What product are you building?

Epistemic status: It appears like it works for me. Not meant to be a hard/​fast rule.

A frame I frequently examine conversations through is “are we building a product together, or not?”

Many conversations (online or in person) are “just sorta hanging out.” Just-sorta-hanging-out can be quite important, both because it’s fun, and as part of building up friendships, etc. But if one or more participants isn’t having fun, it’s more likely that the conversation should end, or change.

“Building a product” conversations have a goal, and the goal is “create something that someone is going to use someday.” Here’s a few types of products you might be building:

  • A literal product

    • i.e. programming a website or designing a widget

  • A relationship

    • you and a friend, or a romantic partner, are trying to improve the foundations of trust or communication

  • A party

    • you and your roommates are planning a surprise birthday bash for a friend

  • A new set of norms

    • you and your friends, or your coworkers, all agree that something about the current social equilibrium is off, and should be replaced by something new

  • A fun idea

    • you’re doing random brainstorming on something kinda crazy, but you still want it to be the best something-kinda-crazy that it can be. Maybe it’ll later turn into a literal product, or maybe it’ll turn into a fun story to tell.

  • A felt sense

    • Maybe the object level discussion isn’t about the product. Maybe you’re exploring a philosophical idea. But your goal isn’t to output a useful philosophical idea. Your goal might instead be:

      • develop a sense of what a particular flavor of confusion feels like

      • develop some shared intuitions that underlie the philosophical idea

In some of those cases, there are “just hanging out” conversations you might also have about it. You can talk about “a new set of norms” that’s less goal directed and more just meandering and exploratory. A fun idea can certainly be nothing more than “a fun idea.”

But, I find product-building conversations way more interesting, most of the time. In particular, I’m willing to invest a lot more effort into a conversation if it seems like it’s about building something.

Product-building-conversations don’t have to be rushed, or laser-focused. Sometimes the best way to design a product is to have a long, meandering conversation that gives you time to soak in each facet of the design constraints, or share intuitions about it.

Building a product imposes constraints on the conversation

There are lots of different conversational styles you can be building a product in, depending on your culture. Gruff auto-mechanics might brusquely swear at each other when they screw something up. Some companies might have weird politeness norms, and those norms might be different in the US vs Japan while designing their latest widget.

I discussed some examples recently of (what I saw as) product-building in a collaborative frame. My comments then were highlighting my own preferred norms. But in this post now I’m trying to make a broader point.

I have best guesses about what sort of norms make for productive product building.
But I have a much more important meta-level belief: If you’re building a product together, there are some kinds of constraints on “what sort of conversation is actually worth having?”. And one of the most important constraints is:

If you’re not building the same product, you’re going to have a bad time.

When a conversation seems to be getting confused, and people talking past each other, some questions worth asking might be:

  • Are we building a product, or just sorta hanging out?

  • If we’re just sorta hanging out, are we having fun, or otherwise getting value? If not, stop, or change something about the conversation.

  • If we are building a product, do we have agreement about what product we’re building? Do we have meta-level agreement that, if we don’t agree on what product we’re building, at least one of our goals should be to figure that out?

For me, at least, that last question dictates whether this is a conversation that I’m going to put a particular kind of serious effort into.