The Looking Glass: Prioritize until it hurts

Prioritize until it hurts, and how design will change

Julie Zhuo
3 min readFeb 15, 2023

Dear Readers,

This week’s tidbits:

  1. Prioritize until it hurts
  2. Design for Small Stresses
  3. Freedom
  4. Designing in an AI World
  5. From the Archives: The Ladder of Ownership

For subscribers:

  1. Subscriber mailbag: Cultivating a sponsor further up in the org
  2. The Paradox of Sleep (and other anxieties)
  3. Listening to myself talk
  4. What is it about skiing?

If you subscribed recently, I’d love to hear from you! What would you like to see more or less of?

As a reminder, pay for a subscription (ie, buy me a fancy coffee per month) to encourage my writing and help me hire someone to properly edit and manage this publication!

Prioritize until it hurts

They say prioritize until it hurts.

How does it hurt?

You need to pick favorites between your users. Are you going to care more about Abbey who runs the mom-and-pop shop, or Dwight the CMO of large enterprise?

You need to dissolve the dream. Wouldn’t the product be amazing if we could do X, and Y and Z, and then we’ll deliver it on a silver platter? Yes it would be. But reality and past experiences says you can’t, at least not within the time frame you want. The dream is an illusion.

You need to pare down to what really makes an impact to your customer. Chuck out the less important things from your lifeboat so it can stay afloat. That pet feature you so loved but weighs a ton? That user request you’ve been dying to work on but only a handful of clients need? Strike it from the list.

For the things that really matter, you need to be like a dog on the hunt. Daily updates. Constant viligence. Jump over or dash around the obstacles. No excuses.

At the heart of prioritization is the treasure of greatest value: doing your best for the people you believe matter the most.

Say no to everything else so you can say yes to those people.

Design for Small Stresses

Lift 200 pounds when you’re unprepared for it, and you seriously risk long-term injury to your muscles.

Lift weights gradually, and your muscles will microtear and grow stronger.

It is the same with our minds.

Small stresses strengthen our mind and grows its capacity to tackle bigger and bigger problems. But too much stress turns into trauma, setting us back months or years.

The key is to design just the right ramp, for yourself or others on your team.

The easy path looks attractive but creates brittle minds. But signing yourself up for something too hard is just as bad.

Know your limits, and design intentionally

Freedom

People think freedom is the power to change what you dislike about the world around you.

You can quit a job you hate. Leave a person who hurts you. Switch cities for a change of scenery. Chop your hair for a new look.

What freedom actually is: the power to change what you dislike about yourself.

Designing in an AI World

AI will reduce today’s design jobs. This I feel strongly.

The value of many design jobs today is in visual translation. Someone has a picture in mind of what they want and hires a designer to make that picture real.

If that person can instead feed in a text file into an AI tool and say: Show me a bunch of webpage options from this text that have the feel of Stripe’s website mixed with Airbnb’s, but with flame colors and immediately get some options to look at and refine, they will be happy as a clam.

Human designers as visual translators will find a shrinking field of work.

But.

If you expand your definition of design. If you think of it as translating problems into solutions. If you think of it the way Steve Jobs thought of it — Design isn’t just what it looks like and feels like; design is how it worksthen you will see the design arena expand.

Problems are eternal.

Tomorrow’s design jobs will be simply be product jobs.

From the Archives: The Ladder of Ownership

graphical user interface, text, application

Read more

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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial (sundial.so). Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.