The Empty Box

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Sarah Drasner on (Updated on )

When I was in high school, we learned about “The Black Box” which is concept in theater. If memory serves me right, the approach was a simple and elegant one: that you can take any space, any black box, and make it come to life with a story. I liked the idea that it’s possible to convey anything, tell any story, and create any reality — all in the confines of what equates to a black box, a simple room that requires a curtain and very little else.

It’s an exciting concept. You see something extremely polished like a studio-produced movie. One might think, “No way I could do that.” All the scripts, the actors, the production, animation, set, props, everything. Where do you even begin?

But looking at things through The Black Box model, we distill the movie down to its essence, the story. We can see it as some folks telling a story in a stark, empty room. Take Thor: Ragnarok, a movie I really enjoy. It has incredible special effects, bits of humor, tension, relationships and stories that are well told. Sibling rivalry? Most of us know of or have seen something like that. Someone confronting you and you’d like to escape? We have all likely dealt with a challenge like that.

Those are the stories. The special effects and polished production? Those merely dress up the stories but aren’t necessary to convey the story. But still, how do you get from a black box to a large scale production?

Or, put in a different context: how do we get from an idea to a full-fledged website or app? You see all of these incredible sites around you and could easily fall into a trap of thinking anything you put out needs to meet the same scale and production. But let’s pull the curtain back on that and play with the idea that…

Apps are the box

Programmers are literal creatures, so instead of a “black box,” which has different connotations in tech, I’ll switch it up and call it an “empty box” — even though that also has roots in other metaphors, such as a the “tabula rasa” (clean slate) in art, which is a very similar concept.

If you look at an apps like Notion, Airbnb, or Etsy as newcomers to the industry, the yes, it might seem impossible how you might get from learning basic CRUD operations to working on an application at the same scale, state and complexity as those apps. But what happens if we flip the script? Instead of thinking about building the entire universe from scratch, maybe we start with an empty box, one that only holds the core use case or problem that’s being solved. We can decide what we’re going to create with this small bit of space we have in the world.

It’s a nice way to dial back the scope. Of course, people might use our sites in myriad ways, but when you peel back every usage, every feature, and compare what else is out there, what is the purpose? Sometimes we work at big companies with lots of competing priorities — so many that if you ask different folks, you’ll likely get a wide range of answers. And certainly any app with any level of complexity has to cater to many user needs.

However, I wonder if it might serve us to be able to answer that question with clarity. Particularly when we’re just starting out.

You have an empty box. What can you build in that space? You can engage people all around the world instantly in any way. You can create any interaction. What is that interaction and what is it trying to convey? What is going to make it relatable? What’s going to get the message across?

Forget about all the production and complexity you could build. What’s the purpose you want to convey at the core? What are you most excited about? What’s the solution to the problem right in front of you?