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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

E-commerce sites as editorial outlets

Marcelo Somers is in the process of writing a great series on e-commerce. Part 2 is called Sell the Hole, Not the Drill – A Guide to eCommerce Content Strategy:

The failure of eCommerce is that the functionality has been designed to sell, but sites have overlooked the opportunity to build relationships with their customers and genuinely make their lives better. Most online shopping engagements only make customers’ wallets lighter. […] eCommerce sites must start blurring the line between being an editorial site and a place for commerce.

I completely agree with this. I’ve written about it before, and called the approach context-based e-commerce:

[Where product-based e-commerce sees the product as the unit of measure], context-based e-commerce sees a customer’s unique situation as the unit of measure, and the user experience is built around delighting them based on who they are and how technology can help improve their lives. Quality, personal, context-based content serves as the bridge between product and customer.

How to do what you love, the right way

Every time I start a new job I take my dad to see my office. He loves seeing where I work, and I love showing him. It’s a thing. As much as I enjoy this unspoken ritual of ours, there’s always a predictable response from my dad that serves as a clear indicator of our large generation gap. At some point he’ll ask a question along the lines of, “So… no one has an office? You just sit out here in the open?” I’ve tried many times to explain the idea of co-location and collaborative work, but I don’t think it’s something that will ever compute for him.

This isn’t a criticism on how he’s used to doing things (especially if he’s reading this… Hi Dad!). But it shows how our generation’s career goals have changed from “I want the corner office!” to “I just want a space where I’m able to do good work.” We’ve mostly gotten over our obsession with the size and location of our physical workspaces. But we haven’t completely managed to let go of that corner office in our minds: the job title.

Even that’s starting to change, though. This tweet from Jack Dorsey has received over 1,700 retweets so far:

In episode 60 of Back to Work, Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discuss what they call “work as platform”. The basic idea is that we need to stop looking at work as a thing you do for a company. If you view your career like that, your success will always be linked to the success of the company, as well as your ability to survive within that particular culture. You will be at the mercy of people who are concerned about their own careers, not yours.

Instead, if you think about your work as platform, your attention starts to shift to using whatever job you are doing to develop your skills further, so that you’re never at the mercy of one company. Here’s Merlin, from about 31 minutes into that episode of Back to Work (edited down slightly):

If you think just in terms of jobs, you become a little bit short-sighted, because you tend to think in terms of, “What’s my next job?”, or “If I want good jobs in my career, what do I put on my resume?” So in terms of what you can do to make the kinds of things you want, and have the kind of career you like, I think it’s very interesting to think about what you do in terms of having a platform for what you do.

There’s always this thing about “doing what you love.” Well, doing what you love might not ever make you a nickel. And if doing what you love sucks, no one is ever going to see it, like it, and buy it, which is problematic. That’s not a branding problem, that’s a “you suck” problem. So the platform part is thinking about what you do not simply in terms of what your next job is — it’s a way of thinking about how all of the things that you do can and should and do feed into each other.

I think it’s worth giving yourself permission to take a dip into the douche-pool, and think a little bit about what platform thinking might mean to you. Because if you are just thinking about how unhappy you are with your job your horizons are going to become pretty short, and your options are going to be very limited.

So here’s how I want to pull this all together. Just like we’ve moved on from the idea that the big office is a big deal, we have to let go of the idea that a big enough title is equal to a successful career. Much more important is that we figure out what it is that we want to spend our time and attention on — and then working at our craft to make that our platform.

I was really inspired by Jason Santa Maria’s interview in The Great Discontent, in which he said the following:

One of my greatest fears is being at a big company and rising through the ranks to become a manager of people. That’s an art and there are people who are really good at energizing others and getting the best work out of them, but the thing I most enjoy is being hands-on and seeing something through to the end. I want to keep making things and not just talk about making them.

That resonates with me. It doesn’t have to resonate with you, and that’s the point. We don’t all have to follow the same path. You don’t have to run out and learn how to code. But be curious enough to find out if coding is your platform. Build your own platform, and make your own work. That’s what it means to “do what you love.”

Apple innovates, Samsung follows fast

The Economist has a fascinating piece on what makes Samsung’s strategy so effective. From Samsung: The next big bet (my emphasis added):

Samsung’s successes come from spotting areas that are small but growing fast. Ideally the area should also be capital-intensive, making it harder for rivals to keep up. Samsung tiptoes into the technology to get familiar with it, then waits for its moment.

When it pounces, the company floods the sector with cash. Moving into very high volume production as fast as possible not only gives it a price advantage over established firms, but also makes it a key customer for equipment makers. Those relationships help it stay on the leading edge from then on.

The strategy is shrewd. By buying technology rather than building it, Samsung assumes execution risk not innovation risk. It wins as a ‘fast follower’, slipstreaming in the wake of pioneers at a much larger scale of production.

This is in direct contrast to Apple’s strategy, which is to look for a mature, stale market, and then innovate to deliver a solution that’s several orders of magnitude better than what incumbents are selling.

