Don’t start from scratch

4 min read
Nathan Barry
  •  Sep 18, 2015
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We all want to leverage our time and effort. That’s why ideas like the 80/20 rule are so popular. Work on something until it’s good enough, then move on. But what if you want to go beyond 80%?

A couple weeks ago I was up in the mountains of North Carolina for a mastermind retreat. During one of our feedback sessions, James Clear asked for feedback on his wildly popular blog. That gave me a chance to mention something that I’d been thinking about for a while: though I liked his blog’s minimal style, I felt the design didn’t live up to the quality of his content.

James thought for a second and said, “I guess I could get it redesigned.”

The perils of starting from scratch

That’s something I’ve heard a lot: if something isn’t good enough, it’s time to redo it. Sometimes that’s necessary, but more often you should use the foundation you already have to get closer to perfect.Twitter Logo

“Use the foundation you already have to get closer to perfect.”

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James didn’t need a site redesign. He just needed to add the final level of polish to make his design truly stellar.

So that’s what we did. After dinner that night, James started making changes. I’d point out little things like: “Let’s find a new font for that title,” or “Let’s change the navigation color.” But for the most part, James spent the next 2 hours making small tweaks and asking the group, “What do you think?”

Instead of starting from scratch and having to spend days designing and building a new design, James took his site design from good enough to great! in mere hours.

Had he hired a designer or created an entirely new design, it probably would have only reached 80% before it was declared good enough and everyone moved on to the other aspects of running a popular blog.

Fix the little things

At ConvertKit, an email platform for pro bloggers, I’ve prioritized growing the business and designing a solid user experience over adding little bits of polish to the interface. That means ConvertKit is powerful, easy to use software, but it lacks the nice icons, illustrations, and animations that really complete the experience.

There were a handful of little quirks that really bothered me, so the other day I opened up my code editor and started fixing them.

I changed the hover state on a button, organized form fields on a page, made it so you could link to a specific tab on the settings page, and reworked the success and error messages.

“Set aside an hour to fix the small stuff, and watch how fast things come together.”

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What surprised me is just how little time these things took to fix. Some of these issues had bugged me for months, but I’d never had time to take care of them. But when I just set aside an hour and fixed the little things, it was amazing how quickly everything came together.

James noticed the same thing. His site didn’t take weeks to redesign. Instead the process took 2-3 hours.

The old design
The redesign

Redesign vs. realign

Years ago I heard Cameron Moll talk about how good designers redesign, but great designers realign. Meaning, great designers take what’s already good and add the last bit of polishTwitter Logo to take it to the next level. Rather than starting from scratch and spending all their time trying to get back to 80%.

“Good designers redesign, but great designers realign.”

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A caveat

James finally went to bed at 2AM. Though when I walked past his room 30 minutes later I could see that he’d taken his laptop back out to make more tiny tweaks to his site.

And when I made those changes to ConvertKit the other night, I didn’t want to stop, either.

Though it’s just small things getting knocked out, all of them add up to an energizing, motivating feeling that big progress is being made.

So set aside that 1-hour block to fix the small stuff. Once you get into the flow, though, be warned: you might enjoy it so much you stay up way too late.

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