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Have You Shipped Anything?

Friday, 1 July 2022

This is the question I always get asked during some job interviews, or at work at some companies. To be exact:

“Can you show us any design work, that you are most proud of, that you or your team have shipped?”

I find fallacies in this question. Let me explain.

Shipping or “go-live” is often regarded as getting the piece of software or product out the door to consumers. This means that there is a deliberate decision, often by the team, to make it live and for it to get used by users. In bigger companies, this often includes senior leadership’s decision.

You see, the more complex the organization, the more complex the decision is. You can get to shipping faster if you’re in a smaller company. You can get to shipping faster in a bigger company if the stake is lower, or you can learn immediately, or you’re very brave.

Essentially — nobody wants to ship in a higher stake situation. Hence, MVPs, or whatever you call them.

I always believe that design work is in the process. Not the outcomes, or the outputs. If the outcomes are good, that is because of the team’s work. The team’s work is a combination of things, including the team’s skill, grit, and oftentimes, political decision. Whether or not a designer has something shipped shouldn’t be made the only or the prominent assessment of their skills. We should judge a designer’s skill based on the process and the effort.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, said that…

“You have to encourage innovation. Companies become more conservative in decision making as you grow… be okay with failure and reward effort, not outcomes.”

Although I don’t believe all of Google would think the same way, I have to agree with this particular quote.

There’s also a small research that has been done on this, particularly on how it affects child’s psychology during their education years.

In designer’s interviews, let’s stop asking for things that have shipped to the users. Let’s ask, “show us things that you find most meaningful and most proud of, especially with a lot of learning and process.” This defines the grit and skill of the designer even more. Asking for results and outcomes all the time would just produce designers who care about that… the results and the outcomes.

To add to that, I feel like that shipping isn’t always about shipping to the customers. It can be shipping…

  • Learning. Even though it’s not shipped, or it failed, there must be learning. What self-realization that you discovered through this project? What about the team? Do they improve?
  • Internally. This can be shipping a better process or framework. At one point in time, my team did a research on localization in Japan, and we shipped an internal playbook that informs and guides designers in our company on how to design for Asia Pacific market.

The bottomline? Do not limit “shipping things” as your primary metric to judge a designer. Designers who have shipped “things” might not necessarily have better work, culture or process than those who don’t. If they work for a bigger company, chances are the shipping happens in a very small and iterative manner, sometimes trivial.

So, do “real artists ship”? More like… “real artists do and learn”.

Also on Substack

This article is also posted on Substack.

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