuries, the British empire spanned the globe, but many in the commonwealth where tired of British rule. In 1899, the commonwealth state of Southern Africa wanted their independence.

Not eager to let go of such a great foothold in the empire, (after all, Cape Colony, the predecessor of Cape Town, was a major waypoint when traveling to India) Britan sent her armies to quell the local rebellion. The British newspapers and generals both came to the consensus that the war would be a quick and the opposition weak.

General Sir Redevers Buller

Every British officer wanted to gain notoriety from gallantly acting in battle. This was imperial Britan, and war was then what the modern day start-up culture is now. Winston Churchill himself used the war to get himself his first seat in parliament. Men young and old on the British army didn’t want to fight for the commonwealth, they wanted to become famous.

Likewise startup founders want to make a cool product and use their business as financial a arbitrage machine to make a quick buck. The strategy is to scale fast and sell their business instead of making something that will last a long time. Thats probably why 90% of startups fail. Most don’t fulfill a need besides feeding the ego of one of the founders.

General Redevers Buller of the British army was no exception. With the command of 20,000 men, Buller and his Army marched on a Boer (Dutch Colonists in South Africa) position across the Tugala River.

Shoulder to shoulder, Bullers army was structured in a giant mass that was two miles wide and a mile deep. At the turn of the century, and with the naïveté of a nation that had not yet experienced the horrors of WW1, Britan still fought in line formation.

On the opposing side of the Tugala, the Boars where camouflaged into the landscape. They had men hidden in tall grass by the river, fake artillery gun barrels on the hills to confuse the British soldiers and had the greatest advantage of them all, the home field advantage.

Bullers counterpart, Piet Joubert, also had scouts reporting to him day and night to give him intelligence of British movements.

Piet Joubert

Buller, on the other hand, showed little interest in understanding the battle ground. War correspondent for the London Times, Leo Amery criticized, “No attempt was made to find out anything about the river itself and what lay behind.” Buller simply thought that Britan’s forces where superior.

Buller did have a plan, but it was based on centuries old military strategy rather than any understanding of the land, the river, or the enemy. (Millard 2016)

Buller planned on a full frontal attack. Which at the time, was the most popular strategy among British generals at the time.

When the battle started, the British army, open in the field, started losing soldiers by the dozens. “Men the officers seemed to melt down into the ground” (Atkins 1899).

The Battle of Colenso

British soldiers who tried to cross the river began to drown as their legs where shot out from under them. Droves where mowed down by the hidden enemy.

The Battle of Colenso, which the battle would later be called, resulted in 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured with the Boers only losing 8 men.

This battle is only one of a series of organizational failures the British military would go through that led to the gradual dismantlement of of the British Empire.

It was because they couldn’t scale.

Being ambitious isn’t enough

Buller wasn’t wrong.

Let me repeat that. He wasn’t wrong in the sense that he had a desired solution that correctly aligned with the interests of the British government. He was there to win a war, using tried and true tactics that we now think are stupid. The line formation and full frontal attacks had conquered nations for the British crown. It worked before, why wouldn’t it now?

It is easy to criticize in hindsight, but for some reason it is harder to learn from it. What would you have done back then? This was years before world war one, which was the war that disproved the full frontal attack as a viable tactics in modern warfare.

My bet is you would have done the same thing with the information Buller had.

But lets learn from their mistakes. It was hubris, that they did not need to scout the battlefield and gain context on the enemy.

They had tactics, but they didn’t have strategy, and that is why they failed to scale.

Not scouting the battlefield is like someone that thought that it wasn’t necessary to do research.

If Bueller sought to understand the current landscape of the battlefield, a full frontal attack might not have been seen as a strategically sound move.

Much like British military leaders at the turn of the century, business leaders, designers, product managers, and engineers all have fallen under the misguided notion that a problem can be conquered by the merits of economies of scale, having a vast pool of resources, and the superficial interpretation of analytical results. “The trend is up, we must be doing well!”

I argue that once a company does that or has that attitude, they have not considered all the variables. More than likely, they will lose.

Research then, is what informs proper strategy.

Keep an eye out for part two…

Caden Damiano is a User Experience Designer based in the Silicon Slopes.



Caden Damiano
From the Desktop of Caden Damiano

Host of “The Way of Product Design” Podcast owner of "The Way of Product" Innovation Studio