The Perfection Trap

I worked with a client several years ago where I delivered a very nice website. It was a large, but informative site outlining an ambitious software project they were developing. The client was happy with the final product and we were moving toward a launch. Then the owner decided they wanted to add extra features. The owner was adamant that the site was not complete until these features were implemented, but they didn’t have the funding to add them.

So the website sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I later got an email requesting to remove the prototype website from my portfolio, because their clients were finding it and it wasn’t ready to be seen. I pleaded with them to launch the site, touting the benefits of having something online, that it would bring in more revenue to fund the extra features. Their frustrated project manager agreed with me, but could only meet to outline an even more ambitious “phase 2″ plan, and provide me with minor tweaks to the already finalized copy.

The project manager eventually left the company and the line went dead. And there it sat. My beautiful creation, hidden away from the world. The site did eventually launch just last year but for about 3 years there was nothing. And they were one of the lucky ones.

I also worked as a game developer for several years at a company that was exceptional at getting projects 90% complete before changing directions. They eventually went under and the owner was sued by investors.

I use these anecdotes as cautionary tales for my clients not to fall into what I call “The Perfection Trap”.

I’d like to take credit for coining this term, but in reality I’m rephrasing a quote made in 1764 by the French philosopher Voltaire, translated as “The best is the enemy of good.”

It’s a quite simple concept relevant to everything you undertake in life. It’s often better to simply get something done and improve it later than to try to get it perfect on the first try.

The problem is quite simple. The longer a project stalls, the less likely it is to ever be completed. Also, “perfect” is a very subjective benchmark. Over time, your idea of what is perfect is bound to change, so you can get caught in an endless loop of retooling a project in a vein effort of getting it “perfect”, while losing the benefit of having a complete project, whatever those might be. Alternately, if it is a corporate project, not only could the vision change, but leadership can change, experienced workers can leave, trends and markets can shift, funding can dry up, and the public (or shareholders) can get impatient if results aren’t produced.

The world is full of partially finished structures, often grandiose monuments, ego-driven testaments to events where audacity and ambition was unmatched by perseverance.

The alternate argument could be the phrase “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”. I believe this is a phrase better suited for instances where there is a well established benchmark for quality workmanship, such as carpentry, where shortcuts can have obvious, long-lasting, or disastrous effects.

But I’m not in that business. I’m in the web business. And yes, certain standards and principles still apply to this industry as well. Write clean, flexible, scalable code. Optimize your database. Write clean, semantic markup and follow best practices for search engine optimization. The list goes on.

But on the creative side where decisions have to be made: writing, UI design, choosing what features to implement and how fancy to make them, this is where the perfection trap comes into play.

If you’re building a website and you currently don’t have one, time is of the essence. It is critical to have a website online so customers can find you and search engines can begin indexing your site. Content can be rewritten after launch. If you have a Content Management System, this effort is trivial. Design elements can be added or improved, and even though it is more work to completely redesign an existing website, small design decisions will not likely make or break a website. They will not likely be the determining factor for whether a user wants to contact you. User Interface often only requires the bare essentials – create, read, update, delete (or CRUD as we techies call it- basically data in data out) to be usable, and the rest is usually someone’s idea of a nice feature for improved usability.

Another important point, you are much more likely to know what is perfect if you can get feedback from an audience. This requires having something out there. Even if you successfully complete your grandiose design, your audience might feel that you missed the mark, or at least, left room for improvement.

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3 Responses to The Perfection Trap

  1. Mike says:

    couldn’t agree more.. that’s why they make all those uber-awesome “under construction” animated GIFs! :)

  2. this is spot on! You have done a great job making the case for moving forward, even as you realize these endeavors are often a “work in progress.” Embracing the process and being open to change down the road is a powerful message!
    THANKS for sharing your wisdom.

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