Wasted Time

I was recently giving guidance to a new designer about a website’s navigational architecture. He’d run into both technical and design constraints, and I convinced him to abandon the complex structure he was trying to use for a simpler layout.

“I know it’s better,” he said, “but I’ve spent three days trying to get this to work. It’s a shame to abandon it.”

It’s hard to walk away from a project. Sometimes we don’t get a choice; projects get cancelled, funding get shifted, staffing changes, assignments get juggled, technologies change. Of the first five projects I was assigned as an Information Architect, only one made it to production. Other times the project was one of my own making, a complex mess of decisions that added up to a problem in the design or the development. Wishful thinking and stubbornness are a great combination if you want a result that doesn’t actually work for anyone.

Continuing to work on the wrong solution just because we’ve spent so much time on it is an example of a sunk cost fallacy, the phenomenon where we justify increasing investment in a decision despite evidence suggesting that the benefits aren’t worth continuing. Letting go of a commitment we’ve already made is extremely hard, even when it’s what we have to do.

I can remember making the same complaint about a cancelled project when I was a new designer that my acquaintance was making now. “It’s a shame to abandon it.”

“Yeah, but you learned something, and you got paid,” my mentor replied. “You did what you were asked to do, and you’ll be a better designer for the next project. There will always be another project.”

Eight years and dozens of projects later, it’s still true. A day’s work learning something - even if it’s learning what not to do - is money well earned. The privilege of getting paid to learn to be better designers, even when that wasn’t the intention, is a pretty good deal.

Today, I learned something and I got paid. Whether that means the project is cancelled or not, whether it ships or not, the time wasn’t wasted.

Dive Deeper

If you want to know more about the Pastry Box Project, you can read about the genesis (and goals) of the project.

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