The Case for Outputs

Scrolling through twitter I stumbled across Barry’s post—Your Mission is to Produce Outcomes, Not Outputs—it got my interest immediately. As I was reading Barry’s post, I found myself nodding my head. A lot of good points. But I think it’s easy to miss what Barry is stressing, which is essentially to deliver value you can measure. So many people interpret this as ‘skip documentation and just ship something’. But that’s not the case at all. Sure, outputs aren’t typically a business model, but they’re tools that enable speed and quality.

In many cases, the maturity and size of the team determine the need for outputs. For a small, stable team, where the vision is clear and there are no blockers, many outputs could be skipped. But for large teams, often with various layers of stakeholders, outputs can help a team fire on all cylinders, reduce duplication, and quickly transfer context.

Yes, businesses survive on outcomes

Essentially Barry is saying the only real deliverable that matters is the outcome—the thing that moves the needle. Process maps don’t generate value, but a product that eliminates those process pain points might be worth more than gold. Outcome-based businesses value results. If your customers don’t succeed your effort is wasted—regardless of all the output you create along the way.

So many times, teams are showing dashboards of vanity metrics, or chart porn. These outputs make the team look busy, but it’s the same type of busy as hamsters on their wheels.

However, there can be a case made for outputs with outcomes. Outputs can be key to making sure outcomes are targeted, relevant, and impactful.

Outputs help makes success repeatable

Some products just work—AirBNB, Instagram, etc. There was a clear hole, the founders knew the space and how to solve it, and they nailed it. In these cases, the founders were scratching their own itch—they knew the problem space well. So why doesn’t everyone just do that? Well, it’s hard. And often times, teams are paid to scratch someone else’s itch. A lot of teams have found that a process can help them repeatedly hone a solution into a valuable product. A process, or checklist, is a way of ensuring you don’t forget key steps when you’re tired, excited, or just pressed for time.

These checklists often generate outputs that serve as inputs into next steps. For example, in the product design world, we generate personas to better understand the type of users we’re targeting—these are typically in the form of presentation slides or poster outputs. We then use those personas to map their journey in a given scenario and highlight their pain points (typically delivered as a poster). Then we co-create solutions around those pain points, validate, then integrate those solutions into our product. We follow this process whether it’s a new product or existing, digital or physical. It always works. If we jumped right into the journey map, we might gloss over one of our most important personas.

But checklists aren’t just for product development or innovation. Many industries use checklists to ensure a thorough job is complete—safety inspectors, pilots, and even busy shoppers. In fact, pilots depend on them for every flight. Yet we don’t say ‘a pilots job is to fly, not check lists’.

Checklists help us stay on track, and follow a process we’ve proven to work.

Outputs can reduce duplication

Often times different products within a business or organization will share similar users, scenarios, workflows, etc. In those cases, teams often dig up past project outputs to get a better understanding of what we know, what we don’t know, and what to validate. Now, typically we don’t take those old outputs as gospel, but it provides a baseline to validate and build on.

Without those past outputs, we start over fresh. This not only burns additional cycles, but it can start to negatively impact your stakeholders. If you interview a key executive every year asking similar questions each time, by the third time they might not accept your call.

Similar to history, if you don’t learn from your past outputs, you’re doomed to repeat the same discovery.

Outputs transfer knowledge

But the most powerful use of outputs is to preserve the context of the work. It could be helping the customer understand the impact of your findings or vision, or merely to educate so they can empathize better.

In large enterprise companies, it’s not usual for teams to morph over time—team members get promoted, move to other teams, or even other companies. Outputs help the team document knowledge along the project in meaningful ways, onboard new team members, and quickly answer ‘why are we doing this?’.

Rather than depending on tribal knowledge over time, new team members can review a few key outputs and get up to speed in no time.

Outputs create the outcome

Okay, not really. But often times, a proven process often generates and iterates outputs, and those outputs become inputs for future steps, and so-on. Those outputs and iterations will help ensure you’re making good decisions. It will help make sure your final solution is on point. It will help track your success, and know when you get there.

Move fast but don’t break things

Facebook’s motto used to be ‘Move Fast and Break Things’. Now, I have no idea how Facebook actually works, but hearing that motto and things like ‘Outcomes over Outputs’ always conjures images of bus-boys rushing to clean tables and get dirty dishes back to the kitchen only to have a bin full of broken dishware.

Barry is right—don’t fetishize outputs, because outcomes are the real value. But don’t throw outputs out the window; just find the right output. Realize they’re tools that can often help large teams get to value faster and more often.

Student Portfolio Review

I get asked to review a lot of student or recent graduate portfolios, and I see a lot more come through our online career board. Many people, regardless of experience, often overlook some of the basics every portfolio should have.

Think about a portfolio—what is it’s purpose? It’s not a time capsule or a year book, merely capturing how you spent your time. It’s purpose it to show me the type of work you love doing, and the type of work you want to keep doing.

