Building Winning Products

Principled Products: Different Is First a Choice

A footprint no larger than a phone book.
— Steve Jobs

That was the mandate handed down to the original Macintosh team from Steve Jobs. He was a brash 29 at the time, but already had gleaned much about design’s power from the Bauhaus movement and brands like Sony and Braun. In fact, Akio Morita, the legendary co-founder of Sony, had made a similar proclamation inspiring the portable design of the walkman.

Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?
— Akio Morita

A commitment to an ideal, as unrealistic and impractical as it may seem at the time, sits on a foundation of conviction. It requires that thing so abhorred by business folks — making a decision. A decision means you are closing a door, but after all, a road cannot lead everywhere. Successful products have a different destination in mind.


The destination is the unique experience you want to create — an envisioned future. The key word here is “unique”. Unique has a point of view. Unique is asymmetrical. Unique is lumpy. Unique requires a lack of balance.

The principled vision, that you can barely explain, is the invisible hand that guides a thousand decisions yet to be made. Being opinionated is a prerequisite for building a great product. A point of view, not technology, may just be the lever your product needs to propel itself to uniqueness, if not greatness.

“When everyone has the same tools, what differentiates is craft.” — Brian Alvey

Consider Microsoft Word. What does it stand for? What does it excel at? What makes it incredibly powerful?

Microsoft Word does it all — formatting, change tracking, mail merge, and on and on. Nothing is particularly great — you certainly won't rave about the editing experience, but you know that when you share a word doc, people will be able to open it and read it. There is tremendous power in ubiquity and breadth.

If you are building a word processor, you'd be wise not to head into Redmond’s lion’s den. IAWriter, the minimalist writing application I am using to write this article, is born of principles. It does not have templates, drawing shapes or tables. It focuses on one thing — writing. The experience of writing is a joy. In fact, a lack of features has become their strongest feature.

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Building products involves a continuous cycle of trade-offs. No one is immune from this reality — even at Microsoft and Google, resources are limited.

Being principled focuses our energy and lets us wisely navigate our own limitations. By trying to do too much, we prohibit ourselves from doing what matters well enough to make a difference. The IA Team can spend months obsessing over font and display options precisely because they aren't worried about integration to excel.

It is not enough to have decided what matters to your team, and hopefully your customer — you must hold fast. Only by not wavering, can you let go of what seems important, but is really just a distraction.

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Cameron Moll is a wonderful designer. He loves fonts so much he created a lithograph of the Brooklyn Bridge made entirely of hand placed letters. Yet, when he was re-designing his website, he didn't obsess over the fonts. Design is in service to an experience and Cameron Moll knew that his website font wasn't the best place to focus his finite attention.

This is principled design. It’s not about taking what worked in one place and applying it everywhere. As builders we must consider at every turn if what we are doing is taking us towards or away from our North Star.

It is becoming easier and easier for anyone to build amazing things. Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator leans on new technologies for speed. It’s a great approach, but speed will only get you somewhere faster, it won’t tell you where you're headed.

Only principles tell you that.

Originally published in June 2014 on Medium.