On Scope and Time

May 29, 2013

Building user interfaces is an open-ended process. Just take any feature of your product. Think about it. There are probably more than a dozen ways of designing and implementing it. And there is never really a point in time when you can consider it done.

Your assumptions are not really proven until you ship. You learn, adapt, tweak, and add new features in response to feedback. As long as your product is alive and you are listening to your users, you will be continuously iterating design and code to improve your user experience.

Given the continuous nature of UI development, knowing where to draw the line of what will get into the hands of users and when is a big deal. Why? Because the way the design iterations and development cycles are framed through time greatly impacts UI quality.

Designing and implementing user interfaces that stand out takes time. You rarely get it right at first. It is an exploratory process that requires designers and engineers to work together through countless iterations on sketches, specs, prototypes, and, of course, the implementation. Having an experienced and talented team might accelerate the process a bit, but only up to a point.

UI excellence is highly dependent on how much space the teams are given to explore different directions and to refine even the smallest details on the final product. Spread too thin on too many fronts and you lose the ability to dive deep in every aspect of the features at hand.

Think of UI quality as a hosepipe. If you want water to shoot farther, the most effective way to do it is to simply use your finger to partially cover the tip of the hose. This way, water will not only reach farther but also run faster.

In other words, if you want to raise your game, the most effective way to do it is to reduce scope to allow your team to go deep on UI quality and attention to detail. By sharpening your focus, you will also be able to ship and iterate faster.

For a real-world example, see how Realmac Software approached their first release of Clear, an app that got a lot of attention for its beautiful gesture-based user interface.

With Clear for iPhone we made the decision to choose date and quality. We wanted to ship a polished app (that’s always our main goal), but not spend a year on it as we wanted test the waters on iOS. Cutting back on features was the obvious choice although not an easy decision. By doing this we managed to ship a high quality app in a very short space of time.

Simply put, they reduced scope to ship faster with higher quality—finger over the tip of the hose.

Now, you might have thought the solution for the hose metaphor was to simply increase the water flow i.e. allocating more resources to the project. Sounds logical. However, growing the team is rarely an option for many organizations. Besides, larger teams only give you a potentially higher throughput. You still need to care about focus and depth—which can be very challenging on a larger scale.

In UI development, scope and time matter, a lot. The best user interfaces usually arise from teams who are able to focus on less to go deeper into details.

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