The Right Level of Detail

There is a constant temptation to specify everything while assigning a task. This seems to make sense so everyone is on the same page, but if you believe in hiring people who know more than you, then these two ideas can come into conflict. Maybe the solution is to tell people less.

There is an idea in economics that centrally planned economies are inherently inefficient in the long term. This at the heart is an information problem because anyone in the middle, no matter how well-intentioned, will simply lack the information available to those on the ground. So over time decisions will become more and more detached from those dictated by the situation.

In a company, this can be even worse, in that case you have subject-area specialists that are doing the work. This means the information about constraints and the information about the best way to do it technically is both with the worker, the manager will have some but less in both cases.

This would seem to put the balance of how much to say at only what needs to be done. With how only mentioned if it directly links into other work. As simple as this sounds it can be more tricky in practice.


Say we are building a website and we used a simple wireframe to tell the designer what we wanted them to add to the website. In that case, you might draw a simple layout with a menu with three options on the top and then a title on the left and a calendar on the right. This tells the designer to add the menu items, title, and calendar but also tells them to put the menu at the top the title on the left and the calendar on the right. You might not care where the items are on the page but the designer doesn’t know that, maybe it needs to be that way to link into other work?

If that happens the designer could end up spending time trying to match the layout and ending up with a compromise to make it match the wireframe, making the result a less appealing design and a slower delivery. This could be greatly improved by only specifying what matters and leaving the rest to the designer.


So if a wireframe is too much information what about just writing out instructions? Unfortunately, this can be both too much information and too little at the same time. As the phrase goes a picture is worth a thousand words. This means to get the same level of information across you might need to write quite a long description. But if the description is long enough to get the information across then it is probably too long to be quickly skimmed, taking both more time to write and more time to read and understand.


Where does that leave us? There is a middle ground called “Shaping”, this involves using a thick Sharpie to draw the links between parts of the project and then simply listing the things that should be there, leaving the actual design decisions to the designer. When a picture is just unavoidable it should also be done in Sharpie. The thick Sharpie stops too much detail at the early stage and makes it clear that the final design is still flexible. If something is required then it can be noted without the extra assumptions getting passed on.

If you would like to know more, Ryan Singer from Basecamp wrote a free online book on the subject.