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Why you’ll always think your product is shit

Lobby of the Pixar offices in Emeryville, CA

“My product isn’t quite there yet.”
You’ve said this before. We all have.

Anyone working on getting their first product out to market will often have the feeling that their product isn’t quite ready. Or even once it’s out and being used, nothing will seem as perfect as they could be, and if you only did X, Y, and Z, then it woould be a little better. In a functional case, this leads to a great roadmap of potential improvements, and in a dysfunctional case, it leads to unlaunched products that are endlessly iterated upon without a conclusion.

About a year ago I visited Pixar’s offices and learned a little about this product, and I wanted to share this small story below:

Over at Pixar…
Matt Silas (@matty8r), a long-time Pixar employee offered to take me on a tour of their offices and I accepted his gracious offer. After an hour-long drive from Palo Alto to Emeryville, Matt showed up while I was admiring a glass case full of Oscars, and started full tour. I didn’t take great photos, so here’s some better ones so you can see what it’s like: Venturebeat, Urbanpeak.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Pixar – not just their products, but also their process and culture. There’s a lot to say about Pixar and their utterly fascinating process for creating movies, and I’d hugely recommend this book: To Infinity and Beyond. It gave me a kick to know that Pixar uses some very collaborative and iterative methods for making their movies – after all, a lot of what they do is software. Here’s some quick examples:

  • Pixar’s teams are ultimately a collaboration of creative people and software engineers. This is reflected at the very top by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull
  • The process of coming up with a Pixar movie starts with the story – then the storyboard – then many other low-fidelity methods to prototype what they are ultimately make
  • They have a daily “build” of their movies in progress so they know where they stand, with sketches and crappy CGI filling holes where needed – compare this to traditional moviemaking where it’s only at the end
  • Sometimes, as with the original version of Toy Story, they have to stop doing what they’re doing and restart the entire moviemaking process since the whole thing isn’t clicking – sound familiar, right?

The other connection to the tech world is that Steve Jobs personally oversaw the design of their office space. Here’s a great little excerpt on this, from director Brad Bird (who directed The Incredibles):

“Then there’s our building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

Anyway, I heard a bunch of stories like this and more – and as expected, the tour was incredible, and near the end, we stopped at the Pixar gift shop.

There, I asked Matt a casual question that had an answer I remember well, a year later:

Me: “What’s your favorite Pixar movie?”
Matt: *SIGH*
Me: “Haha! Why the sigh?”
Matt: “This is such a tough question, because they are all good. And yet at the same time, it can be hard to watch one that you’ve worked on, because you spend so many hours on it. You know all the little choices you made, and all the shortcuts that were taken. And you remember the riskier things you could have tried but ended up not, because you couldn’t risk the schedule. And so when you are watching the movie, you can see all the flaws, and it isn’t until you see the faces of your friends and family that you start to forget them.”

Wow! So profound.

A company like Pixar, who undoubtedly produces some of the most beloved and polished experiences in the world, ultimately still cannot produce an outcome where everyone on the team thinks it is the best. And after thinking about why, the reason is obvious and simple – to have the foresight and the skill to refine something to the point of making it great also requires the ability to be hugely critical. More critical, I think, than your ability to even improve or resolve the design problems fast enough. And because design all comes to making a whole series of tradeoffs, ultimately you don’t end up having what you want.

The lesson: You’ll always be unhappy
What I took away from this conversation is that many of us working to make our products great will never be satisfied. A great man once said, your product is shit – and maybe you will always think it is. Yet at the same time, it is our creative struggle with what we do that ultimately makes our creations better and better. And one day, even if you still think your product stinks, you’ll watch a customer use it and become delighted.

And for a brief moment, you’ll forget what it is that you were unhappy about.

Special thanks to Matt Silas (@matty8r, follow him!) for giving me a unique experience at Pixar. (Finally, I leave you with a photo of me posing next to Luxo Jr.)

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