Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Improve your impact with abundance-based design

People design all the time: new cars, new software, new houses. All design is guided by constraints (cost, time, materials, space) and by objectives (elegance, quality). Constraints are limitations: you only have so much money, so many days… whereas objectives are measures that you seek to either maximize or minimize. In practice, either the constraints or the objectives may dominate. You are either worried about limited ressources, or you seek to maximize the quality of your result.

Our ancestors were probably often forced into scarcity-based design. When your very survival is in question, you build whatever shelter you can in the hours you have left before nightfall. We are probably wired for good scarcity-based design as it is a survival trait.

Any monkey can live in scarcity. However, abundance-based design is crucial if you want to maximize your impact.

Facebook engineers do abundance-based design. They are mainly worried about improving Facebook and pursuing objectives such as usability, but much less worried about time or disk space. Similarly, when I build a model sailboat, costs and time are nearly irrelevant, I mostly care that my boat be pretty and that it handles well. As a researcher, most of my research papers are the result of abundance-based design. It does not matter how long I work on the research projects, as long as the result has impact. Similarly, my blog is the result of abundance-based design. Nobody is forcing me to write on a regular schedule. And I have no set limit on the time I spend on my blog.

Many people choose to simulate scarcity-based design, maybe because it comes with an adrenaline rush. In fact, the adrenaline rush is good indication that you are in scarcity mode. You will often hear scarcity-based designers say that they are running of time, money or space. They may spend much time planning or worrying about costs and deadlines. There are many examples of artificial scarcity-based design:

  • One of the great fallacies of software engineering is that what matters in the software industry is how long it takes and how much it costs. But anyone who has been in the software industry long enough knows that the real problem is that most software is bad. Some of it is atrocious. For example, Apple iTunes is a disgrace. I don’t care whether the iTunes team finished on time and within budget. Their software is crap. They failed as far as I am concerned.
  • Nobody cares how long it took you to write your novel or research paper. Yet people sign deals with publishers with fixed deadlines and others choose to publish in conferences with fixed deadline. They create external pressure, on purpose.

Frankly, if you are a designer such as an artist, a fiction writer, a scientist or a scholar, you should have a feeling of urgency, not worry. A single strategy may suffice to put you in abundance mode:

  • Reduce the quantity. Apple is well known for having few products. Despite having billions of dollars, they focus on few projects. And their new project have often fewer features than the competition. By focusing your attention, you ensure abundance. Don’t start more projects than you can’t execute with ease.

Further reading: Publishing for Impact by John Regehr and The merits of chasing many rabbits at the same time by Alain Désilets.