Hackernoon logoZen and the Art of Digital Product Maintenance by@cs1

Zen and the Art of Digital Product Maintenance

Cameron Stewart Hacker Noon profile picture

@cs1Cameron Stewart

Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been one of my favourite reads of the last ten years. Quick wiki excerpt; In the book, the Narrator describes the “Romantic” approach to life of his friend, John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the “classical” Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.

Pirsig’s whole thing is about constantly having your finger on the pulse of your vehicle, regularly fine tuning it so it performs well. It obviously holds deeper truths — if we can be in touch with ourselves enough to recognise the symptoms of behaviour or beliefs that no longer serve us, we can free ourselves from them through sensitivity. Consciousness. A state of mind coveted and in some cases achieved by some of the world’s greatest do-ers, thinkers and world-changers.

I’m often referred to as the ‘fluffy’ one in Dawson Andrews (fluffy implying a lack of tangibility and measurability, and an overflow of feelings and dreams). When Andrew is being the opposite of fluffy with the numbers and sales and serious stuff, Jordan and I sit on our merry wagon and talk philosophy. We get excited about bringing the approaches we find behind these top thinkers into our company. We’re new to this thing of building a business — we’re doing a cracking job may I say but it’s true — we are new to it. I built a small company once but nothing like what we have with DA. So when it comes to the part that excites me, it’s the part where we must craft a philosophy if we want to grow sustainably while as fast as we want. I’m not talking about a values page on a website btw — (those things are important and I’m not writing them off — I’m saying there’s more to it.)

To be one of the best product teams in the world, I believe the philosophy we need to be adopting is that of our friend Robert M. Pirsig;

Finger on the pulse.

Fine tuning.

My real ambition is embedding this as a way of thinking towards life as well as an approach to building digital stuff.

We often say building digital products isn’t rocket science. We never claim to be the smartest. We just look under the hood, find the numbers that are most important to a business, and fine tune. From there we keep our finger on the pulse and continue to fine tune. We avoid hiring heroes — the guys looking for the big bang so much that they remain stagnant. We don’t deliver with a fancy powerpoint, we show our clients into the back room from day one. This means they see the ugly, the mistakes, the doubts. It also builds trust from day one, there’s no wool over anyone’s eyes. The results are a truly collaborative team where no one is wasting any time trying to stand out as a hero. It’s pretty magical actually.

To get here we have a strong and continual focus on ‘the 1%’. This idea that progress is made by doing the small things well, day after day after day. When you give your team a chance to win every single day the feeling gets good. Maybe that’s just what momentum feels like? I think it’s more though, maybe it’s progress.

See in-depth graph above for mathematical explanation. I’m pretty sure this is what we aim to do. (this is the height of my design abilities — I managed to blag a Sketch license so I could review design, aka brush up on my Microsoft Paint chops.)
Fine tuning is what I’ve learned to be the core of growing a digital product.

As a past strategist my approach to digital product strategy used to be the big-bang, super creative idea that saves the company. I was used to Jack Daniel’s patting me on the back and flying me around to parade the latest insight that was going to deliver hundreds of millions to their balance sheet. What I’ve come to realise is that digital products don’t work that way — they exist in the grassroots. They are the grassroots. When it comes to growing a digital product, you can either bet your entire stack on black (the Jack Daniel’s approach) or place $1 bets, learn, adjust, and go again. Fine tuning is what I’ve learned to be the core of growing a digital product.

Real life examples;

Let’s try and prove a point with actual examples of when this has actually worked.

Last year Jordan (co-founder/greatest designer that has ever lived) was working on the Toys R Us website (the .com! … only playing with a $1.5bn revenue!!!). The list of stuff they wanted built/fixed was extensive and Andrew (co-founder, MD) made the ballsy call to only address 20% of the list but promise the same returns they expected from the whole heap (Pareto’s Law). To pull this off we had to identify the key differentiators; but like the inside of an engine (I assume — never seen the inside of an engine, grasping onto the motorbike metaphor here) we had to get our hands dirty and try a few things to understand what was going on. Instead of reinventing everything, Jordan played with button sizes, colours, shapes. He tweaked the customer journey here and there. Testing as he went. The result was a 15.8% increase in revenue. I’ll let you do the maths.

Where we really learned this was with Niice — the first project we ever worked on together. When I was off painting the big picture brand stuff with Chris looking for the landslide idea/insight that would save the day, Andrew was crunching numbers in Kissmetrics. He got obsessed with this idea of Customer Lifetime Value when we were obsessing over sign ups. The argument that won in the end (AF’s) was that sign ups meant nothing if we were signing up people that would cancel after a few months. It made no sense to focus on that market because they were unsustainable to the business. This small tweak turned out to be a big tweak — we were now looking at a totally different market. To Chris’ credit, Niice is now an integral part of the design systems of TIME, Airbnb and Apple — slightly less likely to unsubscribe!

