Stephen P. Anderson

Jul 28, 2021

11 min read

On Generative Features

Or, the Value of ‘Underspecifying’ a Product Feature

Photo by Frank Vessia on Unsplash

Example, please?

Remember when twitter had stars?
  • to signal agreement, gratitude, laughter, support
  • to vote on things
  • to bookmark or save something for reference later
  • to attract new followers
  • as a trigger into external services like IFTTT or Zapier
  • a kind of read receipt to acknowledge replies, or to say thanks
  • for brand/testimonial curation
  • to keep track of favorite posts
  • and so on!

Why would you want to underspecify a feature?

The differences between designing for ‘paths’ vs ‘sandboxes’
Flagging topics in Slack for future discussion
Emojis for voting on categories!

First, the other extreme: Overspecifying

Generative Features (vs Specified Use Cases)

The distinction between Generative and Underspecified Features may be overthinking things, but…whatever.
Who could have predicted this!
Lost in the maze, together!
  • generative tools
  • underspecified features (that can be hacked in creative ways)
  • APIs or documented ways for those with knowledge to do creative things
  • Services such as Zapier or IFTTT that allow anyone to work with APIs
  • programming the web, itself

On the many uses of a pencil

  • you can draw with a pencil
  • you can chew on it
  • use it like a rolling pin
  • fancy a drum session, anyone?
  • roll your toothpaste tube
  • use it to make a hair bun
  • emergency chopsticks?
  • make a totem pole for ants
  • break it into pieces — make it a raft for the people who live in the cupboards
  • get all John Wick with it
  • make nunchucks by creating two bundles of pencils
  • use a pencil as an arrow
  • and so on…
  1. Web software rarely allows us to use a thing in any way beyond the intended use. Boo.
  2. We rarely design digital tools to be used in generative ways. But, we could. And that’s the point I want to make.

“Don’t see yourself as a maker of media, but as a creator of tools. The use of which you can never fully predict. There’s two ways to handle this uncertainty: one — try to eliminate any chance of people messing with it, or two — embrace this uncertainty, and leave open opportunities for new play forms.”

— Kars Alfrinck, on his stance as a designer.