New video: JAPAN

Broad Strokes vs. Fine Details

February 3rd, 2016

Taped to my fridge is a bucket list with item number one crossed off: “Learn to surf.”

I was parked on the sand six months ago, intently listening to a beach blond surf instructor named Andrew. With his perpetually wet hair, Andrew described the broad strokes of how to surf. I practiced paddling and standing up a dozen times on dry land before taking to the water.

As I gave each wave a go, Andrew came around and offered more pointed feedback. It felt like with every small surfing victory, he revealed another detail to focus on until eventually I popped up on the board and rode my first wave into the beach.

A New Mantra

Lately my motto has been,

“Broad strokes before fine details,”

which came to me long after the surf lesson while A/B testing websites.

A/B testing—also called split testing—is the process of testing two versions of a webpage to gauge which performs better. Say you run a stylin’ online shop that sells crafty enamel pins, and you’re curious if customers are more likely to buy when shown images of pins on clothing versus pins in their packaging.

Well, you can test that. After creating two variations of a product page with different imagery, you can use a tool to split website traffic to each version and measure which page leads to more $ales.

Now if you ran your A/B test for a day and the new variation sold five more pins, can you confidently call it the winner? Or was it a fluke? What you must also consider is the statistical significance of your experiment which depends on traffic, normal sales and what level of confidence you’re looking for. The bottom line is if you make a tiny change that causes a tiny effect, you might be waiting months for a result you can trust. That’s not very helpful, is it?

Hence, the strategy for low traffic websites is to avoid testing incremental changes like a red vs blue button. In order to detect a significant change, you must make a significant change–new imagery, a bold redesign or a very different marketing message. There was my aha moment: “Broad strokes before fine details.”

On Making

With websites we wireframe, with writing we outline and with film we storyboard. It’s through prototyping that we learn about the medium, sense what the final product might feel like and gain early indicators of how our audience will react. In other words, it helps to start by drawing with a thick sharpie. “Broad strokes before fine details.”

With each creative endeavor, I often feel like a dog chasing squirrels. I’m focused at the onset, but every few minutes my brain finds another unfinished detail begging for attention. “I should really change that text.” “That image looks like crap.” “This spreadsheet is so disorganized.” In my weaker moments, I chase the quick wins, making tiny, incremental fixes until I’ve forgotten what I was doing in the first place.

In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg compares willpower to a reservoir. You wake up replenished and throughout the day every decision slowly depletes your store of determination. I find similarities in tackling a new project. If you allow yourself to get distracted with every detail before you’ve even built the frame, you risk getting overwhelmed—and worse, giving up.

To fight back, just imagine a miniature version of yourself (or me) standing on your shoulder softly chanting, “Broad strokes before fine details.”

On Tinkering

There’s a caveat though: the fine details can be fun. On top of that, fun is important because achieving a goal requires “managing enthusiasm” along the way.1

How might we reconcile prioritizing broad strokes with the joy of fiddling with details? Thankfully, my father provided a sufficient answer. During a father-son chat about work-life balance my Dad once said,

“If you plan to have fun, commit to having fun.”

If you’re psyched about exploring a certain detail, explicitly make time for it. Tinkering can be powerful. (I’d even argue you should tinker with broad strokes before fine details, prioritizing the directions that differ greatly. You’ll learn more!)

Budget appropriately, experiment guilt-free and set an expectation for when you’ll zoom back out.

On Courage

From my perspective, what’s most difficult about teaching someone to surf is the part where you tell the new surfer, “Keep trying until you get the hang of it.” Listening to instructions and practicing on sand are only primers for diving in and giving it your best shot. There’s no substitute for trial and error.

I see creative pursuits the same way. Even a great idea marks only a starting point. You gather the courage to begin and through testing, prototyping (or just trying to stand up) you learn more about task at hand.

The mantra, ”Broad strokes before fine details,” helps you course correct along the way but the whole shebang starts with you making the uncomfortable decision to create something new.

In the words of Andrew the surf instructor, “When in doubt, paddle out.”

Andrew and Kevin

Andrew and me at Wavecrest Surf School in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa.

1. The phrase “managing enthusiasm” came from this book on A/B testing.

Thanks to Yoko for editing with broad strokes.

Tagged: AB testing, courage, optimization, process, prototyping