What are you really trying to make?

After having lunch with one of my founder friends today, I was reminded about how important it is — make or break — to know what you’re final goal is when you’re designing, and how much it can make or break your company.


One of the questions I ask every time I start working on a new project, or with a new company, is: “What are you trying to make?”

You’d be amazed how often they don’t have an answer. They get a quizzical look on their face, pause for a few seconds, and say, “what do you mean?”


The question is harder than it sounds. If you’re not saying “no” to most ideas, then you don’t know what you’re building.

“Money” is the same as no answer. A billion things can make money. It doesn’t allow you to say no to anything.

The next-worst answer starts with the words, “we want to make the best…” and ends with “in the world.” Everything in the middle is usually something that many companies have done before.

Why is that a bad answer? Because they are hiding behind “the best” and 9 times out of ten, they can’t tell me why theirs will be better than anyone elses. So there is no plan.

The most common bad answer is to describe what you have already built. If the people at Facebook still think they are building a “social utility” then they have no plan. If the people at Google think they are building “the best search engine in the world,” they have no plan. 

Why? Because they already built that. (I suspect that they have a better answer.)

There are companies that have great answers to “what are you trying to make?” but not very many.

If you can’t tell me what you will have made 10 years from now, and why that is needed in the world, then you don’t have a goal. And if you don’t have a goal, you are just wasting time, and money, until you fail.


It’s better to build nothing than to build something nobody needs.

As a senior UX person, I get into a lot of conversations about new product ideas. Since I started my career in agencies, where you have to say “yes” to whatever idea the client has, my first instinct is not to shoot down ideas. My first instinct is to think about how to do them well. 

That’s why I want to know what the idea is… judging “ideas” is often a waste of time. Only execution can be judged… not the idea. But the space between an idea and execution must be filled with a plan.

I have seen a location-based app where everybody in the app gets notified when anybody on their list comes within a certain distance of them, and people earn points for meeting each other. When I asked “what are you trying to make?” the creator of that app had no idea what this app would become. He just imagined that the benefits were obvious. 10 years from now, his app was just going to be… whatever he builds in the next 10 years.

A few days later, I got an email saying that he couldn’t stop thinking about what his app should become, and decided to scrap it and work on a better idea that he had in his backlog, which had a more promising future.

All from one simple question.

I have seen an app that shows you deals on products and services you may or may not be interested in. When I asked what they were trying to make, they said “the best deals app in the world.” So… they didn’t have an answer. I pointed out that the ideal user of such an app would be very irresponsible with their money, which would create a worse world, not better.

After a few weeks of discussion, they started to imagine a future where brand loyalty was recognized and customer appreciation was more than just deals… and that took their idea in a whole new direction.

All from one simple question.


The best companies in the world know what they are trying to make.

You don’t have to ask AirBnB what they are trying to make. They say it all the time. The talk about things like “a way to rent your spare room,” and “the sharing economy,” and “a place to belong.”

So when someone at AirBnB has an idea that isn’t on the road to those goals, it is easy to say no and keep focus on the right stuff.

Nobody ever had to ask Steve Jobs what Apple was trying to make. It was usually the first thing he talked about. “A computer in every home,” or “a bicycle for your mind,” or “graphics so good you want to lick them.”

So when someone at Apple wants to do something that isn’t on that path, the goals are why you say “no”.

And the founder friend I had lunch with the other day could tell me exactly what his company was going to have made in 10 years. And it was good. It made sense, it is needed, and it would be an improvement on the world we have today.

So… what are you really trying to make?