Product Performances

A few months ago, the mute half of the famous magic duo Penn & Teller published an article in Smithsonian Magazine describing seven principles that drive the development of his magic tricks. One of them, “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth,” instantly resonated with me as a designer and engineer. Teller:

You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

This is magic in its truest form. It is not purely physical or optical trickery, but mental trickery. Unable to come up with a sane explanation for the events unfolding before their eyes, most people will simply smile and enjoy the performance. Delight. There is something calming about the ability to surrender to someone else’s trickery.

Teller is so successful because he obsesses about every detail of his performance. He will never accept anything less than perfection because it would be a personal reflection of himself; he loves what he does and it shows through his work.


The ultimate goal of any magician is to create a sense of delight in the audience, and it’s the exact same feeling that great product designers strive to create through their work. Product design, done properly, is magic. But while magicians are expected to focus all of their time on obsessively improving their performance, designers and engineers tend to exist as cogs in a larger complex system. If they slow down in pursuit of perfection–or even something slightly better than usual–the entire machine is affected. In most companies, designers and engineers are actively discouraged from doing their best and most satisfying work by process, organization, and ‘best practices’.

What if we thought about products as performances instead of tools or deliverables? Everything takes on a different meaning. Bugs and “known issues” become personal flaws. How well the user accomplishes his or her goals become a personal reflection of the creators. In fact, most creative industries throughout history have had this component, called craftsmanship, and it’s a bond between creator and user. But it seems to have been lost, somehow, in the expanding bureaucracy and process of modern companies. In very few companies do designers and engineers feel personally and emotionally attached to the end result of their work.

I think this is largely due to the way teams tend to operate within companies. Things are designed. Then they are engineered. Then they are tested. Then they are released. Then issues go to customer support. Each stage is so disconnected from the one before it that no one can possibly create a long, obsessive relationship with the holistic product. Assembly lines work fantastically well for raw assembly, but they suck the life out of creative people.


In startups, the mantra “release early, release often” is constantly chanted as justification for shipping crappy products. But the truth is this–and I have personally witnessed it a hundred times–if a team feels personally obsessed with a product or company’s success, and if they genuinely love what they are doing, they will spend every waking minute perfecting and fixing whatever is needed before anything is released. This is probably similar to performers on Broadway; once the tickets are sold, the actors won’t allow themselves to put on a bad show. They will practice obsessively, into the night, until they are confident in their ability to deliver a great performance. What drives those performers is the same thing that drove Teller to visit an entomologist while researching a five-minute magic trick.

Great startups work like this too. The best and most successful teams invariably exhibit these characteristics and failing companies almost never do. It’s an emotional and personal attachment that a team has to the end result of their work.

There are two main reasons for poor products to exist. Either the team was broken by paralyzing bureaucracy and process during development, or the creators didn’t care enough to obsess over ultimate quality. Both of these possibilities might be fixed by changing the expectation of what a product fundamentally is–a reflection of its creators’ vision, personality, and trickery cast upon its users. A performance.


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