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Author's profile photo Birgit Starmanns

Random Thought #426: What’s a Widget?

Company A produces widgets. Then Company B invented a new and improved widget. You work for Company A’s marketing department. What do you do?

Feel like you’re reading one of your old business school case studies? Or are you reading the latest blog on a new technology tool?

The term “widget” used to mean a generic product; Merriam-Webster defines a widget as “an unnamed article considered for purposes of hypothetical example.” It sounded better to manufacture a widget instead of a “doo-hickey.” The benefit was that you could focus on the issues at hand, and didn’t need to waste any time being creative.

Lesson 1: widget A is not the same as widget B. Sometimes you need to be more specific.

Enter the industry focus. The business issues of manufacturing “a thing you put into a box,” versus “some stuff that flows through pipes,” were not always transferrable. As a consultant back in the ’90s, I attended a demo of SAP’s product costing functionality to a chemical company. The example used – was golf clubs. The executives got it. The plant line managers asked themselves, “Can I even use this software to manage the <<em>name a specific chemical> flowing through my pipes?” (By the way, yes, you can.)

Lesson 2: be creative!

Enter Web 2.0. A widget is no longer an example object. A widget is now a small web applet, which users can choose to customize their desktop or various Web home pages. TechTerms.com defines it as “a small program run by the Mac OS-X Dashboard or the Yahoo! Widget Engine.” (By the way, they offer a Mac-based Tech Terms Computer Dictionary Widget that allows you to look up terms – including the term “widget.”) While the actual definition is already a little dated – and too specific to a platform – it does show that “widget” is no longer the best way to refer to a “thing-a-ma-jig.”

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Getting away from generic examples has other benefits. In addition to being more specific, you can also have fun with your examples by relating them to the everyday world. Meaning that in my blogs, you may just continue to read about lemonade stands, fire engine hats, and some other unlikely, well, widgets.

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