Borrowing Design Elements
I once took a fiction writing class taught by an author named Adam Johnson (who is quite talented). He talked about how he borrows techniques from his favorite works and authors. He never borrows just the superficial layer… in other words, he’d never steal an analogy directly or borrow a character completely. Instead, he tries to look down a layer or two under the onion of fiction and figure out why he really likes an analogy or a character and then borrow that instead. He ends up borrowing a character arc instead of the character wholesale… or borrowing a plot device instead of an event from his favorite plot.
How does this relate to web services (the perpetual topic of this blog)? I see more and more startups lately borrowing the superficial layer of other services. Borrowing from success is perfectly fine, but I wish those that borrow would move down a layer, like Adam Johnson did.
For example, many startups are including badges in their service. Foursquare certainly wasn’t the first web company to offer badges, but it does feel like many services employing this feature are directly inspired by Foursquare. A badge is just one example of a game mechanic, which I’d argue is the underlying layer here. The implementation Foursquare developed is native to Foursquare, and it can’t be ripped out and stuck in elsewhere without dragging the context along with it. I encourage everyone to incorporate game mechanics in their startups (and I can now point people to a killer post on executing game mechanics, written by my friend Phin over at FRC). Game mechanics are great for a variety of purposes: creating delight, reducing friction for rote actions, motivating data contribution, etc… but, taking the badge execution that worked for Foursquare wholesale feels a bit too direct in borrowing.
I don’t want to get stuck in the details of this example… and there are other companies that do the badges idea quite well and natively to their service. The key message is to think about what tactics other companies are employing successfully and why they are successful, rather than just borrowing features without going through this thought exercise first.
Slightly related: I once drove past a spray-painted wall in Berkeley that read: “Creativity is Undetected Plagiarism.” It’s a pessimistic message, but has echoes of truth.