Applying Successful Recipes

Recipes define both ingredients and process. One without the other will make mush of even the best stew, or mashup. Same for web applications. Yet too often solutions are under, or over, cooked. If method matters, shouldn’t we be as methodical as any competent chef? After all, what is user experience if not a matter of taste, as well as real nutrition?

Web Application Success Recipes

When we first launch in to a great new venture, interest or passion, a common impulse is to put all of our best ideas in to it. Well, the ones we think are best, at least, often in our naiveté. What’s true for my eldest sisters lemon squares is also true for many software projects: a good recipe needs no improvement. At least not until it can be executed with consistency. Assuming, of course, you have a recipe.

Same applies to music. I got my first toy drum set at age 7, and first real (Ludwig) set at 12. After a couple years of lessons (and insanely patient mothering!), I realized that doing the simplest things well is as hard, and often much harder, than doing many less simple things. And that the former, rather than latter, better measures one’s skill. Many artist’s careers arc accordingly, sometimes to extreme. Mondrian is the best example, when we compare early works to latter ones (he’s evolving the same ideas throughout!). Ricter and Calder are good examples, too. Programmers also know that less is more. So why don’t more managers?

Execution consistency requires experience, thus practice, thus time. In business, as often so in the kitchen, patience pays. This is antithetical to common “time is money” ethos, I know. Lest you think me rebellious without cause, my point is that being cheap—stingy with our time—often ends up costing more than patience, and careful method. And by patient, I do not mean lackadaisical. I mean maintaining balance between two complementary opposites: patience and urgency. This consciousness of complementary opposites, I believe, is one essential ingredient for any success recipe.

In the nineteen nineties, using construction metaphor to describe web design processes suited many corporate web design departments, because of the cultural environment, which was—and still is—mostly based on good ol’ fashioned manufacturing models of management (not such Fast Companies, after all). I used it a lot. Now, cooking metaphor rules. Why?, because cooking is more subtle, and elemental, in terms of ingredients and processes. And because in web application design and production, process matters at least as much as ingredients; content, functionality, and—most importantly—people’s interactions with them.

Top Web Chef

During the last season of Top Chef, I, and I’m sure others, wondered how Top Web Designer would rate with Neilson and Co. Did you? After all, not only training and talent, but temperment, communication style, and ability to collaborate has as direct an affect on the table as it does on the web. Cooking, like design, is a matter of context discovery: asking the necessary questions (the foundation of all knowledge). Then translating context to design constraints (saying No, so to sharpen Yes). The answers of which inform what to do (strategy), as well as how to do it (tactics). Questions like: How do I zig where other restaurants zag? What ingredients are available? Which price point fits my genre, decor, and customer’s expectation? And so on.

While design is not art, anything worth doing can be done artfully. Meaning, artfully applying a method or two, or three, or four: Processes which require focus—both narrowed for the immediate task and widened for how it relates to others—determination, urgency, and patience. As with good recipes, there is rarely just one process, but a sequence of them. Mix two ingredients in one bowl, two in another. Boil the first, cool the second. Fold (deftly) fifth ingredient in to second mixture. Pour second with fifth over first two. Bake, cool, garnish and serve. If any short order cook can do it, shouldn’t such we web application strategists, managers, designers and technologists be as methodical?

Does it seem to you, as I, that in 2008, after a good fifteen years or so of wide business and cultural integration with the world wild web, we’re still less methodical in our design management kitchens than are the restaurants we lunch and dine with partners at? Is this what we want, professionally? Sure, one is not a direct reflection of the other. Web applications are more complex than even soufflés and French sauces. And maybe even more likely to fail. But should we not more fully and more widely realize, all the same, that method—yes, process—is as important for delicious and nutritious dinning as for user experience via the web?

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  1. I’m a big fan of “methods adoption” workshops; consciously adapting a generic methods approach to a specific design context and building consensus around that approach.

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