Friday, August 6, 2010

Caring too much, and how to stop

If I had to settle on one thing as my greatest weakness, it would probably be this: I care too much about everything.  Lest you think this is one of those "turning a weakness into a strength," glass-is-half-full, dancing in the rain sentiments, let me explain why this is a bad thing.

Have you ever heard the expression "If everything is important, then nothing is?"  Well to me, darn-near everything is important, both professionally and personally.

I tend to think I'm Wonderwoman: omnipotent, capable of doing anything and everything.  Help you design this task flow?  Sure, no problem.  Design an Information Architecture for an entire new product?  No sweat.  Debate 50 options for the right control to use on this single wizard page?  Of course!  Design a fully-extensible architecture for the next GUI and still achieve all of our other design priorities?  "...What do you mean you don't think I can??"

But where does it end?  I wake up exhausted in the morning, drag my tired butt to work, pump myself full of caffeine to make it through the day, weigh in on any and all of dozens of issues, go home, eat dinner with my husband, and go to bed.  And the next day it starts all over.  I'm too tired to do the housework, too tired to take part in my hobbies, which all gets left for the weekend when I try to cram a week's worth of personal life into 2 short days.

That interest in everything, which makes me so good at what I do, is also my foil.  And I know that I'm not alone.  All over the US, and in my generation especially, there are little girls and boys who grew up being told they could do anything they could dream of.  But the well-intentioned message back-fired: We grew up believing that we could do anything, but we never learned we couldn't do everything.  And frankly, there just aren't enough hours in a lifetime for that.  But in spite of this, we try.  And then we fail.  And that failure is attributed NOT to the rational reason that it's impossible, but to some enigmatic personal failing.  "Clearly, if I was a better person, I would not have failed."  That path is not one that anyone should try to walk.  It doesn't lead anywhere good.

So how do we stop?  Personally, I stop when I feel that something is "enough."  The problem is, very seldom do I instinctively feel that something is "enough".  The UI could always be cleaner, simpler, smoother, more intuitive.  My house could always be neater.  My dogs could always be happier, more well-adjusted.  Thank goodness we don't have any kids yet! ;)

In my work life, at least, I've finally found a "good enough" indicator.  I recently attended a customer-focused design session where the facilitator presented a methodology for prioritizing improvements.  Here's how it works:

1. We start by building a list of the different improvements we're considering
2. Next, we stack-rank them according to customer priority, where #1 is the thing that customers most want, and N is the least craved feature on our list.  This can be a guess, but it really should be based on customer data.
3. Rank them according to current capability:
     1 = Can't be done at all, no way, no how
     2 = Can be done, but only using one of the competitors' products
     3 = Can be done with our product, but not easily. The solution requires a lot of thought and some effort from our customers.
     4 = Can be done with our product, somewhat easily.  This is where customers are beginning to be satisfied with our product.
    10 = Bliss. Customers are so happy with it, they tell everyone they meet.

Now we plot our features on this chart:

The relative priority we should place on improving any given feature is equal to that feature's horizontal distance from the 45-degree line.  The idea here is to only give priority to those features which will pay off in customer loyalty.  The lower the priority for a given feature, the less the effort will pay off after a certain point.  According to this method, that point is defined by the 45-degree line.

Shown below here is an imaginary example of 9 features that a team might be considering improving for their next version.

1. Plot them on the chart by priority and capability:

2. Measure the distance from the feature point to the 45-degree line:

Now we can see the relative improvement priority for each of these features:
  1. Feature 2 - with high priority (2) low capability (3), this feature is 6-points away from the line, which means it will give us the most bang for our investment buck: investing a lot in this feature will make our customers very happy.
  2. Feature 3 - still high priority (3), but better capability (5), this feature is only 3 points away from the line, which means that customers won't see as much improvement when we work on it, but they'll likely appreciate the little that they see.
  3. Feature 1 - Even though this was the highest priority (1), because it's already such a good experience, customers will not value improvements as much here as in the previous two features.  This one only gets an investment level of 2 points.
  4. Feature 9 - This is the lowest priority feature, but customers can't do it at ALL today.  This feature gets a score of 1: don't invest much, but do give it a little.
The rest of the features, 4 - 8, are already satisfactory to users.  In fact, Feature 4 in particular is much better than users care about already!  In the real world, this might be like a cellphone that reads my mind to dial: Am I going to pay more for a phone that can do this, or will I choose the phone that doesn't drop my calls as often?  Personally I'd go with the second phone.  Even though the mind-reading feature is wicked-cool, once the novelty wares off I'm going to get annoyed by those dropped calls.  Ultimately that feature is higher priority to me, because I find the existing dialing experience perfectly fine.

I'm so grateful to have found this algorithm, because it creates a stopping place for me.  For anything I'm weighing in on, I can ask myself, in the scope of ALL of the features that this team is dealing with, where does this rank?  After some gut-reaction, back-of-the-envelope graph plotting, I can tell whether it's worth my time to push on an issue, or to let it go.  And do you know what I've found?  More often than not, I can let it go, giving myself more time for the things that really matter.

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