The Elevator Test

It’s been about four months since I joined the product design team at Retool and I’ve noticed something in my work click forward. Just a slight nudge, nothing that anyone else would spot. That’s mostly because progress is never straightforward: there’s baby steps and then one day you notice enormous baby thuds of progress.

I still make all sorts of mistakes though! I don’t notice obvious visual design problems in my work or in what ships and I’m often inconsistent in a few areas, like I’m bad at scoping down the work to the most essential elements. I’m real bad at anything related to animations. But I am seeing steady progress overall.

The biggest change in my work that I’ve spotted is that I’m no longer nervous when I jump on a project. I’ve done this kinda product design work for long enough at this point where I trust that eventually I’ll figure out a solution to this sticky problem. Even if right now I have to live in the muck and the confusion and the conflicting opinions about what to do next.

The second biggest change in my design work relates back to something that my boss, Ryan Lucas, told me about “the elevator test.” He said that back in design school his teacher would get him to put their products in between the doors of an elevator and watch it slam shut, destroying their product completely. The lesson here being that prototypes are tools to make the final thing better, you shouldn’t be precious about them, and what really counts isn’t what you’ve made but what you’ve learned.

Now you can make the next one better.

I took this lesson to heart so that these days I make at least fifty different competing prototypes for everything I design. Left aligned right aligned upside down and inside out. Make the background use system colors and random awful gradients, use different font weights even if it’s not part of the design system. What if this step came first, last, or we removed it completely? How does that feel? Let me click it, let me see it work or fail but who cares if it does? All of these designs are supposed to suck. The more awful drafts and bad ideas we see, the more clearly the good ones will shine through.

When it comes to product design, the elevator test is the critique—that’s the moment where I’m slamming the doors down on my work and seeing what happens next. And if I just make enough iterations and prototypes, eventually the doors might slam shut on one of them and then—stop.