If it doesn’t ship, then it doesn’t count

I could have spent three minutes on a sketch or three months designing a new interface from scratch but it’s all the same to me: if it doesn’t ship, then it doesn’t count.

I’m not sure why I feel this way, perhaps because I started my career as a front-end developer and became addicted to the short turn around time of spotting a problem, making a commit, and then playing with the fix live in production. But a lot of design doesn’t work that way. You’re entirely dependent on a team of folks to build what you have in mind. There’s a lot of trust involved because if a project is dashed or someone leaves or things are reorganized then your work was, well, for nothing.

I’m still early in my career but I’ve noticed this worrying trend of my work being abandoned or not entirely finished or not exactly what we agreed upon in the mocks. This is bad for three reasons:

  1. I have formed my entire personality around shipping stuff, making progress, keeping the momentum going, and if my designs are just locked away in some file forever then it feels like I wasted my limited resources on a bunch of hot air. I should work on this.
  2. If the team hasn’t shipped my designs then it looks bad on me as a designer! If I couldn’t gather support for my ideas then there is most likely something wrong with my approach or the mockups. Being in portfolio reviews and telling someone “yeah, this didn’t ship or that or that or that” is brutal and thoroughly embarrassing.
  3. Those pixels in my mockups aren’t there to flatter me or my portfolio. They have a job to do, out there, in the world. They should be helping people, if only by a fractional degree.

The only thing I can learn as a designer from these experiences is to try and improve my skills. Why didn’t that ship? Was it too much? Too big a change? Too disorganized? Or was that design unrelated to the problem that we were trying to solve? Did I stop pushing for this fix, this feature? Did I talk to the right person or team?

I suppose this is the concern that all product designers have and it’s unhealthy that I put so much of the blame on myself for not getting things out the door. But still, if those designs aren’t out there helping folks then...

...what’s the point?