Sourdough or sliced sandwich bread?

Quarantine Bread Craze

Back in late March around the beginning of quarantine, there was a sudden boom in home cooking with everyone locked down with plenty of time on their hands. Sourdough bread, quite specifically, was featured almost endlessly in my Instagram stories.

More personally, five friends reached out to me on how to get started baking their own bread, and I was happy to help. I wouldn’t say that I’m a “bread master,” but I’ve been baking sourdough bread for three years now. It’s one of the most satisfying things that anyone can make. Also, I’m a Product Designer, and like many designers would, I started drawing connections between the two seemingly unrelated topics of baking and design.

With so much attention on “working from home” + “bread-making” blaring from social media, it began to occur to me how the process of bread-making can inform us about product development and the contrast between different approaches to building products.

What? Are you saying that there are parallels between creating yummy carb-laden treats and grinding out software?
Ohhh, you bet!

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Sourdough vs. Active Dry Yeast Basics

Let’s first start off with some bread-making basics. To keep it simple, let’s compare the Sourdough Starter and Active Dry Yeast methods. Yeast is the stuff that makes bread rise to a fluffy loaf once baked. You take flour, water, salt, plus yeast and that’ll equal bread if mixed, kneaded, and baked properly. There are many differences between the two baking methods, but let’s break it down by time versus flavor.

In general, Sourdough is a longer/slower process, but the waiting allows you to develop more complex, nuanced flavors along with an extremely crunchy crust. In contrast, Active Dry yeast is quick! In just thirty minutes your dough has doubled in size. The tradeoff comes in the loss of those nuanced flavors and texture.

Time vs. Ready to bake (sourdough takes time to develop flavor and complexity for that irresistible satisfaction)

How does bread-making relate to product development?

Sourdough, like the Waterfall development process, takes the longer path to deliver the final product because all of the requirements must be properly gathered up and go through a process before the big release.

Active Dry, like the Agile development process, wants to pump out a viable, if not perfect, release ASAP. Agile has become the dominant development process in the latest innovation wave in tech, but either method in its own right can create great products. The important question for building product is what makes sense for your market: whether to take longer to build a better product, or rush a product to market to fill an immediate need?

Agile prioritizes output then learning / Waterfall prioritizes learning first then output

Let’s say you used sliced white bread to accompany a fancy charcuterie platter. Sure, it might be fine, but most guests probably would expect something more refined to enhance the experience of sampling the platter’s delicacies.

Similarly, consider if you used painstakingly-created hand-made sourdough bread to make a classic Kraft American grilled cheese sandwich. Again, it might be fine, but context really matters here! Your guests would have likely expected, and been perfectly satisfied, with simple sliced bread with their basic melted cheese.

Apple vs. Google

These trillion-dollar behemoths are indisputably two of the most successful companies in the world, each in their own right. Yet, they do things quite differently, and funny enough, their product development process is comparable to choosing between the two different methods of using yeast to bake bread.

iOS Widgets

One of newest features Apple added to iOS phones and tablets was “widgets” in October 2020. By comparison, Google’s Android phones had widgets back in the archaic days of mobile operating systems in 2008!

So what gives?

Apple obviously took a very slow Sourdough approach to developing widgets. But why? Apple prioritizes adding new features based on how precisely they will fit into the overall product journey, considering the maturity of the technology and the timing of the market. Apple simply doesn’t throw out new features just to have more features, striving instead to release only the best-in-class features at the right time. For example, the iPhone’s software is highly efficient when compared to Android devices. Although both run a similar set of features, the Google Pixel 5 needs 8GB of RAM, while the iPhone 11 Pro has half that amount at 4GB of RAM. Yet, both devices run incredibly fast.

So how does Apple do it?

Apple builds their products with the highest standards of Engineering, Design, and Business requirements in mind. It takes more time to build product this way because they’re always fine-tuning all these differing, occasionally conflicting, requirements for Feasibility, Desirability, and Viability — but the end result comes with better quality and higher success satisfying customers. In this instance, success means Apple has higher margins and greater profits.