I want to be able to simplify the interactions I have in a given day to a single purpose. As an example, I’d like to claim that the hammer is there to work with nails. But the hammer isn’t that simple of a product.

Similarly when people ask me what’s the purpose of a given web service, I have a tough time giving one answer. In fact, the easiest way to get to one is to say that a given web service is what the individual needs it to be. Easy examples include Facebook as a photo album, or as a long distance phone call replacement. Or Twitter as a breaking news source or a trash talking platform.

We no longer build products in the traditional sense. A saw is no longer just valuable in cutting wood. We’ve started to see a world where the saw is a musical instrument or it’s a prop in a halloween costume. The consumer can now imagine a role for the product well beyond its intended purpose.

As the creator of products, this poses a few challenges. Our existing paradigms are built around the idea that a single audience will interact with a function in a single way. Our communication strategies narrow down on demographic targets and market-researched tag lines. However, in a world where my mom and I are both the target audience, how does the product manager define the purpose of the product? And as we are no longer building single-purpose products, but instead we’re building general tools, how does the product manager optimize the user experience?

The answer for me is twofold – building a sandbox, not a shovel and making sure the prisoners don’t run the prison.

Building a sandbox, not a shovel
Very simply put, web services succeed because they define a scope, and then allow for creativity within that scope. Facebook has changed the rules over and over again, but people continue to find ways to uniquely express themselves. When profiles were at the center of the service, the graffiti wall app was one of the most popular. When Facebook started to move towards the News Feed, we saw the introduction of the “Like” phenomenon and people expressed themselves through their “Likes”. Now that the News Feed is not only king, but exists in two forms, the News Feed has become the viral loop that games, Spotify and other applications use.

All of this is made possible because Facebook has built a sandbox in which everyone is allowed to play.

I make a very similar metaphor to friends who ask me what Twitter is. My response is 140 characters of whatever is important to you. For some it’s going to be shared links; for others it’s going to be commentary on sports; and for most it’s going to be the mindless babble of friends. Regardless, the genius of Twitter is that it’s a sandbox, and you’re free to play in it as you deem fit.

Build sandboxes, and let your end-users show you what’s possible.

That to me feels like a very powerful mantra for product development.

Don’t let the prisoners run the prison
There is however a catch to letting your end-users show you what’s possible. It doesn’t give your end-users the right to define your road map. I think that we can call this the Digg Paradigm. A web service builds a sandbox, and needs user-generated content to bring people to the sandbox. It then starts to shape the sandbox to fit the needs of those early adopters.

The danger here is that your road map is driven by a set of end-users who have a very specific vision of your sandbox.

The inverse comes from Twitter. The early adopters invented the retweet (RT) and the hashtag (I think). The Twitter folks are on the record saying that they hated those things, but once it became a part of the Twitter culture they reacted accordingly and made sure that those were part of the sandbox. That hasn’t, however, stopped Jack Dorsey or Dick Costolo from driving Twitter towards the vision that they have for the sandbox.

This is true not only of the suite of Twitter products managed by the company, but also in their vision for the platform.

Let your end-users build a culture within your sandbox, not their own sandbox

That’s the final lesson for today’s post.