Why I’m not going to tell you what I’m building

When I worked at Campaign Monitor, we used a Campfire (a chatroom system) for team discussion. The designers had a “design room” where they would share mockups and ideas. This worked really well as it allowed the rest of the team to provide them with fast feedback of their ideas, even in remote teams, and there was a full transcript we could refer to later.

One day a private room appeared in Campfire called something like “Super Elite Designer Room for Make Good Design”. I asked why it was private and a designer explained to me that it was for brainstorming ideas when they didn’t want feedback on them yet. He explained that as part of the creative process, you have to feel safe and free to talk about ideas without any restrictions.

I believe all creativity is like this. We need that part of the process to explore the moonshot ideas before we’re dragged back down to earth. We need to be able to run with the crazy, stupid and impossible ideas before someone tells us “it’s too expensive”, “it’s been done before” or “nobody will want to use it”.

So a few months ago I started working on a web application and I didn’t tell anybody what it was about. This approach was met with some curiosity and a lot of criticism. One critic said that I should definitely tell EVERYBODY what I was building, because then they would be able to give me feedback on my idea so I could make it better.

That is exactly the reason I wasn’t telling anyone about it.

See, while some things remain subjective, communities tend to form rough consensus on what they think is good, bad, crazy and stupid. If I start creating within the rules of good, bad, crazy and stupid then I’ve already built a strict set of rules around whatever it is I’m building. The shape of my idea has already been laid out for me, ready for me to fill it in with yet another colour. When someone says they’re making my idea “better”, what they really mean is they’re making it conform to the the collective notion of “good”. That’s no way to make anything interesting.

But even without feedback, this is hard mindset to break. As someone who’s lived in the same world as everyone else my whole life, I have hardwired notions of good, bad, crazy and stupid already. So how can I break free of that in my creative process?

So I decided I’m going to create the worst app I can think of. The craziest app I can think of. The stupidest app I can think of. Something nobody would ever want to use. Something everyone would laugh at. Something only a damn fool would make and nobody could even understand but me.

Then I’ll make a beautiful user interface and create a fabulous user experience, because that’s important to me.

But I’m not going to tell you what it is.

3 thoughts on “Why I’m not going to tell you what I’m building”

  1. This is a really interesting idea. I think that there’s some value to a safe haven, but I could still use some convincing that keeping it secret is the way to go.
    Have you come across the 6 thinking hats exercise?
    It sounds like the walled garden approach is to prevent some of the black and red hat thinking from “outsiders”. It’s possible that if you explicitly create a room and frame it as being a green and yellow hat room only, that you might be able to get some great “moonshot” ideas from the “outsiders”.
    Another, similar arena is the “Yes, and” exercise, as played by Improv actors. Each actor offers something to the scene, and it must be accepted and expanded upon.
    I wonder what the difference between a closed ecology of ideas and an open, but expansion based, ecology would be

    You know where to find me if you’d like to try :-)

  2. Hey Andy. Another reason to take this approach is because of the reasons described in this talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html (shown to me after writing this post, but I agree with it too).

    I remember doing the 6 thinking hats exercise back in high school. I have to admit I haven’t used it since because I’d forgotten all about it. I think there’s a distinct difference between using a constructive brainstorming method such as the 6 thinking hats or the “Yes, and” exercise and just throwing your ideas at everyone you meet.

    Personally I’ll find that often when I throw ideas at people outside of a constructive environment, they usually try to point out all of the flaws and limitations of the idea and it’s just discouraging. I know some rare people who will engage with the idea in a constructive way, and it’s great to tell ideas to these folk because the idea can end up even greater than before. However, these people are few and far between. Or maybe I just know a lot of negative people!

    Regardless, I find that if I keep the idea to myself, my motivation to complete the project lasts a lot longer.

  3. I think there are some people who are good at looking at the seed of an idea, or a prototype, extrapolating it out to the finished product and providing useful feedback, and there are others who can’t help but view it as if it was a finished, mature product already, and judge it accordingly.

    So I agree with the secrecy idea, for the most part it’s better to keep scrappy ideas and prototype’s private or shared with a select group of people who you know will judge it based on the fact it’s just the seed of an idea, and not just cut it down with “yeah but it’s not finished”, and “hey that part is totally unimplemented”.

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