Tell me about the process

In almost every job interview, the interviewer will say ‘Now, let’s take a look at your portfolio...’. Your portfolio should tell a story. It can be how you’ve matured as a designer. Or how multi-faceted you are. Or how your unique process or point of view separates you from the rest. Whatever that story is, know it. When building your portfolio, plan the narrative of how you will walk people through it.

I want to know how you did all this great work, and that you can do it again for my team. So tell me. Tell me how you came to the refined problem, and how you came to the final solution.

Notice I say how you came to the solution, rather than what the solution is. In most cases, I don’t care about the final product concept. And as you get further in your career, non disclosure agreements might prevent you from telling me what the solution is. Rather, I want to know how you got there. What was the process? What methods did you use? What challenges did you have to overcome? What did you learn from a process and self-improvement perspective?

As you explain your process, I can get a clear glimpse of how you’d contribute on my team.

Tell me what you did

College is full of group projects—they’re invaluable at teaching you real-world lessons, both about your topic of study and people. When showing work in your portfolio, tell me what role you played in each part. Sometimes you’re responsible for the big, sexy showpiece. Other times you’re more of a supporting actor, running the project management side of things, or digitizing copious amounts notes. That translates to the real world—we need team players that can do both, and strive to fill gaps and make the team better. This shows flexibility and teamwork. This is important.

Tell me why I need you

This one can be a little bit tricky. I don’t want you to sell me on you—that’s part of the interview. But I want to see how you would be able to fit on my team. What gap are you filling? How will you contribute?

I often tell younger designers and recent grads to think about implementation. Often times you’re designing work for a fictional company or nonprofit, which means the design work never go beyond the design. But tell me about what implementation would look like.

What documentation would you provide for the engineering team—these could be specs, red-lines, link to documentation, etc. How would it scale? How will other designers build on your work? Abstract-out the design language into a system. Show best practices on how to use existing design elements, and the rules for which to extend the design language. This will help mature your design work itself, and shows you’re able to fit in a larger design pipeline.

Tell me about you

Now that we got the hard part out of the way, tell me about you. I don’t mean tell me about your favorite vacation spot, or favorite band. But rather, what part of the design process is your favorite? What type of problems do you like to solve? What type of teams do you like working on? What role in the team do you thrive in?

Colleges focus on giving you a lot of different skills and experiences in hope one or two really click. Tell me what clicked for you, and what you want to continue doing.


Lastly, relax. A portfolio isn’t a legal document. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or dry. Let some of your personality seep through the words to give me an idea of who you are. Remember you audience, however; I wouldn’t go overboard. But it’s okay to have a little fun show through. That’s why we want to hire you, anyway.

Links for Week 22, 2018

Questions to ask a struggling employee
14 great questions to use in your next 1-on-1 with a struggling employee (or anyone).

Kandinsky in Space
Fly through one of Kandinsky's paintings and experience it like never before.

Preventing burnout on your team
People drive culture...

Best performing problem solving teams
Cognitively divers and psychologically safe.

How to be be a great junior team member

  1. Ask lots of questions.
  2. Don’t fear mistakes, just admit them quickly.
  3. Don’t get attached to the results of your work.
  4. Be patient and understanding.
  5. Understand a big picture.

Great employees leaving great cultures
Great culture is more than saying '...we have a great culture.'.

Building a design driven culture
Understand the customer, build empathy in the organization, don't design in a vacuum, act quickly

Mosaiq—organizing research
Using Wordpress to share your team's design research.

Links for Week 4, 2018

Building New Organizational Models to Achieve True Digital Transformation
People have been shown by Amazon, Google, and even Twitter, how easy things can be. So, they just expect things to work and to be relatively simple.

A new (and beautiful) documentation tool. Looks promising.

The UX of AI
If you aren’t aligned with a human need, you’re just going to build a very powerful system to address a very small—or perhaps nonexistent—problem.

How to design An Innovation Culture
A webinar video of Alex Osterwalder (Strategyzer co-founder) and Dave Gray (XPLANE co-founder) talk about intentionally designing your corporate innovation culture.

Want To Build A Culture Of Innovation? Master The Design Critique
Successful design critiques is based on honesty and trust. It reminds me this tweet from John Maeda:

Links for Week 3, 2018

Design Studios, When Done Well, Change Organizations For The Better
Well-facilitated design studios [workshops] also focus more on the problem, less on solutions.

How I Teach
Last week I said to read anything Jon Kolko publishes. This week, he published a new and free book. Go. Read. Now. This book is for anyone who works with other people, in any capacity.

Future of Design in Start-Ups
Nothing too surprising here. Designers are increasingly transitioning from the agency to the enterprise. Skills will follow suite.

Adele—Repository of Design Systems Design Systems are extremely helpful as teams scale. This repository is one of the best I’ve seen.

Laws of UX
Lovely single-purpose site; fun just to view.

Choose An Amazing Boss. Role Is Secondary. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of supportive bosses. However, there is a difference between a supportable boss and an Amazing (enabling) boss.