How bread-making makes you a better product designer
Quarantine Bread Craze
Back in late March around the beginning of quarantine, there was a sudden boom in home cooking with everyone locked down with plenty of time on their hands. Sourdough bread, quite specifically, was featured almost endlessly in my Instagram stories.
More personally, five friends reached out to me on how to get started baking their own bread, and I was happy to help. I wouldn’t say that I’m a “bread master,” but I’ve been baking sourdough bread for three years now. It’s one of the most satisfying things that anyone can make. Also, I’m a Product Designer, and like many designers would, I started drawing connections between the two seemingly unrelated topics of baking and design.
With so much attention on “working from home” + “bread-making” blaring from social media, it began to occur to me how the process of bread-making can inform us about product development and the contrast between different approaches to building products.
What? Are you saying that there are parallels between creating yummy carb-laden treats and grinding out software?
Ohhh, you bet!
Left: Sourdough yeast (flour + water + time/care) vs. Right: Active Dry Yeast bloomed with warm water
Sourdough vs. Active Dry Yeast Basics
Let’s first start off with some bread-making basics. To keep it simple, let’s compare the Sourdough Starter and Active Dry Yeast methods. Yeast is the stuff that makes bread rise to a fluffy loaf once baked. You take flour, water, salt, plus yeast and that’ll equal bread if mixed, kneaded, and baked properly. There are many differences between the two baking methods, but let’s break it down by time versus flavor.
In general, Sourdough is a longer/slower process, but the waiting allows you to develop more complex, nuanced flavors along with an extremely crunchy crust. In contrast, Active Dry yeast is quick! In just thirty minutes your dough has doubled in size. The tradeoff comes in the loss of those nuanced flavors and texture.
Time vs. Ready to bake (sourdough takes time to develop flavor and complexity for that irresistible satisfaction)
How does bread-making relate to product development?
Sourdough, like the Waterfall development process, takes the longer path to deliver the final product because all of the requirements must be properly gathered up and go through a process before the big release.
Active Dry, like the Agile development process, wants to pump out a viable, if not perfect, release ASAP. Agile has become the dominant development process in the latest innovation wave in tech, but either method in its own right can create great products. The important question for building product is what makes sense for your market: whether to take longer to build a better product, or rush a product to market to fill an immediate need?
Agile prioritizes output then learning / Waterfall prioritizes learning first then output
Let’s say you used sliced white bread to accompany a fancy charcuterie platter. Sure, it might be fine, but most guests probably would expect something more refined to enhance the experience of sampling the platter’s delicacies.
Similarly, consider if you used painstakingly-created hand-made sourdough bread to make a classic Kraft American grilled cheese sandwich. Again, it might be fine, but context really matters here! Your guests would have likely expected, and been perfectly satisfied, with simple sliced bread with their basic melted cheese.
Apple vs. Google
These trillion-dollar behemoths are indisputably two of the most successful companies in the world, each in their own right. Yet, they do things quite differently, and funny enough, their product development process is comparable to choosing between the two different methods of using yeast to bake bread.
One of newest features Apple added to iOS phones and tablets was “widgets” in October 2020. By comparison, Google’s Android phones had widgets back in the archaic days of mobile operating systems in 2008!
So what gives?
Apple obviously took a very slow Sourdough approach to developing widgets. But why? Apple prioritizes adding new features based on how precisely they will fit into the overall product journey, considering the maturity of the technology and the timing of the market. Apple simply doesn’t throw out new features just to have more features, striving instead to release only the best-in-class features at the right time. For example, the iPhone’s software is highly efficient when compared to Android devices. Although both run a similar set of features, the Google Pixel 5 needs 8GB of RAM, while the iPhone 11 Pro has half that amount at 4GB of RAM. Yet, both devices run incredibly fast.
So how does Apple do it?
Apple builds their products with the highest standards of Engineering, Design, and Business requirements in mind. It takes more time to build product this way because they’re always fine-tuning all these differing, occasionally conflicting, requirements for Feasibility, Desirability, and Viability — but the end result comes with better quality and higher success satisfying customers. In this instance, success means Apple has higher margins and greater profits.
G Suite ➔ Google Workspace
In contrast, Google embodies the “if it’s not breaking, you’re not innovating enough” mantra. This Active Dry approach makes the most sense for the Google because wants to get more product to market faster, even if it isn’t yet perfect.
Google recognized an opportunity to compete with Microsoft in an area where Microsoft applications dominated by offering productivity tools.
How can Google compete with the ubiquitous, but expensive, Microsoft Office suite? They offer applications with a similar set of features and more, for free!
For sure, Google has a highly-focused and efficient team creating these tools. But similar to the Active Dry yeast bread, they deliver a product quickly, affordably (free!) and created for the masses with just enough of what people want.
So how will Google recoup the investment from their apparent “losses” giving away free software? The long-term vision of the G Suite productivity applications wasn’t to immediately sell expensive premium features to students, but to evolve into a mature enterprise offering through iterative, ever-improving releases in the real world. Google addressed the products’ early kinks and bugs with their free users and learned all it could about the market. Over time, Google refined that simple white bread grilled cheese sandwich until it was sufficiently desirable to sell as a competitive enterprise product, Google Workspace.
Even with the recent, frequent redesigns of the Workspace applications’ logos not earning rave reviews, Google shows how their Active Dry approach continues: they prioritize getting something new out the door, then learn from their mistakes to create something better.
The Last Slice
From Adam Grant’s book, Originals, he talks about the investment he pulled out from the early online eyeglass company, Warby Parker. He felt the team lacked urgency and commitment, waiting 6 months to complete their logo.
Adam calls this decision one of his biggest mistakes, but he realized he misinterpreted incubation for negligence. Warby Parker wasn’t trying to become just another online glasses company, they were aiming to be the best way for people to buy eyeglasses online. They tested many ideas, including their ‘Try 5 before you buy’ strategy, which eventually propelled them to become the top eyeglass retail brand.
So which ‘wich’ is the right path? The refined, complex time-consuming Sourdough loaf method? Or the quicker, less-nuanced Active Dry route to simple sliced bread? It comes down to specific and unique product and business goals.
Ask yourself, does this product need to be out in the market now? Or does it need time to ‘proof’ until it’s ready? From there you can decide if you want to prepare a sophisticated accompaniment for an elegant charcuterie board, or just crank out a quick, but satisfying, grilled cheese sandwich.