Mario Cardinal

"The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" – Marcel Proust

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Usefulness come from what is not there

I read blogs not only to learn but mostly to aid reflection. On August 12th, on the blog of Jason Cohen, founder of WP Engine & Smart Bear Software, there was an interesting post: In its emptiness, there is the function of a startup.

Jason refers to “emptiness” as it is defined in Chapter 11 of the Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the “Powers of Nothingness”. This predates, by half a millennium, the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. According to tradition, it was written around 6th century BC by the sage Laozi, a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court, by whose name the text is known in China. The text, along with the Zhuangzi, is a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism, and strongly influenced other schools, such as Legalism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism.

Here is my preferred English translation of chapter 11:

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

In other words, usefulness come from what is not there. Emptiness is the essential complement that create value. What I like about Jason post is that he wonders how to apply this learning in his own business startup. In summary, he concludes that what defines the startup and its purpose is not the products but, instead, it is the “values” — the inviolable constitution that create the startup’s culture.

I spent several days thinking back to this post. What I find intriguing is that we can apply the same learning when designing a software. In this particular case, if profit comes from the software features (what is there), what is the emptiness that generate real usefulness?

Here’s my hypothesis.

I think software usefulness come from the navigation between screens. This is the invisible part that makes the software valuable. Unfortunately, this workflow is what is difficult to show, that is what is difficult to make explicit for users.

In recent years, one of the strategies was to put all the functionality within a single screen. In the end, I do not think this is an optimal solution. By removing the navigation we lose the ability to provide a mental context (a workflow) and, therefore we can hardly design simple screens with only one purpose.

The approach I advocate is to align the navigation between screens with the workflow expected by the user. Here is an example that I encountered this summer. For those of you who follow this blog, you know that in recent months we have repositioned our startup Slingboards Lab and that I am currently designing a personal task planner for mobile phones.

In regard with task planning, you might think, based on the list metaphor, a user wishes to make the following workflow with a task: Add, Edit and Delete. Rather, my research leads me to believe that the core workflow is the following: Prioritize, Commit and Achieve.


Even if profit come from managing a list of tasks (Add, Edit, Delete), the real usefulness of a personal task planner is through the Prioritize, Commit and Achieve workflow.