I learned a big lesson from this — what you choose to change is often more important than how you change it.

Fine tuning is an art. It is complex. You have to know that changing one thing might cost you ten days of code changes (that’s why all our designers code / understand the codebase their changes effect). You have to know what improvement you expect that change to make and weigh it up with the time/cost invested in the change. You need to do this multiple times on multiple tweaks to know your options. You need to do this continually, throughout the day, in every product decision you make. Regardless of the cash situation of a client, it’s our responsibility as a studio to be making the decisions of highest value. Value = result - our cost. It’s a simple mantra but it is beginning to differentiate us — agencies are scared of authenticity.

The part I’m interested in, is when this becomes a way of life. Queue the fluff…

If you’ve spoken to me for more than ten minutes this year you’ll have undoubtedly heard me preach on mindfulness practice. It’s changed my life this year. I’m still terrible at it — honestly, I’m rarely able to ‘not-think’ for even ten seconds at a time. Mentally I’m a fearless adventurer, diving into the depths of my mind to understand how this crazy thing works. When it comes to putting the pieces together again, I feel like I’m in nursery school bumbling over the simplest things. But the amazing thing is that even being a total noobie has shown me crazy results. On the surface they are only tweaks, fine-tunes, but their impact has been cataclysmic. 
Actual examples…

  • I spent a year pointing fingers at the ‘fake’ on social media as a cover up for my inability to own my own weirdness. (wow — only just recognising the significance of the double meaning in the word ‘own’ — quote time)
Own your own weirdness.
— Cam Stewart (me)
  • Fear is a daily demon. Bravery feels fucking great — it’s the lifeblood of progress.
  • The truth will set you free. Every fear I’ve faced this year is no-where near as scary as I originally thought. Facing fears for what they truly are brings truth. Truth brings freedom. Freedom leads to skinny dipping.
The first ever DA website had a video of a few gals in the 70’s skinny dipping. (I still prefer this version!)
  • Fear generates anxiety. Anxiety isn’t normal — it’s your body telling you to fix something. Don’t settle for anxiety. Do your work.
  • Anxiety is formed by sweeping fears under the rug. Make friends with fear, anxiety goes away. Mindfulness helps you face fears, sympathise with them, deconstruct them, and realise there are no monsters under the bed. It’s never as scary as you think.
  • Life is beautiful. This is as good as it gets. And it’s pretty good if only we stop to smell the roses.
  • Negative thoughts = negative life. If your mind was a cinema screen playing a movie 24/7 — what would it look like? What would it feel like? How would you feel watching it? Work this out and muster the bravery to rewrite the scripts you don’t like. Don’t focus on the doubts, fears, the-world’s-going-to-shit thoughts too much, they’re important but they needn’t take up all your screen time. Be thankful, be generous, practice empathy, enjoy the small things — it’s a far better time-filler than worry.
  • To be is to be perceived. (I didn’t get this from mindfulness, I stole it from an amazing book that I barely understood called Cloud Atlas… who probably stole it from the Buddha.)
    Following this logic, to know yourself is only possible through the eyes of another. So, if you want to learn to love yourself and truly connect with your experience, the key is learning to get behind the eyes of the people around you. The results are empathy and love and it feels incredible. Beautiful beautiful fluff.
  • Small wins are easier and far more readily available than big wins. Focus on them and the big wins will magically appear.
  • Your mind needs as much exercise as your body. Be good to it. Start by listening to it — it’ll tell you what it needs.

Let’s wrap this thing up.

I believe mindlessness/unconsciousness to be a cancer consuming startling-sized demographics. We’re fucked if we don’t fix it. (I try my best not to use offensive language (Mum) but this one is used mindfully ;)

Thankfully, I see a small wave of hope coming out from a few pockets of people (DO Lectures, Alter Ego Network, Jim McNeish + co, Mills, ‘Olly Olly Oxen Free, to name a few recent fav’s) who are seeking authenticity, and waking up the world around them. They are able to do such great work because they are brave enough to accept the realities that they are faced with. They DO stuff because they’re committed to managing the hurdles of fear. They haven’t conquered them by any means, they doubt themselves daily, the difference they have is that they do something about it.

I believe learning to keep our finger on the pulse and fine tune is key to our humanity and having the best trip we can in the short time we’re here.


When I write, I always send it out from the Dawson Andrews newsletter- ‘Minutes’. If you’d like to never miss this madness, sign up to the newsletter.

If you’d rather listen to me when you’re driving — podcast it up - Camcast. (proper Apple version coming soon!)

I’m really digging Twitter at the minute.

VERY weird coincidence I couldn’t fit into the article — Pirsig died one year to the day I started writing this post, 24th April 2017 (spot the procrastinator!).
So, if I’m allowed to dedicate a shameful piece of writing to a genius without looking like an arsehole - this one’s for you Rob.


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