Lim Chee Aun

Behind the scenes

I've always wanted to write about this thought that's stuck in my mind for quite some time, as I learn and discover things around me. It's also a particular topic that ironically most people didn't put much thought into it.

I personally believe that there's always a story behind everything. When a movie is produced, you probably get to see those behind-the-scenes videos on how it's done, where the scenes are taken and how many takes does a scene take. I'm always curious on how things work and wonder why they do this and that. But that's not good enough. I want to know the exact process, like how they end up with a single solution in the first place. Probably they've gone through a whole bunch of experiments, tests, and problems before ending up with the final production of that specific scene in the movie.

It is the same thing with creating a product. You may know who made it, why they made it, and how they made it, but there's this little missing pieces that binds all the ideas together that forms the whole product. It's the process behind building the product that I'm interested in. And it's all hidden. All the discussions, meetings and brainstorming sessions that packs all the ideas from everyone involved. Some ideas taken, as some are simply rejected due to its fragile state.

When you look at a product and say that it's simple to build, you're not looking at the full picture. Some products have very little number of features, yet they are extremely hard to build. If your job is not about building and designing stuff, you'll never get it. It's not just about the features, it's also about the progress as you build it. Why are you building this feature? Who would actually use it? If it's designed this way, is it obvious enough for people to discover it? If it's a rarely-used feature, perhaps you can hide it under a menu so that it won't clutter the interface? How about the existing features? If most people don't use them, perhaps they should be removed? There's a lot of thinking here, and most of us who are not involved in the process, can't see them.

If you have an idea, you have to find ways turning it into a reality. You have to nurture it, shape it, implement it and eventually evolve it into something more concrete. It's easy to come up with an idea, but you don't just hire someone to implement it, leave it there and wait for a prototype or a final product to appear later. It's your idea and you have to be part of the process. Every single part of the process. Some ideas are brittle and some are vague. During the process, a lot of things can change depending on various use cases, some may be conflicting and might even render the idea useless.

When you suggest an idea, give more thoughts into it. Is it useful or is it just cool? Is it practical or something out of science fiction? Don't be over excited about how great your idea is, try to think about the issues or problems that it might cause as well. Sometimes you have to stand back a little and think from a bigger perspective. Other people's perspective. An average user's perspective. Your parents' perspective. Imagine you are that person across the street, drinking a cup of coffee, using your newly-launched iPad app. You have no knowledge on what the app does, it's your first time launching it and experiencing the functionality of the app.

When you reject an idea, it's the same process as well. You have to learn how to accept other people's ideas and think from their perspective. Remember not to let your emotion or over-confidence override your judgement. Also note that you run by ideas, not hierarchy. It's typically hard to say 'No' to an idea because when ideas die, it hurts. Ideas are sometimes very easily dismissed, as if nothing happened, and you might not even realise it.

During the process of discussing ideas, there may be a lot of opinions from everyone and sometimes we might get sidetracked. One simple idea may lead to more ideas and so on, till we get to the point where we lost our focus and forgot about the primary objective of the discussion. There may be so many opinions that things start to get confusing, everyone needs to hold their horses and give some breathing space. Talk is cheap, but thinking isn't. It's easy to express your opinion, but did you really give more thoughts into it? It's easy to say which things you like or dislike, but that's only a matter of personal taste. It's easy to just throw out an idea when you are not the one diving into the details and implementing it. When there are so many ideas, do you have enough manpower and bandwidth to implement all of them? Are you willing to sacrifice quality for a deadline?

When I read the news about a startup being acquired by another company, there are always people worrying about the state of the current product. If it's killed, then everything is gone. All that hard work is gone. Some might agree to open-source it if it's going to be killed. If the product is open-sourced, what you get is the final form and substance. What you don't get is all the things behind the scenes. For me, I would be very curious to know the story on how they built it. All the discussions, issues and problems throughout the whole lifetime of the product, from the beginning till the end. I don't want that story to be lost forever.

Copying ideas is one of the common topics among developers, designers and companies. If you can't think of a good idea, copy from others. When you copy an idea, you only get what's there at that point of time. You don't know what happened before and what will happen after. You don't know how and why the idea end up at that state in the first place, because you're not part of the process. You were not there when the idea begins to sprout and evolves along the way. You don't have the roadmap on how the idea should be further improved because all that is in the mind of the originator.

There is a famous quote by Pablo Picasso that says 'Good artists copy, great artists steal'. From my understanding, stealing is to fill up those gaps. The unknowns. The missing pieces. The whys and hows. You don't just blatantly copy someone else's work, you have to understand their work. To understand, you have to ask questions. Why is there only one hardware button? How did it end up not having a hardware keyboard at all? Why is there no extra or advanced settings in the Camera app? It's hard to come up with these questions if you don't pay attention to the details. Every single detail has a reason and every single reason has a story. Stealing an idea is like being a detective trying to decipher the mind of a criminal. In most cases, it's not just one criminal.

It's hard enough to find out the reason, it's even harder to find out the story. How many prototypes have they built before making the final decision? How do those prototypes look like and why were they rejected? What have they learn from the previous prototypes? Why does a startup pivot from the original plan? Did they make any mistakes during the execution of an idea? What's the internal culture like, that affects the people and the product?

The process matters a lot. The story behind the scenes is extremely valuable because it makes people understand things. Understanding prevents us from repetitively making the same mistakes. The tools we build could have a long-lasting effect on our lives and the environment, but the story reminds us on how we eventually get there. Ultimately, this doesn't just apply to the things we create, but also to everything else. Everything, including our lives.

Think about it. Tell the world your story.

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