List-maker's privilege

Thorough upfront discovery keeps morale up, costs down.

Design work is fraught with mismanagement. The lifecycle of a project is bloated with revisions and rework, small tragedies ballooned-up out of new variables, new challenges, new scope. Like the fabric of the universe itself, a huge makeup of the mass of design work is dark matter. The canvas is more eraser shavings than pencil.

Given the complexity of what we do, ushering a design through discovery and delivery, the magnitude of the impact from introducing a new variable later in the design process is exponentially shittier than closer to its conception, so much so that any designer who has survived and suffered that bullshit immediately becomes an advocate for a thorough, upfront, well-funded discovery phase.

That’s the discovery and analysis of such variables before designing the solution.

Stoics call this “praemeditatio malorum,” the premeditation of evils, the anticipation of events — good and bad — precisely to avoid over-reacting in the event a particular scorcher flares-up. It’s good advice. We use “measure twice, cut once,” to not only inspire folks to take their time with project discovery, but remind them that resources are literally involved and wasted when we make the wrong cut.

In the end, we’re ultimately creating a to-do list. The most complex kanban board is in practice just a series of bullet points, where the difference between a poor list and a good list is that the latter has more footnotes validating the existence of those bullets in the first place. But having a sufficiently thorough and valid plan upfront means the project doesn’t have to stop later to plan and validate.

Even given a scenario where the end results are the same, the difference between discovery-mid-project and discovery upfront is the difference between browsing your wardrobe in the morning to having the clothes you’ll wear already laid out. Cognitive load is a cumulative cost to companies, a cost that is easier to accommodate at the beginning of a project rather than as a surprise in the middle of an engineering sprint. Your morning routine is a time-constrained performance so jam-packed with steps — wake-up, kill the alarm, make the bed, shower, brush, dress, eat, commute — that you can’t include just one more thing (like “make a smart decision”) without really feeling the ache.

Such is the listmaker’s privilege: costs and morale.

Craft virtuously.