Last week I was at my dentist and it was very pleasant, as always. The guy has a good sense of humor and really knows how to make a patient feel comfortable. Even in situations where you’re lying flat with your eyes open, glimpsing three people standing around you, looking inside your mouth and discussing their options while one of them sucks off your spit so you don’t choke on it.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve learned a very valuable lesson last week when I visited my dentist: perfection is for beginners, good enough is what the real pros aim for. I find this to be one of the most important things every beginner (dentist, designer, developer, writer etc.) has to learn before they can become really good at what they’re doing.
Especially beginners spend a lot of time trying to make things perfect. We spend countless hours on finding the right words, choosing the perfect way of intending our code and pushing UI elements a few pixels up soon before we realize that it’s better to put them back down where they were before. That’s great for beginners because it’s just another way of learning our craft.
In the long run though we need to forget about this notion of perfection. Life simply isn’t perfect. No matter what direction you turn you’ll almost always find something that doesn’t meet your standards and if you decide to touch on everything to make it as good as possible you’ll end up procrastinating about the fact that perfection cannot be achieved in most situations.
Back to the dentist’s chair. I have a very strange set of teeth and spent a lot of time lying open-mouthed in front of different dentists during my adolescence. Once one of them told my mother that she should bring me to someone else, since he had no idea what was going on inside my mouth. The next dentist then sent us to an orthodontist and the result was 3 years of dental braces (it eventually took more than 4 years until I finally got rid of them) and an appointment with some practical dentist who pulled out 2 of my healthy teeth.
The reason he pulled these 2 teeth? My orthodontist wanted to make room so he could align the rest and prepare everything for the awaiting wisdom teeth. And while this really sounds great, it resulted in some serious problems. Now that my lower jaw misses two teeth, the wisdom teeth on the opposite side have nothing to bite against. I guess this wasn’t predictable and don’t blame anyone for what happened but the truth is, I needed to get rid of the two wisdom teeth of my upper jaw to not end up like this:
In the end I’ve lost four (healthy!) teeth and since that’s not enough my dentist told me that there’s still one more tooth that has got nothing to bite against. He told me straight away that it doesn’t make any sense to pull the next healthy tooth and that we need to figure out something else to fix it.
One possible solution was to implant an artificial tooth on the opposite side so everything’s balanced again. Unfortunately this wasn’t actionable since the jaw on the other side, somehow wasn’t quite right for such an implant.
Another option would have been to tie the problem tooth to it’s neighbor with some golden bracket. This would have costed 500 euros, which I considered to be a fair price for not ruining my jaw, when suddenly my dentist had a great idea.
He proposed to remove the inlay that happened to be inside one of the two affected teeth, drilling a small hole into the other one and combine them with some metallic bolt so one can hold the other back. Afterwards he would close the gap with an inlay and the two teeth were connected without anyone even seeing it. The best thing about it: the price. Instead of 500 euros this solution only costed 50 euros. That said, I agreed to give it a try.
What’s the morale of this story? The orthodontist surely had some good intensions. He wanted my teeth to be just perfect. He removed some of them, aligned the others and had some overall vision for how the inside of my mouth should be. He did exactly what I would do and is not to blame for the fact, that future events simply can’t be predicted and that my teeth turned out to be the way they are right now.
The real insight is gained from my current dentist anyway. He was completely aware of the fact that my teeth are not perfect and instead of fantasizing about how they should be, he took a deep breath (that’s what I like to tell myself :) and accepted them the way they are. He made up his mind, brainstormed some possible solutions and decided to work with what’s already here. What an admirable way of doing one’s job.
It happens a lot that I use my imagination to envision a perfect future. I do this not only when designing but in almost any daily situation. I fantasize about how life should be, realize that it’s not the way I hoped it was, and spend a lot of time and energy on fixing it and making it perfect. Like my former orthodontist I have a vision for how things should be and make decisions based on this belief and despite the fact that I have no idea of what will happen in the future.
Today I was sitting with Daniel and we discussed some screen designs we want to turn into a working prototype for user tests. While I was really motivated when I started out, I realized that the delivered screen designs were far away from being complete to make a perfect prototype for testing. And since I love calling out elephants in the room I started a discussion about how problematic this situation was.
I can’t exactly remember my argumentation but I can assure you that I felt to be completely right about my point (as everyone who starts debating) when I informed the others about my frustrations with the status quo. I was not primarily looking for a solution but rather wanted everyone to know how unfortunate I was to work with something that doesn’t meet my standards for perfection.
Like my former orthodontist I clinged to my idea for how things should be. I envisioned the perfect screen designs for turning them into a perfect prototype to conduct a perfect usability study. I told the others that doing all of this would take us way beyond our deadline and that all in all this situation was bullshit. That’s how I felt and that’s what I did. A typical beginner’s mistake.
The revelation came to me when Markus did something quite similar to my current dentist. He analyzed the situation at hand and even listened to my lamentations. Then he took a deep breath (I think ;) and said something like this:
Well, you’re absolutely right about everything you’re saying. And yet, the screens you’re talking about are exactly what’s already here. This project is indeed so stressful for everyone involved, it’s very unlikely we’ll ever receive perfect screens for any of our testing. That’s just the way it is.
How wise this sounds in retrospective. The best thing about it: instead of spending days to produce a testable prototype we can now build one within hours. Why? Because we skipped on perfection and faced reality by working with what’s already here.
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