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.

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Slingboards Lab – Twelve months later, where are we?

Nearly a year ago, I introduced on this blog my new business project. Heavily influenced by our experiences with kanban and task boards, with my business partner Erik Renaud, we founded Slingboards Lab, a software publisher aimed at marketing these collaboration boards to business teams. Through the provision of slingboards, our startup brings sticky notes to smartphones, tablets and the web for empowering teams to better collaborate.

Being familiar with Lean Startup, a method for developing businesses and products first proposed in 2011 by Eric Ries, it was obvious that we wanted to apply this approach. A lean startup invest its time into iteratively building products to meet the needs of early customers in order to reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures. Startups begin their journey not by making money but by learning how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated by running experiments to test each element of the entrepreneur‘s vision.

In the last twelve months, we have done a wide range of business-hypothesis-driven experimentations. Here is what we have learned about the target customer:

  • Programming platform: Our customer is not the programmers who build the collaboration boards. Programmers want to stick with their existing programing platform.
  • Teammate: Our customer is not the teammates who use the collaboration boards. Peoples hardly describe themselves as teammate. Nobody gets a promotion or a salary increase because they are “teammate”. Teammate is not an appealing identity.

The more we tried to better define our target customer, the more we realized that our mission targeted a very fuzzy customer – teams. In addition, we were approaching teams on the theme of collaboration. Unfortunately, improving collaboration is not an attractive need for teammates. What we have learned is that collaboration is not a leitmotiv. People want things done, and in order to get things done, they focus on individual contribution, avoiding collaboration with shared accountability.
This learning took us back to square one. Our mission did not hold water. We were wrong when we thought there was a need to improve collaboration among teammates with a visual tool.

For several months we thought about this dilemma. We challenged our original mission. Again, we have done another range of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation. This time focusing around collaboration. By collaboration, we mean the one that’s intended to create “something” in support of a shared vision. It is goal-oriented, is not an individual effort and has a defined team that is responsible for delivering that “something”.

Here is what we have learned about collaboration:

  • Collaboration among teammates boils down to the assignment and delegation of tasks.
    • Tasks get done by a single teammate. Co-creation by several teammates is not part of work habits.
    • If a single teammate gets accountable to complete a task, it usually gets done. A common practice is to always assign a task to a single teammate at a time.
    • To ensure tasks are done by a single teammate, tasks are splatted in smaller entities.
  • Collaboration is almost synonymous with work decomposition and individual contribution.
    • Organizing and splitting tasks in small entities is an intellectual challenge. It is difficult to break-down large tasks by splitting it recursively into smaller ones until all of the remaining tasks are trivial. A common practice is have only one teammate taking ownership for this duty.
    • Splitting tasks is difficult because the knowledge necessary to do the job is acquired progressively, often shortly before task need to be completed. In many teams, upfront planning is challenging and almost impossible.

This learning teach us that teammates co-produce unit of value as individual contributor but hardly co-create or co-design as a team. Contrary to our hypothesis, it seems that co-creation is not an intrinsic need. Organizing work and splitting tasks takes all the space. This is where there is a need, a real opportunity. In addition, it should be noted that this opportunity is not a team requirement but rather an individual requirement express loudly by the teammate responsible for work decomposition and assignment.

What should we conclude from all this? Obviously, we should redefine our entrepreneur mission and align with what we have learned. Can we? Should we? Is it possible to offer a task board that will speak to individuals (not a team) and will simplify work decomposition while allowing to easily track tasks assignments? This is a stimulating challenge. It is time to make new product-hypothesis-driven experimentations. Stay tuned.