Is it God or the Devil in the details?

Perfectionism is a controversial character trait. In the context of product design and product design management, some consider it as a must-have trait, and some see it as a burden. Some product designers try to learn how to be more of a perfectionist while others try to avoid the same. Is it God or the Devil in the details? In this article, I’ll discuss the pros & cons of perfectionism for product designers, engineers and product design managers, from professional and practical perspectives.

The only good aspect of perfectionism is that is causes a person to aim to produce the best results possible — a perfectionist will not compromise and will keep working on all details until the product is perfect. For non-perfectionists, ‘90% perfect’ might be good enough. But for a perfectionist, skipping that final 10% is not an option; they will keep working and working until 100% has been achieved. In many cases, this last 10% can make a big difference in a product’s quality. In this matter, perfectionism is a valuable trait, and it can help in achieving better products.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is much more of a burden than a skill in the product design process. Here are the three main reasons why:

Avoidance is one of the psychological implications of perfectionism. For perfectionists, “nothing” is better than nearly great. The fantasy (0% done) is more perfect than reality (even when ‘99% perfect’ has been reached). Perfectionists find it hard to start design work. They see the first step from a (perfect) clean page to something as a spoilage.

Perfectionists are never satisfied because their fantasy of perfect is unachievable. Real things cannot be perfect. It is very hard and frustrating to be (and to be next to) someone who is never satisfied. It’s demoralizing and reduces productivity.

Based on the Pareto Principle, 80% of product development is achieved by 20% of the work — and the remaining 20% of product development is achieved by 80% of the work. That’s the nature of product design projects (as well as most other things). However, for perfectionists, it’s perhaps a 1%:99% ratio. They can spend an enormous amount of work trying to improve the product design’s final 1%.

So how can you benefit from the good parts of perfectionism and avoid its downside?

1. Be meticulous, not a perfectionist. Being meticulous means taking care of all small details, without the perfectionism psychological disorders.

2. Aim for 99%, not 100%. Being satisfied with a 1% imperfect product design will take a lot of stress off your shoulders, bring a great amount of satisfaction, and reduce a lot of work (and it costs you little to nothing in terms of quality).

3. Distinguish between the product’s binary and linear features/aspects. Binary features have only two options – working (1) or not working (0) while the performance of linear features can be anywhere between 0-1. Make sure you aim for 99% on the linear features and for 100% on the binary ones.

4. Build a culture that accepts risk-taking and mistake-making. This will reduce perfectionism levels throughout your company (as well as enhance your PDD business).

5. Measure everything, not just the design quality. Perfectionism is normally connected only to the outcome. That’s make no sense. “Perfect designs” that cost much more in terms of R&D cost, time-to-market, and product cost is actually a poor design and far from perfect. If you wish to be a perfectionist, implement it for both the process and the outcome.

6. Respect the weaknesses. Sometimes the weakness can be the product’s highlights. Perfect might considered unnatural or even fake. We feel uncomfortable dealing with “perfect people” or “perfect things”; after all, we all have our weaknesses.

Product designers, engineers, and product design managers must all have a certain level of perfectionism as part of their character. Non-perfectionism pros will never have the motivation to deal with all the small details and tedious work; they won’t even be able to notice them. On the other hand, perfectionism can be a great burden, for working efficiency as well as for mental wellbeing. With some awareness and a little personal practice, you can gain the skills of a perfectionist without paying the penalties associated with actually being one.

If you have a certain amount of perfectionism (as I have), I’d be happy to hear what do you think about it and how do you handle it? Please share your thoughts.

On my next post, I’ll recommend must-read books for product design managers. Get notified about this upcoming post.

  • Rick Stockton

    Decide what you really *must* have. Then do it.
    It may be that defining the first sentence is much harder than defining what to do to achieve the second.

    • Yariv Sade

      I agree. Get it going is more important than Get it right.

  • Jos Voskuil

    Well said Yariv – in particular for the 100 % in the binary ones – this will give you a base to allow the market to decide if you reached perfectionism. I consider perfectionism as a great gift as long as you are aware of the risks – there is a limit

    • Yariv Sade

      Thanks Jos. Right, being a perfectionist while keeping aware of its risks and downsides is a gift.

  • Sean

    Nice article Yariv. I think this is a balance that all people who create things struggles with to some degree. Under avoidance, I would also add that the proverbial “blank sheet” is intimidating when you know what lays ahead on a new project (both psychologically and physically). That makes the commitment needed to get things rolling on something new difficult for perfectionists. I am not sure the “risk taking and mistake making culture” would apply to those in the medical device, aerospace, or civil engineering spaces. That makes things more difficult, as proper risk management needs to force you down a path that is critical of details and seeks assurances. It helps if you are a bit of a perfectionist in those fields where the details can result in more serious consequences. With that in mind, it really helps to set your specifications early on in the design process for any project so you know what “perfect” is… If you don’t, you will always be chasing down a moving target of what you think is “perfect” as the product comes into realization. All perfectionist think they can make something better so it starts a never ending quest for improvement. It also helps to get end user feedback early and often. If you can build that into your process, you will know if you have already met or even exceeded expectations and can stop.

    • Yariv Sade

      Thanks Sean. You are raising very true and important points. Building a culture that accepts risk-taking and mistake-making is more about creating a culture and a state of mind, not necessarily practical. Of course there are places where there is zero mistakes tolerance. Re: Product brief – I can’t even imagine working on a product design project without a detailed brief. See -

  • MBfromtoronto

    Great post -but lets hear it for non-perfectionism!
    Based in Canada I must reference Marshall
    McLuhan and one of his most popular books. According to McLuhan’s son, the
    original title as published was the result of a typo. The proof from the
    printer had misprinted the “e” in message and it appeared as an “a.” McLuhan is
    said to have thought the mistake to be supportive of the point he was trying to
    make in the book and decided to leave it alone. Mess-age becomes Mass-age.
    Unfortunately some later reprints “corrected” the error.

    As a child of the sixties I have a soft
    spot for Zen and the garden of the mind. At the core of the Zen concepts of
    wabi-sabi is the importance of looking and thinking about things/existence and
    the realisation that:

    things are impermanent

    things are imperfect

    things are incomplete

    • Yariv Sade

      MB from Toronto, It’s a nice story about Marshall McLuhan, thanks for sharing. Zen is Zen !

  • Mary Drotar

    Hi Yariv, what also came to mind while reading your post… Don’t over-engineer and over-complicate the design/product for its application in solving the customer problem. Cheers!

    • Yariv Sade

      Right! KIS (Keep It Simple) is number one design rule. Tnx.

      • Ali Ammouri

        There is a missing S from KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) to emphasize the point…