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.