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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

How apartment arranging is like product design

Step 1: Define the problem and understand the constraintsIn a product context, it’s really important to know what you’re trying to solve before jumping in and building. Apartments are the same way. Like any build, there are going to be trade-offs and compromises. The biggest one in my new space is that our bedrooms are below street level, with low ceilings and no natural light. Even before you move in, you likely have a sense of the trade-offs of the apartment, the places where you’re going to need to get a little creative. From day one, I knew that was going to be the biggest design challenge in our new space, and I’ve been actively working on this for months now. The last piece, of course, is creating a plan of attack. What can you do now to prepare for launch, move-in day? 

Step 2: Decide what new features to incorporateJust like in building a product, "net new" stuff of apartment design is always the easiest and most funt. If you have wooden floors, you may need to buy new rugs. If you have outdoor space, you might need some chairs and cushions. As it turns out, there’s a lot you can do by relying only on the “wireframes” of your apartment -- those crappy photos you took of one time you toured the apartment, combined with your unreliable memory of how things were in person. Depending on the length of time between signing a lease and moving in, you might have only 1 sprint to get these features in place. In my case, I had about 2 sprint cycles -- or one month. During that time, I not only ordered things like rugs, towels, and cleaning supplies, but I also diagramed my best guess at where I wanted the furniture to live in each room.

Step 3: Build the big features firstIt sounds obvious, but when you move into an apartment, you put the big furniture in place before you unpack all of the boxes. Product development is the same way. It’s harder when you don’t literally see the giant boxes and furniture sprawled out all around you, but it’s a good reminder for the best order of operations. Start with the big stuff. Then move onto the smaller and smaller components, until you get all the way down to the tiniest tweaks. (Our product team at Bolster likes to refer to the smallest stuff as “sand work.” Stuff that fits in between the cracks and edges.) Don’t rearrange the junk drawer before you build out your bed frame. That sort of thing.

Step 4: Get everything out of boxesI find it really hard to visualize the “complete version” of a thing in my head if a lot of my stuff is still in boxes. The sooner things can exist as tangible objects instead of abstract boxes where anything could be inside, the easier it is to assess what’s there, throw things away, and rearrange. I’m a stickler for getting through this phase as fast as possible. Ideally, 2-3 days. I also try not to fixate too much on the “first place” I put things. That order and arranging comes later on, after I’ve gotten all the puzzle pieces on the table and know what I’m working with. I’ll note here that this is where the tension starts to pull on your shirt sleeve: You’ll get distracted by things like your nightstand not having everything it should on it, or unpacking a box of framed art and not hanging it up yet. But I maintain that it’s better to get everything out in the open before you deal with the nitty-gritty. This phase is all about velocity and not at all about perfection. Resist the urge to tweak.

Step 5: Block and tackle the bugs and smaller projectsThis is my least favorite phase of work on a new project. After the initial move, you uncover a bunch of other smaller problems or unintended consequences that came up. In the coming days and weeks, it’s all about triage. Our list included things like, “sell office chair we don’t need,” “figure out medicine cabinet organization” and “get smart lights configured in living room.” We tracked each small project on a spreadsheet, assigned an owner and have been blocking and tackling them. Out of 41 total items we identified after moving in, we’ve gotten through all but 7 in the two months since. For this phase of any project, I find it helpful to scope this smaller work as cleanly as possible and just plow through it.

Step 6: Triage any mission-critical features that just aren’t workingThere’s always a part of any launch that doesn’t go as planned. And for our apartment move, it was the bedroom setup. With low ceilings, fluorescent lighting, funky alcoves, and no window, it proved to be a challenging setup to get right. It took me about 7 weeks to really figure out a design layout that wasn’t terrible. Suffice it to say, this was a lot of trial and error as well as consultations with experts (aka: my friends). We started with 2 wooden dressers in the bedroom, but it felt too dark and low-lit. So I moved one dresser, donated the other and moved in 2 bookshelves, but this made the room feel too short and hectic. So I moved out the bookshelves and had nothing for awhile. When a friend came over I lamented my “bedroom problem” of not being able to get the vibe right and he suggested plants. While I initially thought this would be impossible due to the lack of natural sunlight, I realized I’d been overlooking one key factor: Fluorescent lights can keep low-light plants alive. The next day I made a mad dash to the flower district and stocked up on plants. That was the missing element I’d been looking for: I forgot to use one of the room’s weaknesses (the weird fluorescent lighting) as an advantage (I can leave the lights on during the day and keep plants alive).

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