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The best way to improve

At MacWorld Boston in 1997, Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple Inc.) explained that it was important for Apple to focus on itself, rather than its competitors:

We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. OK? And we have to embrace a notion, that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job.

I'm a big believer in personal improvement, or ironing out your wrinkles, but I've always put it a slightly different way: Don't compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to past and future versions of yourself. Are you better or worse than you were a year ago? How can you become better or worse in the future?

The next natural question is: How do you decide if a version of yourself, or a version of your company, is better or worse? I think it has to do with the effect you have on others, and the experiences you create for them.

I'm suggesting that the best perspective to adopt as an individual, or as a business, is "outward-in". Put yourself in the shoes of someone who's dealing with your company for the first time, or interacting with you as an individual. Focus on how your customers or acquaintances see you. Focus on what you can do to improve those areas that cause issues for those people.

Importantly, if you want to focus on internal issues, don't do it at the expense of issues that exist for external people, such as your customers.

I was speaking to a designer who told me that they were having trouble making recommendations to a client. The client had come to them with a very simple brief: "Improve our navigation". The designer looked at the client's website, figured out some issues with it, but wanted to do more work to solve the root problems behind the navigation. The client refused - they didn't want to put in the hard work to overhaul their navigation. It turned out that the client had seen the navigation on a competitor's website. They were jealous of this particular competitor, so they had hired the agency to help copy the competitor's navigation.

There's a good chance that the competitor's navigation won't work for the client's website, since the content is different. There's a good chance that the competitor didn't test their navigation. The client was focused on others, and trying to copy them, rather than trying to figure out how the people who matter (The customers) saw their website, and what value it offered them.

In the book "Mapping Experiences", James Kalbach says this:

From my work with dozens of companies, I have seen teams with the best intentions focused too much on internal processes ... What's needed is a change in viewpoint - from inside-out to outside-in. Organizations must have a clear understanding of the experiences they create.

I think for companies and people to succeed, they must focus on the experiences they're creating or the effect they're having. I don't think your boss' opinion is a good measure of what is poorly designed. Something is poorly designed when it causes issues for people who interact with it.

So take a step outside, turn around, and look back. How can you improve what you see?

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