What does “Out of the Box” mean?

Posted On: March 20, 2018

Some years ago I was taken by surprise when asked “What does ‘out of the box’ mean?” during the course Business English Seminar. Initially, I thought this phrase only had one meaning. I am happy to say that I was mistaken!

What does “Out of the Box” mean?


Meaning 1: No Changes, Can Be Used As Is Immediately 

One of the software engineers raised her hand and said, “For us, “out of the box” means to use software without customizing it.”

Possibly, for this first definition, we can expand the phrase to “out of the box feature” or “out of the box software.” This means using a product as soon as you get it, straight off the shelf, without making any changes.


Because I was learning this meaning for the first time, it took me off guard. I was excited to learn this new way to use this phrase, exclaiming to the participants, “I like it!” I said, “Let’s add this to the list of meanings for this idiom. However, there is another meaning to this you may encounter when talking with American clients… anyone have any guesses?”


What does "Out of the Box" mean?


Meaning 2: To Make Changes, Creative Thinking Is Needed
Though I provide training to those in the software industry, I have no formal education in the software industry. Due to this, learning this meaning took me off guard. Interestingly, I can say that I had to “think out of the box” to know that “out of the box” had a totally unexpected, and seemingly contradictory meaning.

This not only demonstrates how diverse our language can be as the same phrase essentially has an opposite meaning depending on context – requiring no creative thinking or a no-brainer approach (the out-of-the-box software) compared to “out of the box thinking” which suggests coming up with alternatives, new ideas, and new approaches. Essentially, the meaning I was getting to was, “thinking beyond, thinking creatively, thinking outside the parameters of the given instructions, maybe even thinking about how to customize or tweak something to personalize it for a business or an individual.”


Possibly, here, we can expand the phrase to “out of the box thinking” or “thinking outside the box.”


Let’s look at some dictionary definitions of “out of the box”

Out of the box (feature) 

An out-of-the-box feature or functionality (also called OOTB or off the shelf), particularly in software, is a feature or functionality of a product that works immediately after or even without any special installation without any configuration or modification. It also means that it is available for all users by default, and are not required to pay additionally to use those features, or needs to be configured. (source: Wikipedia) 

Used to refer to the immediate usability or functionality of a newly purchased product, typically an electronic device or a piece of software. 

  • ‘most laptops come with wireless capability out of the box’ 
  • ‘console games need to be good to go right out of the box’ 
  • ‘the product is designed as an out-of-the-box portal for the medium to large enterprise’ (Oxford Dictionary


Out of the box [thinking] / To think outside the box 

To think outside the box is to look further and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them. (Wikipedia) 

Read another, more philosophical view of this phrase at Desi Highway.

Here are some out of the box networking examples to build your career!

Examples of “Out of the box” everyday conversation

Software without a change

Software which is not customized is "out of the box"
“Using our software is a no-brainer.
You can use it right out of
the box. Easy set up, easy to go!”

“We have a solution for you that you can use right out of the box! It’s easy, no customizations are needed, you can download it and log in immediately, and it’s affordable!”


Consumer product review
When I was reading reviews on hiking boots, I came across this opinion, “You can solve this by upgrading the laces and taking care when tightening, but it’s not something you should have to deal with out of the box.”


Reviewers also wrote this about another boot, “It’s well built, extremely comfortable right out of the box, and can handle just about anything you can throw at it.”



Out of the box (thinking) 
“We have tried all the usual solutions. Anyone have any out of the box ideas?”
“Team, thinking outside the box is important to not repeating the mistakes we made in the past! Let’s put our heads together to come up with some creative ideas.”



When researching this phrase, I uncovered even more meanings in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. My best advice would be to listen to the entire context of the conversation before participating in the conversation.


Author, Jennifer Kumar provides learning training solutions to build virtual, international teams, including preparing your team to drive client meetings with US based stakeholders with minimal manager involvement.


image credit: both from pixabay, feature image, SHVETS at pexels


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