The parable of the pots: Would you rather create one good thing or 50 bad things? Why embracing imperfection is the key to better UX.
Lean or perfect?
Have you ever found yourself struggling to perfect something, endlessly tinkering with it until it’s just right? Maybe you are a UX designer, meticulously honing every pixel of your mockup to perfection, or a UX researcher, dedicating countless hours to crafting the ideal methodology for your upcoming study. Maybe you’re an artist working on a painting or a writer crafting a novel.
Whatever your creative pursuit, you know that feeling of wanting to get it just perfect before showing it to someone and moving on to the next thing.
But what if that approach was actually holding you back? What if the key to getting better at your craft was not to obsess over one single piece, but to create more, to make more imperfect things?
That’s the lesson I learned from a pottery professor who offered his students a unique choice every semester:
- Make 50 pots fast within the first 4 weeks of the semester and receive an automatic A (regardless of the quality of the pots)
Or submit one pot that they spent as much time on as they wanted and have it graded on its quality (with no guaranteed grades)
In addition, the professor would select the best pot from all the pots created that semester, and that person would receive an A+. So who do you think earned the highest grades by the end of the semester? The fast pots made in large quantities, or the unique pots that were meticulously crafted over the entire semester?
By creating more products, even if imperfect, one can gain valuable experience and develop skills in the process.
Parable of the pots
At first glance, it seems like the students who opted to create one pot and spend all their time perfecting it would have the advantage. After all, isn’t quality over quantity the key to success? But year after year, it was the student who made 50 pots who created the best pot in the class.
Why is that? The act of creation is what helps us improve and become better at what we do — no matter if it’s making social media reels, video game characters, designs, AI art, or ceramics. By making 50 pots, the students had a chance to practice their craft more and more. They were forced to bring things to completion and experience the act of creating a pot from beginning to end over and over again. And that’s what mattered. This is something that prototyping and practicing individual skills cannot do. Although the submitted pots may not have been perfect, they were shipped quickly. And that’s what matters. Moreover, the students gained valuable experience in handling failure and embracing imperfection in the final product.
In addition, the fact that they were making 50 pots reduced the risk profile. It allowed them to experiment more, to take chances because if they failed, it was only one pot, and they could create another. This created a space for creativity and innovation that simply didn’t exist when they were obsessing over one single piece. Relying solely on the success of a single product can increase stress and even obsession, potentially leading to poor decision-making and worse outcomes.
From pottery to product design
The parable of the pots is a remarkable story with a multitude of lessons that can be applied to the field of product development, particularly within the UX audience. Allow me to share some examples:
- Striving for perfection can be a hindrance to progress. Often, the desire to make a product perfect can lead to an unending cycle of tinkering, stalling the product’s release. Often, the mindset of having just one shot, one opportunity prevails in UX. However, this is seldom the case, particularly when the design decisions you make entail low risks and can be readily undone. By creating more products, even if imperfect, one can gain valuable experience and grow their skills in the process.
- Rapid prototyping is a powerful tool. When given the challenge of making 50 pots in a short amount of time, students were forced to experiment, take chances, and embrace failure. The same can be applied to product development through rapid research and iterative prototyping, allowing for more opportunities to test and learn from mistakes. By creating many prototypes, designers can gain a deeper understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve and uncover new ideas and solutions.
- Embracing imperfection can lead to innovation. By creating 50 pots, students reduced the risk profile and created space for creativity and innovation. The same applies to UX and product development, where taking calculated risks can lead to breakthroughs that may not have been possible with a more conservative approach. By creating many imperfect mock-ups, designers can learn to accept imperfection and focus on creating something that is functional and effective, rather than obsessing over details that may not matter in the long run.
By creating many prototypes, designers can gain a deeper understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve and uncover new ideas and solutions.
UX success with imperfect designs
So what can we learn from this story? In the rapidly moving field of UX, we should look to move forward, to create more — instead of fixating on a single “crown jewel” project that consumes all of our time and attention.
When we make something, we should try to hold ourselves to the standard of not going back and recreating that first thing until we’ve made at least one more thing that we consider to be better. And even if we’ve created a second thing that’s better, maybe we shouldn’t go back and recreate the first. Maybe we should make a third thing, or a fourth, or a 50th. We should keep generating new ideas, keep exploring new territories, and keep developing our craft until we’ve crafted a 50th iteration, each one more refined than the last.
The point is, something has to be the worst thing. And that’s okay. But when we’re done, and we have 50 things, then we can go back and decide which ones are good enough to be used or deserve to be remade. But now we have 50 pots instead of zero pots because we keep building and rebuilding that same pot over and over again.
The parable of the pots teaches us that the act of creation, rapid prototyping, and embracing imperfection are essential components of growth and innovation in product development.
So the next time you find yourself obsessing over one single piece, remember this lesson of the pottery professor. By embracing this mentality of relentless experimentation, we can stay ahead of the curve and consistently deliver UX that delights and inspires. Create more, take risks, and don’t be afraid to make more mistakes. It’s through the act of creation that we become better at what we do.
By creating many imperfect mock-ups, designers can learn to accept imperfection and focus on creating something that is functional and effective, rather than obsessing over details that may not matter in the long run.