Home > plinky, work > The Empty Box Problem

The Empty Box Problem

In 2008 I left Adaptive Path to help Jason Shellen design and build Plinky. As our launch approached, a few people have asked me what I’m trying to accomplish with this little web app we’ve built. My answer is that we’ve got a few goals. But mostly, I wanted to try and solve what I call the Empty Box Problem.

To me, the modern web feels like a collection of empty boxes:

“Write a blog post – here’s an empty box.”
“A comment? Have an empty box.”
“A status message? An email? A tag? Your box, sir or madam.”

For writers with plenty to say, the empty box is no real obstacle… most of the time. I’m of the opinion, however, that there are a wealth of people who don’t write as much as they’d like, or at all. Perhaps they’ve hit a creative rut, or they are stymied by the complexity of even the simplest of blogging services. In designing Plinky, I was attempting to help writers get over this hump by providing the inspiration and motivation to create content.

The idea was to give people a prompt to respond to (a question, challenge, or poll of some kind). The Plinky team wanted to switch up how content generation is elicited, and see what impact it could have on those who wanted to share their voice online, but maybe needed more impetus to do so.

When we did our initial test run back in November, we found that prompts and answers are weirdly social – people have a really strong interest in how friends and strangers responded to the same prompt they did. Our preview audience made a list of demands: reduce steps here, make this thing over here more straightforward, and absolutely make it easier to see what other people are doing.

This proved a challenge, because our emphasis was always on production, rather than consumption. This is evident in the logged in user home page – where many dashboards are moving towards activity streams, we want to keep the emphasis on the day’s fresh prompt, and encouraging users to respond to it.

Exposing more of the activity on the site will be part of Plinky’s evolution – which I already know will be significant. There are a ton of things I want to do, even before people’s feature requests start coming. Encouraging users to create more by giving them informatics of their own writing behaviors, harnessing group behaviors, integrating with more services – there are many potential directions to explore, and I’m really looking forward to the challenges involved with bringing them to Plinky.


Building Plinky, and working with this team, has been a fantastic experience. I’m hoping our hard work shows through in what we’ve launched today, and that people are down to see where we can take this new idea.

Categories: plinky, work
  1. Alexa
    January 22, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I love it! What a great motivational problem to tackle. It was so easy to engage with, I can see this really taking off. The only problem I foresee is Plinky Addiction. It’s like those “Ultimate Surveys” friends and I used to email back and forth all the time. I’d just love to see what my brother would have written…

  2. pleasewashhands
    January 22, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I’m sad that I must confront an empty box at the end of this post to leave a comment. Cool concept.

  3. January 29, 2009 at 3:22 am

    Howdy, I just discovered Plinky and am imbibing somewhat hourly.

    One suggestion: I’d like to be able to add a photo from Flickr on EVERY question. I want the choice, you know?

    Could you work on that? Please? Pretty please?

    Thanks in advance.

  4. January 29, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Absolutely – it’s already in the works. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. February 2, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Thank you so much for Plinky. I love being prodded to not only blog every day but being handed a topic, even if I don’t stay exactly on the suggested subject. Great work and keep it up!

  6. Destini
    March 3, 2009 at 6:54 am

    First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!

    Are you tension? panic?

  7. corfubob
    March 4, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    My problem after only a couple months’ blogging is choosing a subject from too many I want to go with. I like the focus of this idea of yours, and being able to see the variety of responses that come out. Wonderful idea, unbelievable potential. Bob

  1. February 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm

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