Making a product better can make it worse

The principle of the Uncarved Block in Taoist tradition says that “things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.”

In a world of blitzscaling, continuous innovation, and an infinite march of new features, it’s hard to advocate for doing less. Of course, there are business reasons to continue evolving a product but it’s a good idea to at least be aware of principles that have survived millennia. After all, there are a million ways to build a product so we need to be thoughtful about it, not simply following the trends.

“It’s possible to make a product worse, even when trying to make it better.”

The app that brought this to mind is OmmWriter, a distraction-free writing app that was part of a Cambrian explosion of distraction-free writing apps in the late ’00’s. I re-downloaded it yesterday for the first time in 9 years and found it was nearly exactly how I remembered it! It was like returning to your childhood neighbourhood and seeing that everything you loved was still there.

This was in stark contrast with it’s peers which had added dozens of features and become closer to word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs. They’d become what they set out to change! Not only that, but they put themselves in the ring with those goliaths to fight in that weight class.

Meanwhile, OmmWriter kept it’s original simplicity — no headings, no markdown, no links, no images, nothing — and found it’s “natural power.” When you read the comments from reviews and YouTube videos about OmmWriter you find unanimous praise. They talk about loving the serene backgrounds, meditative music, and gentle keyboard sound effects. Over a million people have used it. OmmWriter focused on the person writing, not the tool, and they connected with people on a deeper level.

“Product advice should be treated like life advice: something to consider but not follow blindly”

In product management as in life, people will have many opinions on what you should do. Most people don’t know who you are or who you’re becoming so product advice should be treated like life advice: something to consider but not follow blindly.

Applying thousands year old Taoist principles to products might seem strange — of course a product is not a person — but we bring inanimate objects into our emotional lives all the time (from blankets and stuffed animals as children to cars and phones as adults). The best Product Managers understand the products we use are extensions of who we are and who we want to become. They understand the nature of a product speaks to the nature of the people who use it, and a deep understanding of one helps build the other.

Epilogue

The last non-bug fix release of OmmWriter was 3 years ago. It’s not clear if it’s still being actively worked on (I have an email out to herraizsoto, the company that makes it to ask). They’re a design agency and OmmWriter was never their primary focus so it could just be on the backburner. I hope they keep it going because it’s something special. That said, a great product can’t survive without a sustainable business model, and OmmWriter’s “pay-what-you-can” pricing and non-subscription model makes it hard for their biggest fans to keep supporting the project. If it did go away, there would be a lesson to be learned somewhere in there.

There is no shortage of posts about the “science” of product management (i.e. the tactics, frameworks, etc.). What’s not as well-documented is the “art” of product management (i.e. the emotion, intuition, and creativity) and connecting to that to build more meaningful products for people and, as a result, more successful ones.

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Mark Rabo

Mark Rabo

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Creator of Revere, an app for remembering people. Director of Product and interested in the human side of technology // revereapp.com