Why We Are Building A Platform Instead Of An App

Currently I’m working with a team on an app. That is not so special. But this app is not a regular app. It is a very specific app. It’s a platform. The fact that it’s a platform is part of the solution. I’ve found that a platform is a very different way to solve a problem than a regular app.

Goalless

A platform has functions just as any app. The user can perform actions just like you can do in any app. But while the UX of most apps is aimed towards guiding the user through a series of tasks, a platform is more open. Good UX for traditional apps is about clarity, removing friction and, if you are lucky, adding some delight. The same goes for platforms but a platform doesn’t have one goal. Platforms are designed more goalless, more open, more focussed on the process, the road, than the goal. On a platform, the user can determine his or her own goal. It has rules and limitations, but the user is free to use it as he or she pleases. The designer of the platform can envision certain use cases, but actual users of the platform can use it for their own purposes. The platform has to align to the goals of the designers but these goals can be different from the users.

Don’t start with why

I remember when I read a story about the beginnings one of the most popular platforms today, Twitter, that I was struck by the fact that the founders of Twitter did not agree on the goal or purpose of the platform. Common design intelligence suggests that the more clear you are on the purpose, the better the design will be. People like Simon Sinek are promoting starting with purpose, starting with why. But the founders of Twitter did not agree on their why, just on how and what. They themselves had multiple why’s. Still it managed to become one of the most popular platforms today. It seems like different rules apply to designing platforms than for other apps. The openness, the goalless-ness, is a quality instead of a deficit.

Biases and hidden agendas

On a platform, it might seem like users can do what they want. The rules of a platform are boundaries within which is a lot of freedom. But it’s important to notice that platforms are not innocent. They have biases towards a certain type of behavior, they have their own (hidden) agendas. A platform achieves its goals indirectly. If its users are successful, the platform is not necessarily successful.

User creativity

The design is intentional, but the power lies not in the creativity of the designers, but in the creativity of the users. Users can come up with uses that the designers did not anticipate. Then it becomes the decision of the designers to accommodate this behavior or to set up barriers. There is some control, but the users together with the designers determine the nature of the platform. It’s deeply co-creative.

Open world game

I remember when I first started to design digital applications. I used a program called Director from Macromedia. It used a timeline metaphor to create apps. Hence the title Director I guess. This is the manifestation of a mental model of interaction of a user with an app. It views the interaction as a (linear) series of scenes a user navigates through. There are predefined steps to achieve a predetermined goal. There can be junctions and alternative routes, but it remains linear and with a predetermined goal. This mental model is still the dominant today. Take a look at how designers design apps and you’ll see screens in a sequence. Even a tool like a customer journey maps uses this mental model. But a platform is a different kind of beast. In video games terms, it’s more of an open world game. The story is different. Users choose their own path, deploy their own tactics. This freedom sparks creativity. In time, certain strategies will prove more successful than others and users will converge to best practices. But each user has a choice. They can use the platform in their own way, for their own goals. Platforms can also pivot if a user discovers a different use. Users can also misuse the platform. Sometimes moderation is required. For platforms the linear movie mental model doesn’t work.

The linear movie metaphor VS the open world game metaphor

What to test

I found that this has some interesting consequences. Testing for instance is totally different. In a traditional user test you want to test if a user can perform the tasks the way you designed them. You test if he can reach the predetermined goal. This also is an issue in platforms because there are certain tasks a user has to perform and they have to be clear. But the most important thing you want to test is if users are inspired, if they start developing tactics, envisioning use cases, start experimenting.

Open mind

They funny thing is that while we are working on the app, a couple of other people came up with a similar idea. Almost like something is in the air. What I see is that all these other people are creating regular apps, not platforms. This means they have predetermined processes, rules of engagement, predetermined goals. One of the problems is that all decisions are based on assumptions. A good design process with user interviews and testing can minimize the amount of assumptions but these things are all framed and thus not objective. When you ask questions from your own frame, you get feedback that is colored. Users don’t have all the answers, especially before the app is live. In making a platform we try to let go of control, to keep the process as open as possible, to be open to user behavior as much as possible. I guess these are subtle differences and it’s not all black and white but I feel the design mindset is quite different. In the first tests we did we found that the users like the openness, not being in boxes, not being told how to behave. I hope that the open mind we have while designing the platform creates the same open mindedness with the users. I think the imagination of the users about what they could do on the platform is the most important factor.

Imagination for design VS design for imagination
Designing for imagination. I quite like that idea. I find it quite liberating.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.