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Take It Away

At the Web 2.0 Summit, the founder of Blogger and Twitter discussed the advantages of putting constraints on product features.
October 18, 2007

Usually, when engineers try to make technology better, they add new features. After all, the more options a user has, the more she can do with a gadget, piece of software, or Web application. This approach is championed by Microsoft, which crams an increasing number of functions into each iteration of its operating system and Office applications.

But sometimes the most successful products have fewer features. At the Web 2.0 Summit yesterday, Evan Williams, one of the founders of Blogger and Twitter, talked about the value of keeping a product bare. Blogger came from a more complex project-management tool called Pyra. Pyra failed, but Blogger helped spur the blogging revolution. Twitter is even simpler than Blogger. It’s a microblogging tool that forces people to condense their thoughts into 140 characters, without titles or any special formatting. (For a profile of Williams, see “What Is He Doing?” For a review of microblogging services, see “Trivial Pursuits”.)

At the summit, Williams said that one of the “things we’ve learned about running Twitter … is that aggressively applying constraints could have unexpected benefits for users and yourself.”

To be sure, Williams doesn’t consider himself to be anti-feature. “Features are critical, especially as a product evolves,” he said. “But I’m also a fan of asking a different question, especially in the beginning: what can we take away to create something new?”

He gave examples of a number of successful products that followed this path. Fotolog is a photo-sharing site similar to Flickr that, due to technical limitations in the beginning, only allowed users to post one picture a day. Williams posited that one reason for Fotolog’s popularity is that the pictures were higher quality, and users commented more often. He mentioned Hot or Not, a dating site that simply posts people’s pictures and provides a yes-or-no button instead of a lengthy profile. When Facebook was first launched, he said, it resembled MySpace but was limited to a select group of people–the Harvard student body.

What other products could benefit from some constraints?

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"It was in the newspaper, but the towers fell the next day, and what I’d done was quickly lost."

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