First to market don’t always succeed

August 12, 2021

Most people in our industry believe the common 'truth' that the first to market will always succeed. That being first gives you an unrivaled advantage and is crucial if you want to set yourself up for success. Whether or not that is true - I'll leave it to others to debate - I will say that the only way to ship any products is to ship imperfect products. Perfection never gets shipped because things can always improve. At one point, there needs to be a moment when the pencils are put down even if it hurts OCD designers. This isn't exclusive to apps and digital products, but even applies to the work we do.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that 78% of CEOs believe they only have a 90-day window to prove themselves in an organization. If that's the feeling at the very top of the company, surely it's something that ripples down to us as designers, producers, and developers. Even worse, 60% of CEOs also believe this window is dangerous and encourages short-termism. The 90-day window is encouraging not just CEOs but all of us to prioritise tactical, short-term wins. This has consequences.

With short-terms wins it's easy to get immediate, positive results. The flip side is that it's not preparing you for the future. Instead, it may be taking advantage of the current, temporary situation and harm the long-term outlook. You may be at a disadvantage compared to competitors who invest in the long-term now.

What you do today determines the type of business you can become.

Choices, choices

So when we build digital products, we're forced to make decisions based on how we plan. Do we push to become first to market with a product that is made out of bits and pieces or do we allow ourselves the extra time to build out a design system of atoms, molecules, and organisms (e.g components)? Sure, it takes additional time now, but it's setting us up for a more cohesive product. Even more importantly, a system like this allows us to scale much faster, and better in the future.

A design system is best created simultaneously with the development of your product. It's incredibly difficult to create the design system before creating your product since there's no real way to know all of the requirements until you head into design. Creating a design system once the product is all buttoned up is a cumbersome process as you'll have to rewind and duplicate a lot of work. As if that's not enough, the size and complexity of a design system can range from something relatively simple as with typography, colors, and the most re-used components to something that features principles, voicing, and experience.

With design systems, as is true with most of life, there's no 'one-size fits all'. We've recently created a very small design system for a client that includes just the bare minimums and, at the same time, we're working on a very big, fully-featured design system. Why? Because both of these design systems are what the organization needs due to their current needs, plans for the future, and the time allotted. What we do know, is that both organizations require an intentionally created design system and, while not creating one at all would have been quicker, it would have been a short-termed win that we would have regretted. The long-term would have suffered.

There’s always someone who is more willing to play the short-term game than you are. Someone who is willing to cut more corners, send a more urgent text, borrow against the future, ignore the side effects, abuse trust and corrupt the system–somehow justifying that short-term hustle with a rationalization (usually a selfish one) about how urgent it is. On the other hand… There’s plenty of room to win as someone who takes a longer view than the others.Seth Godin

Are you building for long-term or quick turn around?

There’s a smart, simple system you can use to consider the main constraints that shape what you build. It’s called the Project Management Triangle. Understanding this triangle and how to use it will means you will create better plans and ultimately get better results for whatever you’re working on.

The Triangle works like this - there are three fundamental outcomes to any project: good, fast, and cheap. Your project can have any two of these outcomes, but can never have all three. That means there’s always a trade off...

Cheap + fast = lower quality work

Fast + good = expensive

Good + cheap = not happening anytime soon

The trick is that this isn't completely true when it comes to design systems. Why? Because no matter how much money you'll throw at it, it's very difficult to create a great and robust design system in a very short period of time. Each component of a truly great design system need time to align with one another. They need to be flexible enough to be modular and usable in a various situations. This has to happen while also being defined and distilled into core functions so your product team understands exactly how AND WHEN to use them.

Fortunately you don't need years to do this, you can get a well-designed, usable, and scalable design system in place within that 90-day window that CEO's acted against. But as with anything in life, this kind of quality takes time. Perhaps Warren Buffett put it best:

No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.Warren Buffett

Join me next time when we'll look more practically at what a design system is, how to build one and what the benefits of having one are!

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