by Robin Sloan
How do you make things?
You could lay out the process as a line. You start at one end with a bundle of goals and plans. As you work hard—designing, writing, rehearsing, or doing whatever else is required—you progress along the line. At some point, you get to the end, with a product, a novel, a performance. You’re finished!
You could lay out the process that way. But you’d be doing it wrong.
Making things is a circle. You start the arc with an idea about the world: an observation or hunch. Then you sprint around the track, getting to a prototype—a breadboard, a rough draft, a run-through—as fast as you can. Your goal isn’t to finish the thing. It’s to expose it, no matter how rough or ragged, to the real world. You do that, and you learn: Which of your ideas were right? Which were wrong? What surprised you? What did other people think? Then you plow those findings back into an improved prototype. Around the circle again. Run!
Iteration is difficult when you’re working with stone or steel. It’s easy when you’re working with words or web pages. But, this is important: More things are becoming more like words and web pages in the twenty-first century. Even solid, material things. Even stone and steel. Iteration applies to more domains than it ever did before, and its reach is growing.
Whatever your materials, iteration improves the process of making things.
There’s a lot to learn about:
YOUR OWN WORK STYLE . Do you resist showing unfinished work to others? What does it take for you to feel comfortable sharing a prototype that is, clearly, a piece of junk?
YOUR MATERIALS. What’s the minimum you can do to create a simple prototype or rough draft? Are there simpler materials or easier techniques you can temporarily substitute to save you time and effort?
HOW TO TEST THINGS. How do you get people to playtest your prototype in the right context? How do you extract rich, useful feedback from them?
HOW TO CHANGE COURSE. When do you leave your original goals behind entirely? How do you recognize a big, unexpected opportunity staring you in the face?
As you refine your iterative process, you make the loops faster and more productive. Ideally, iteration isn’t a circle at all; it’s a spiral. With each loop, you know more about the world. With each loop, you’re making something better. With each loop, you’re simply making better.
With iteration, instead of driving an idea blindly into the world, hoping to get lucky, you tip-toe, feeling as you go. And you are guided by the feedback you get. Often that feedback says, “Right on! Keep going.” But just as often it says, “Nobody wants this thing you’re making. But there’s something useful hiding here.” The latter kind confounds our conventional view of success; in truth, it’s the secret origin of some of our deepest genius.
Iteration is liberation. There are no beginnings or endings—just small steps forward.