Nouns and Verbs in Software Development


A lot of my job feels like product therapy. Asking basic questions over and over. Reminding everyone about agreements and approach. Documenting what has changed. Asking more questions. Scanning for new signals of interest. Spinning a motivating story about what we’re doing that makes everyone want to go in a distinct direction – a direction which should feel a little unknown and yet natural.

I’m only uncomfortable in the process until I can start to get my hands around the nouns and verbs. As soon as I see them, I’ll suggest to the team that maybe these are the droids we’re looking for. Maybe our product is this noun, verbed like that. Let’s find out.

Use whatever user-centered design magic you prefer. Build mental models. Apply Luxr’s lean UX toolkit. Work Kolko’s empathic process. Collectively draft the most important user story after binging on user research. When we start looking and listening, nouns and verbs bubble up, and then we have the elements we need to start.

I don’t just mean the thing itself: the what are we making? Though I do mean that. “What are we making, exactly?” is good to ask all along. Try different team members and note how and where the answers vary. Your work is making that stereoscope actually produce a consistent vista.

Nouns and Verbs in Software Development

The first nouns & verbs are: Who are we making this for? What does she want to do? [Implied: Why does she want to do that? What feels like sunshine? What feels like crosstown traffic?]

Tighten the noun until it’s almost proper. Urban Explorers Who Brook No Uncertainty in Transportation instead of riders. If there are multiple nouns, repeat. Then have a good look at yourself and be realistic about being able to serve multiple needs. The nouns will beg for novel verbs, and trying to do too much muddies things from the start. Noun/verb overwhelm is probably a key driver for mobile unbundling strategies.

Now, make a list of verbs. Not just the things you’ve always wanted to do, or the things you know you could pull off. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Divine your verbs from the user. What do she actually talk about when she talks about the problem you want to work on? I don’t mean what features she asks for or the truism about faster horses. What’s the real issue? What is she trying to accomplish? What might she want to do but just hasn’t had the chance yet? Cut the list down to the top one or two.

Repeat the process with the thing you’re making. What are we making? Again, tighten the nouns until they have a manageable backyard. Start small because as soon as we have a verb or two, a few user types, an array of devices, all our possible contexts, and the actual world to account for, it will get so interesting it will be hard to sleep.

Try out unexpected verbs. Airbnb: Your home. Rented out like a hotel. Or take a shopworn verb and wrap it in a new experience. Snapchat: Share a photo. That vanishes.

[Do design solutions sometimes harden into nouns? My career in service companies would suggest so. I need a dot com. I need an app. I need an email campaign. A Facebook page. While true, these are still not the nouns we should steer by.]

Let’s look at the metamorphosis of Burbn into Instagram. The initial idea was to make a slightly more competitive game out of check-ins. The nouns included friends, places, check-ins, points, photos, plans. You could do a lot. Too much.

They took a look at what people were really doing with what they had built (mainly sharing photos), and focused. Instagram became a bet on simple, mobile-only photo sharing. You could take a photo, apply a filter, share it. As a viewer, you could follow people and like photos. That’s it. iOS only. No web version. They refined that simple noun and verb combination into 10 million users supported by only 5 team members, and sold it a year and a half later.

Of course, nouns and verbs evolve. A tweet was the key noun for twitter, and the technology (SMS) shaped the noun. 140 characters each, which still allowed some space for the user handle. They took that simple noun and initially allowed for lots of experimentation with verbs in the form of a liberal API and support for lots of client types and display forms.

All that activity generated new nouns and verbs that came from user behaviors: hashtags, tweetstorms, subtweets, @messages, image based text snippets.

Some of these were baked into the product, some became third party services. Some were altered by new business model demands, acquired or outlawed. The noun and verb mix has to grow, or shrink, or evolve, as more people use the product and as we adjust to all the things that brush against it.

You could probably write a quick review of pivots by focusing on the shifts in nouns and verbs. That might shed more light than the Hollywood-pitch style synopsis usually used to tell the story: Now we’re DropBox for shut-in cats.

Or I could start doing app teardowns built around noun and verb analysis. Is that interesting to you? Does this help you think about your own product work?

Revelry Labs is a digital solutions partner
with over 20 years of experience delivering technology products

Here is a small sample of our work:


More Posts by Brian Oberkirch: