Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Tom Chatfield looks at the meaning and value of our time and attention in What is the real cost of your online attention? He makes the point that we are now all amateur attention economists who have to make increasingly complex decisions about how we spend our time:
We watch a 30-second ad in exchange for a video; we solicit a friend’s endorsement; we freely pour sentence after sentence, hour after hour, into status updates and stock responses. None of this depletes our bank balances. Yet its cumulative cost, while hard to quantify, affects many of those things we hope to put at the heart of a happy life: rich relationships, rewarding leisure, meaningful work, peace of mind.
What kind of attention do we deserve from those around us, or owe to them in return? What kind of attention do we ourselves deserve, or need, if we are to be ‘us’ in the fullest possible sense? These aren’t questions that even the most finely tuned popularity contest can resolve. Yet, if contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap.
Tom Simonite wrote a very interesting investigative piece called The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It:
Wikipedia’s community built a system and resource unique in the history of civilization. It proved a worthy, perhaps fatal, match for conventional ways of building encyclopedias. But that community also constructed barriers that deter the newcomers needed to finish the job. Perhaps it was too much to expect that a crowd of Internet strangers would truly democratize knowledge. Today’s Wikipedia, even with its middling quality and poor representation of the world’s diversity, could be the best encyclopedia we will get.
The article also reminds me of one of the best episodes of Hypercritical ever, called Marked for Deletion. John Siracusa goes into a highly entertaining and informative tirade about the problems with Wikipedia, which is well worth the listen.
Jonathan Franzen wrote a Guardian piece on what’s wrong with the modern world. It’s long and dense and sometimes requires multiple re-readings to figure out what’s going on, but he gives us much to think about. Let’s just say that he’s not a fan of what technology is doing to us:
One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate — to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking.
He also has some harsh words for Amazon:
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
And that’s all I’ll quote from the article, in the hopes of piquing your interest to read the whole thing.
Derek Powazek makes the case that Twitter is an Argument Machine:
I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.
He also makes some interesting suggestions for how Twitter could be designed differently to prevent arguments from getting out of control. This does remind me of something I observed a while ago after getting mauled by the Argument Machine…
I’m pretty sure no one emerges at the other side of a Twitter debate going, “Man, I’m really glad I did that.”— Rian van der Merwe (@RianVDM) February 7, 2013
This puts Microsoft in a tight spot. Apple gives away software for free in exchange for your buying their hardware. This is not charity. It’s also in marked contrast to Google, who gives away software for free in exchange for selling your attention (and personal information) to advertisers. Apple and Google are squeezing Microsoft from both sides, and the result is that less and less perceived value in the industry resides solely in software. You can make money selling hardware (like Apple) or make money selling ads (like Google), but given the popularity of Apple’s hardware and Google’s apps and services, it’s getting harder for Microsoft to make money by selling software.
John Moltz in Rudderless Microsoft:
I don’t think Microsoft is going anywhere. I mean that in two ways: 1) I mean they’re not going away and 2) right now they’re not going where the puck is going. They’re sailing somewhat aimlessly though increasingly margin-less waters. And the degree to which Microsoft’s investors, boosters and followers are OK with that is rather baffling.
It’s hard to write about Microsoft. If you think they’re doing great things you get ridicule from the Apple side. If you think they’re headed for disaster you’re labeled as a brainwashed fanboy. As with most things, the truth is more likely somewhere in the middle. But even the most die-hard Microsoft fan has to admit that Microsoft has been painted into a corner:
- By making OS X 10.9 and its core apps free, Apple is creating an expectation that all operating systems should be free. It doesn’t matter that fewer computers run OS X — it’s about the precedent and how that affects consumer expectations.
- By making services like Gmail and Docs “free”1, and by continuing to reduce the feature set gaps between those services and Microsoft Office, Google is forcing users to ask tough questions about the software they’re using, and why they’re paying so much for it. When authors like Charles Stross start taking on industry conventions by writing Why Microsoft Word must Die, you need to realise that your product is walking very close to the edge of a tipping point.
And yet, Microsoft appears to be doubling down on what are their two biggest strategic mistakes.
First, they’re not owning the whole hardware/software supply chain. Reading Gartner’s advice to Apple in 2006 is almost funny now in how wrong it ended up being:
Increasing component costs and pressure to cut its prices mean Apple’s best bet for long-term success is to quit the hardware business and license the Mac to Dell, analyst firm Gartner claimed on Tuesday.
The point is simple: if Microsoft can’t make money on PC hardware (which they can’t), they need to make money on the software. But that gets very hard when the “free” options become more and more appealing. Yes, most organizations still rely on Exchange for their mail and calendars. But how long can that last when employees all switch to Gmail and can’t shut up about how horrible Outlook is? RIM thought they had the enterprise market locked up because they controlled IT managers. How did that work out for them once employees starting rushing the IT castle, demanding support for their iPhones?
Second, Microsoft is sticking with their “You don’t have to compromise!” philosophy. Does Surface run a a desktop OS, or a tablet OS? Neither, and both! And that is a huge problem. By not making “compromises” they’re actually compromising way too much. Perhaps Doug Bowman summed it up best:
@gruber On the C word. Someone recently put it to me that all design is a series of compromises; but good design finds the right ones.— Doug Bowman (@stop) February 6, 2013
Trying to use a desktop OS on a tablet isn’t “no compromise”, it’s utter frustration, and it doesn’t look like Microsoft is planning to stop doing that any time soon. From Engadget’s Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review:
As a tablet, the Surface Pro has made fewer strides. And that’s a shame, since the Pro is, at its heart, a tablet. [...] The new Pro is much improved, but it’s still at its best in notebook mode. Indeed, whoever buys this needs to want a tablet and laptop in more or less equal measure. Because if what you really want is a laptop you can occasionally use as a tablet, you’re still better off with a convertible Ultrabook.
This inability to compromise has always been a problem for Microsoft. Back in 2006 Microsoft gave us a look at the most-used features in Word 2003, and it includes this paragrah:
Beyond the top 10 commands or so, however, the curve flattens out considerably. The percentage difference in usage between the #100 command (“Accept Change”) and the #400 command (“Reset Picture”) is about the same in difference between #1 and #11 (“Change Font Size”) This is what makes creating the new UI challenging — people really do use a lot of the breadth of Office and beyond the top 10 commands there are a lot of different ways of using the product.
Apple would look at that data and say, “let’s cut the bottom 200 commands.” Microsoft looked at it and said, “We’re going to need a bigger ribbon.”2
In short, what Microsoft needs most now is a leader who knows how to make the right compromises. It needs someone who can figure out how to bring the success of the Xbox integrated business (oh look, they make the hardware and the software for that!) to the rest of the company.
Nicholas Carr wrote a really interesting article on the dangers of computer automation. In All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines he weaves together stories about airline crashes and Inuit hunters to make salient points like this:
Psychologists have found that when we work with computers, we often fall victim to two cognitive ailments — complacency and bias — that can undercut our performance and lead to mistakes. Automation complacency occurs when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. Confident that the machine will work flawlessly and handle any problem that crops up, we allow our attention to drift. We become disengaged from our work, and our awareness of what’s going on around us fades. Automation bias occurs when we place too much faith in the accuracy of the information coming through our monitors. Our trust in the software becomes so strong that we ignore or discount other information sources, including our own eyes and ears. When a computer provides incorrect or insufficient data, we remain oblivious to the error.
Carr goes to great lengths to make the argument that the automation of tasks is slowly robbing us of the ability to learn new skills. It is, in some ways, a more nuanced argument than his famous 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? It’s well worth reading — even if you’re skeptical of this argument, it will definitely make you think.
The importance of research and participatory design appears to be kind of a theme on the site this week. I just keep running into articles like Sven Torfinn’s How teachers in Africa are failed by mobile learning. He discusses how leaving teachers out of the design process is a big risk:
My concern is that some people use the problems with education systems to justify excluding teachers from the design and development of mobile learning interventions. Teachers’ voices are marginalised. And mobile operators association GSMA (to take just one example) characterises the teaching profession in a way that divorces it from progress and innovation.
The difficulties teachers face are used as a starting point for criticism, rather than as a motivation to address systemic issues. […] It is a mistake to run down teachers’ professionalism to justify technology use in education.
The London International Development Centre puts it this way in Why mobile learning on its own won’t solve the access problem:
We need to move away from the notion that simply because mobile phones are the most available technology to those in the majority world that somehow they will in and of themselves lead to developmental learning. A more sustainable approach is to work within the formal education system, in particular to build the capacity of teachers and practitioners to design and develop mobile learning interventions in country. Only then will they be useful to those whose capability development they aim to support.
If One Laptop per Child taught us anything, it’s the dangers of designing technology without a proper understanding of the context of use. The same goes for the push into mobile education (and mobile anything, for that matter).
About a year ago Chris Dixon wrote a great post called Some problems are so hard they need to be solved piece by piece. It was based on an old Andrew Parker post The Spawn of craigslist about how Craigslist is getting beaten not by another similar company, but by niche startups going after their business piece by piece. Chris writes:
Startups that have tried to go head-to-head against the entirety of Craigslist (the “horizontal approach”) have struggled. Startups that have tried to go up against pieces of Craigslist (the “vertical approach”) have been much more successful (e.g. StubHub, AirBnB).
Andrew’s chart got me thinking about Facebook, and it looks like something similar is happening in the social media space. There are, of course, many ways to cut this, but here’s a possible view of some of the startups and companies that are going after different pieces of Facebook:
A few thoughts on this:
- Messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, and Viber are not just replacing 1:1 messaging, but group messaging as well. In fact, I keep hearing stories of people saying that WhatsApp has replaced Facebook entirely for them. They just create specific interest groups on WhatsApp and share photos and updates that way.
- Private social networks like EveryMe and Path might appear to be dead, but they’re sleeping giants. For those who want a little bit more than what WhatsApp can offer, Path is the perfect replacement to cut down on cruft while maintaining a small, meaningful network in an environment that’s designed to share everyday experiences. There’s no pressure to only share smart/funny/happy things, like there is on Facebook. Sharing what you’re eating for lunch is ok, because on Path you only connect with people who care about that stuff. It’s more about growing real-life relationships than maintaining virtual ones.
- Photos are moving to Instagram more and more (and don’t count out products like Flickr and VSCOcam’s grid). Of course, Facebook now owns Instagram, which looks like a great decision more and more every day.
- Glassboard remains small, but appears to be the preferred business version of Path, especially at industry conferences.
- The spread of links is more difficult to pin down, since they’re shared in so many different ways. I put a Twitter logo on the chart above, but I think what we’re seeing is more of a trickle down from one network to the next, something like this:
Things worth knowing about start on sites like 9gag and 4chan (and others that I’m not brave enough to visit), as well as RSS feeds (yep, not dead yet). From there it spreads to reddit, where the best stuff goes on to Twitter. Eventually — usually about 2 weeks later — a few of the best memes find their way all the way to Facebook.
The question is, what happens when people start moving up this funnel, away from Facebook to Twitter, to reddit, or even further? Then they won’t need Facebook to find interesting links any more, because Facebook is basically just a filter for links you can find sooner elsewhere.
But that’s not the only scary part. Here’s the other interesting thing. When you take away all the things on Facebook that can possibly replaced by niche products, you’re left with this:
Apps, and ads.
How long can a company sustain itself with that type of content?
Facebook is in a classic position where, as a dominant provider of horizontal social services, it is in danger of being taken down piece by piece by several vertical players who provide specific, narrow experiences very well. Facebook has become a social media firehose. It won’t be replaced by another firehose, but by a bunch of different cocktails that users can customize as they please.
Getting feedback is an essential component of good design. No matter how smart we are, we are going to get too invested in our solutions, and we need the help of knowledgeable outsiders to nudge us in the right direction. The problem is that feedback sessions can get out of hand quickly, because we’re just not very good at providing (or receiving) feedback. We are prone to seeing the negative parts of someone’s ideas first, so we often jump straight into the teardown. This puts the person who is presenting their designs in defensive mode right away, which usually starts a negative spiral into unhelpful arguments and distrust.
There is, however, a better way. In an interview on criticism and judgment, French philosopher Michel Foucault once laid out the purpose of any good critique. In his view, criticism should be focused not on what doesn’t work, but on how one can build on the ideas of others to make it better:
I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would fight fires, watch grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.
Keeping this purpose in mind, I particularly like the process used by Jared Spool and his team at UIE. The team uses this specifically for design critiques, but it can be applied generically to any kind of feedback session. Here’s how the process works:
- The person presenting their idea/work describes the problem they are trying to solve. If everyone agrees on the problem, the team moves on. However, if there isn’t agreement on the problem that is being solved, some discussion is needed to clarify. Hopefully this step isn’t needed, though.
- Next, the presenter communicates their idea or shows their work to the team. The goal is not only to show the finished product, but to explain the thought process behind the idea or deliverable. The presenter should remain focused on how the idea will solve the problem that everyone agreed on.
- The first step in the feedback is for the people in the room to point out what they like about the idea. This isn’t a gimmick to set up the “crap sandwich” method (you know — start and end with something positive, eviscerate in the middle). Instead, this step helps to highlight what direction is desirable as a solution to the problem.
- Critique follows as the next step, not as direct attacks or phrases such as “I don’t like…”, but as questions about the idea. Team members ask if a different solution was considered, what the reason was for a particular choice, etc. This gives the presenter a chance to respond if they’ve thought through the issue already, or else, make a note to address the issue for the next iteration.
- At the end of the meeting, the team reviews the notes — especially what everyone liked, and what questions they had. The presenter then goes away to work on the next iteration of the idea.
Let’s not forget that as designers we are responsible for making sure feedback sessions happen, and that they happen in a respectful and useful way. Scott Berkun has a great set of ground rules about critiques that are worth remembering:
- Take control of the feedback process. Feedback is something that you should make happen, because that’s how it happens on your terms and in a way that improves the product. If you just wait for feedback to happen to you, it’s going to happen in meetings where you’re not prepared, you’ll be on the defensive, and the focus will shift off product to politics.
- Pick your partners. Some people are better at giving feedback than others. Find feedback partners who have the relevant experience you need to make the product better.
- Strive to hear it all, informally and early. Don’t wait until the product is nearly finished before you get feedback. Discuss ideas, concepts, and sketches way before you discuss comps and working code.
If we change our approach to provide critique, not criticism, we’ll be able to build on the best ideas of others, and iterate faster to better products. So remember: design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.
Amen to everything in Mona Patel’s article The Lean Agency:
While being lean is awesome, being innovative means that spending time and money on smart research and devoting ample time to thinking through the problem space can sometimes mean the difference between a good design and a great design. Our focus is not just on making something usable, but on creating value for a business and really impacting people’s lives.
And a double Amen to this:
Yes, agencies typically end engagements with deliverables. But, we don’t charge our clients just for the deliverables. We charge them for the value that we provide and the objective insights, fresh perspectives, and innovative solutions that we offer. We provide an innovative vision for an exceptional user experience in the form of an artifact, or deliverable. The presentation of our insights and recommendations in a solid deliverable can often be the tipping point for organizations seeking to change their product or experience for the better.
This is how we work at Flow as well. And especially since we started using Expanded User Journey Maps, good deliverables have become the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project.