Sean's Dev Blog

Why Programming Is Like Sculpting

June 24, 2020

Just as a sculpture obtains life based on how many people admire it and journey to visit it, a software product obtains life based on how many people enjoy it and how many users it has.

For a concrete example, consider ride-sharing apps. Uber and Lyft are not just apps we use to get places. They are vast, interconnected webs of machines, algorithms, engineers, and people. Their web extends beyond physical devices and takes on a pseudo-life in the fabric of human society. When an app becomes a verb, you know it has a strong foothold.

A software product is molded by its users. It is essentially a giant, collective sculpture that requires thousands or millions of users and decades of user experiences in order to improve over time. When we build our digital products and experiences, we should not forget to consider consequences that extend beyond our code. How might it affect users in a way that is not directly visible by viewing the source code, specifications, and user experience workflows? Could it have impacts for people beyond the target market?

One example of an app affecting people in a negative way is AirBnB’s impact on the short-term rental market, leading to more expensive housing costs. You don’t see a “higher rent costs over the long term” button on their website, and most people were unaware of the effect it would have. This definitely wasn’t built into the product. Most unintended “features” aren’t.

This doesn’t mean that a product can’t change with time and circumstances, gaining and shedding features alongside market forces. The most resilient products are the ones that survive the dynamic elements of the global economy.

Consider Adobe. They have been building products for creatives since 1982. Illustrator was created before many of us were born and they essentially dominate the creative industry. There are certainly some strong players in the market, but you can’t argue that Illustrator is the gold standard for vector-based graphics and illustrations.

Adobe reached this level of success because their products have taken on a life of their own. They have become living organisms whose genetic expressions are shaped by users and engineers. They are not just code, or pixels, or complex mathematical algorithms; they are much more than that. They are Possibility, and Purpose, and frameworks for Imagination. Adobe’s products stimulate and facilitate the generation of entirely new products and services outside of their target industries.

Any product can do the same, if it is designed for that purpose.

Musings on coding, UX/UI, and hacker culture

© 2020 Sean Boisselle