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“Craft at scale” is a white whale

Designers and product-folk like to think of ourselves as craftspeople. We *care* about making great software. Is it possible to do it at scale?

April 12th 2023

by Adam Stoddard

in Teamwork

Designers and product-folk like to think of ourselves as craftspeople. We care about making great software. Is it possible to do it at scale? Shot and chaser:

  • The Cost of Craft - Longtime Meta designer George Kedenburg III did us all a favor and exhaustively documented the challenges of delivering “great” at scale. It’s well worth your time.
  • Big Tech’s big downgrade - in this Business Insider piece, Ed Zitron details how and why the largest tech companies — like Meta — are actively making their products worse for users.

The first piece leaves you with the idea that craft at scale is challenging, but possible. I’m less optimistic. If you look at the available evidence, “craft at scale” is mutually exclusive with the kind of rapid and unending growth that’s the baseline expectation for traditional startups and public tech companies.

We’d say that’s obvious in other industries. Budweiser isn’t craft beer. IKEA isn’t heirloom-quality furniture. But we tend to treat software as immune to the typical relationship between quality and quantity. It’s software! It can infinitely replicate!

There’s some truth to that. Moving from making 100 sandwiches a day to 100,000 requires a fundamental shift in tools and process that inevitably leads to quality loss. Meanwhile, an indie dev can ship the same software to 100 or 100,000 people without doing anything different. As George points out, the tension between craft and scale in tech has much more to do with the size of the product you’re building and the speed at which you’re trying to build it.

Funded startups and public tech companies need to keep the high-growth engine running, which inevitably leads progressively larger and more complex product offerings that attempt to attract more and more users. No single team can deliver on that, which leads directly to the competing teams problems that George points out. This is the inflection point where you’re now “manufacturing” software via industrialized processes.

Growing the product only takes you so far. You eventually hit some kind of saturation point, and what follows is the kind of “shitification” Ed outlines. The focus shifts from quality to “value extraction”, which leads to higher prices, worse customer service, manipulative or deceptive products, monopoly lock-in, etc.

If you’re a designer at a large tech company, you cannot and will not overcome this. If you look at Apple — arguably one of the few companies that’s been able deliver craft at scale for any amount of time — they did so because Steve Jobs was a true believer who did more that espouse belief; he hired, fired, and built the org and culture around delivering on it. It has to come from the very top for craft at scale to be a remote possibility.

Jesper Kouthoofd of Teenage Engineering recognizes that craft and rapid, unending growth are fundamentally at odds:

We only want to make great products and when you don’t focus only on making money and have reached a certain level, everything becomes about quality. Right now, there is a certain cultural fascination with fast growth, IPOs and so on, but I want to go slow, really slow and think long-term. It takes time to do good things. You see, this cultural phenomenon of speed and growth at all costs is displayed in every startup, they all look the same, it’s like fast food: it looks good, its taste it’s consistent but then you feel horrible afterwards.

If pursuit of craft is what drives you, you need to find smaller, slower waters.

My framework for defining if something is “well crafted” or “a product of craft”:

  1. Well made. Craft is the product of high quality ingredients, approach, and process.
  2. Well considered. When something is imbued with craft, it’s obvious to the end user that every detail was thought through. The care and attention shines through.
  3. Beneficial. Well crafted software/tools/food/clothing/buildings give more than they take. They solve problems, meet needs, grant abilities, delight senses and satisfy emotions. Time and energy invested is rewarded in multiples.
  4. Opinionated. Craft has perspective. It thinks things should be just so. It’s heavily influenced by a vision that exists outside the tactical pursuit of mass appeal.

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