In the 7th century, Archilochus wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” A simple quote with a deceptively deep meaning.
Superficially it explains the difference in survival methods between a hedgehog and a fox. A fox knows many ways to trick, deceive and outmanoeuvre predators, the hedgehog knows one, but it’s a big one. The abstract meaning is that there are people who work best with a single big defining idea, and there are people who thrive when dealing with a variety of connected ideas.
The best product people I’ve worked with, designers and engineers alike, are comfortable in both categories. But they always fight to find their “one big defining idea” first. They know instinctively that it’s more important to get the big core decision correct than it is to artfully perfect secondary details. For example if they were creating a project management app, they’d spend days deliberating about “What is a project?” and wouldn’t proceed until they had the core correct. You’d be waiting weeks before there’d be talk about file uploads or calendar features, because none of that matters if the core is broken.
As designers they explore concepts. They understand the dangers of premature iteration; you don’t see files like
app_ui_v1 -> app_ui_v4, instead you see
SingleScreenModal. They prefer many different ideas explored, rather than their first idea well refined.
They know that iterating until something is “not obviously broken” doesn’t guarantee a good product, any more than iterating on a recipe until it’s “not obviously inedible” produces good food. You can iterate your way to lots of places, including mediocrity.
You can’t get good at something without the freedom to be bad at it first. If you believe every idea you present must look and sound great, don’t be surprised if you have very few of them. If you have very few, don’t be surprised if you pick a bad one. When you pick a bad idea, iteration won’t make it great, it just makes it complete.
Des’s two product principles are:
- Find your Core Idea First, and
- Quantity Can Guide You To Quality
These are important principles to keep in mind when building out products.