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The real superpower of product designers: Get comfortable with uncertainty

Designers have many superpowers, but one underrated one is that the work of design leads one to become more comfortable with uncertainty. How does this impact the product development process? Thread 👇

I learned this lesson almost immediately after receiving my first shiny new design assignment. This was also my first time working with a PM. She asked me when my work would be done by. I had no experience with design scoping, so I said I’d get back to her.

I brought the question to some senior designers on my team. “How long should a project like this take?” A shrug. Then: “It’ll take as long as it takes until it’s good.”

Since then, as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. I usually give some variant of the same answer. The PM or engineering manager will then look at me, baffled by my imprecisely disconcerting response.

But this is how creativity works. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in just three weeks. J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in 10 years. There is no recipe that guarantees something original and wonderful in a fixed amount of time.

Of course, it’s natural to crave certainty. We have fixed budgets. We must plan and coordinate with others. The idea that something might take months or years to get right is scary.

But here’s the yin-to-the-yang superpower that designers also typically have: deep trust in the process. Creative work should not be a ‘wait and see’ situation, like weather. It should not feel like you’re lost in a maze. It should feel intentional, like mapping out new terrain.

The following steps never fail to calm me when a looming project seems overwhelming: 1) Break the project up into smaller pieces, and just tackle the first step. For example, if you’re designing a new app from scratch, start with the default home screen, or the marketing page.

2) Try N different takes on the idea. Quantity is king. Challenge yourself to do 5, 10, 20 versions. Resist the urge to censor yourself at this stage. Just get the ideas out.

3) Show your work to a handful of others as soon as possible. Ask for their honest feedback. It’s great if these folks are designers; it’s even better if they’re actual customers. Resist the urge to impress. The goal here is simply: get feedback that helps you improve the work.

4) Iterate on your work based on the feedback. Repeat Step 3 again and again until you feel like your work is good. “Good” means you have confidence it solves the customer problem you set out to solve, and you feel proud of how it turned out.

You can’t predict how many revs are needed. But you can predict the timeline of the next rev. And you can invite the xfn team into the process. There’s comfort in knowing that, consistently applied, these steps = better work and more clarity on what’s “good” at every iteration.

To recap: designers wield two underappreciated superpowers: comfort with ambiguity and trust in a rigorous process. Help your team understand this, and there’ll be much less friction in arguing about timelines. Fin.


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