Why online reputation systems don’t work

Josh Klein explains why reputation systems like Klout will never work in Can Reputation Come Down to a Number?:

There’s a more nuanced problem interwoven into the problem of arriving at a unified reputation system. The people who are attempting it, such as Klout and Kred, might hope to measure reputation but their algorithms, at best, track influence. The two are not equal. Influence is the ability to get others to take action, such as donating funds. But how that influence can be wielded is critical; Obama had great luck in soliciting donations using his influence, but so did Butch Cassidy. Influence is different in different contexts, and measuring only “influence” means you are judging someone’s capabilities without any of the necessary context.

Personally, I think the only online reputation system that does work is Klouchebag.

Blame the business model for the Instagram/Twitter spat

Dan Lyons gets to the heart of the Instagram/Twitter spat in Instagram Turns Evil, And It’s All Our Fault:

Companies like Twitter and Instagram (and Facebook, which owns Instagram) are set up in such a way that their interests have never been aligned with the interest of their users, but in fact are in complete opposition to them.

The only way these companies can succeed financially is by tricking members and forcing them into walled gardens. Think of it this way – there’s a reason that they don’t hold a circus out in the open, and instead put it under a tent – and it’s not to keep you dry in case of rain.

Dan is saying this is all our fault for letting these companies box us in. But really — what’s the alternative? Where’s the paid Instagram clone that has the same network effect as the free one does? This is not an easy problem to solve.

Related post from the Elezea archive: Everything for free, always: how Facebook ads show us the sad state of the Internet.

More on Android vs iOS mobile web browsing engagement

Anthony Wing Kosner wrote a very interesting analysis of Horace Dediu’s Android engagement paradox numbers, which show that although Android market share is surging, its share of mobile browsing is lagging way behind iOS. The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox is full of insights like this:

In the U.S. and many other countries, inexpensive Android devices are the replacement for the feature phones most consumers have been using. A feature phone user carries their minimal expectations with them to their new device. It turns out that just giving someone a smartphone doesn’t make them a smartphone user. They need habits of use that take advantage of the new functionality they now possess. iOS users, in contrast, are much more interested from the get-go in what their device can do, though few of us really tap anything near the full computing capacity of what we carry in our pockets.

Read The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox on Forbes.

Google wreaks havoc on our company’s calendars

We run our company on Google Apps for Business, and we’ve never had any problems. Until now. On Friday morning we came in to work to find that all our calendars are completely, utterly messed up. We lost data, ownership changed randomly, and some of us lost access to our own calendars. We’re still coming to terms with what happened, and it’s hard to explain without getting into specific detail, so I’ll just give you taste of the damage. Sorry for all the names of people you don’t know, but it’s the only way I can keep this straight:

  • My work calendar disappeared from my account, and is now owned by Chris’s personal Google Apps account.
  • I now own the Boardroom calendar, which is a resource calendar.
  • Chris’s work account now owns his personal calendar.
  • Debré’s work calendar disappeared from her account, and is now owned by Philip’s work account.
  • Philip’s personal calendar disappeared from his account, and is now owned by Angela’s work account.
  • Some events have gone completely missing from calendars — they’re just not there any more. Those events also disappeared from our clients’ calendars, which is a huge embarrassment and inconvenience because we don’t know when we’re supposed to meet with who.

And on and on it goes. Google Apps for Business promises 24/7 customer support, with a guarantee that “We’re always available to help via phone or email.” We discovered this issue on Friday morning, so I called immediately. They opened a case, I sent some screen shots, and then we waited.

Later in the day I got an email saying that “Your case will now be further analyzed by the next tier of support.” And then they went dark. I kept sending more information as we found it, but nothing happened. I phoned again on Friday evening and Saturday morning, but by then, phone support couldn’t do anything because the case was transferred to a “calendar specialist”.

On Saturday evening I received an update from Google Apps Support:

I looked at the calendars you mentioned and see the strange names that you mentioned. However, determining exactly what happened will require some in depth logs analysis. This will take some time.

And after that — nothing. Now it’s Monday morning and our ability to run our business is crippled since we don’t have access to our meeting schedule. And since we know that some events have gone missing, we can’t even trust what remains.

On the Google Apps Calendar page it says this (my emphasis added):

Google Calendar is designed for security and reliability with features like encrypted connections to Google’s servers, simultaneous replicated storage for your calendar appointments, built-in disaster recovery and fine-grained sharing, which lets you share your calendar with people in and out of your organization.

So if there’s built-in disaster recovery, why can’t they just restore our calendars to the state it was in Thursday night? Why has it been three days and we’re not getting regular updates and progress reports? Why promise 24/7 customer support if you can’t deliver it? And yes, this includes both phone and email support of their “core services”, which includes Google Calendar.

I’m writing this to hopefully accomplish three things:

  • Get some more attention on the issue so that Google can fix it and let us get on with our business.
  • Ask if anyone has experienced this problem before — if so, please get in touch.
  • Warn you about something you most likely already know: your data is not safe anywhere.

That’s the story so far. Google, please help. We just want our calendars back, and we’d love to know what happened.

Update 12/10/2012: The Internet works! On Monday evening I received a call from a senior Google Calendar employee, and he spent 30 minutes on the phone with me to help troubleshoot and get to the bottom of the issue. Our calendars aren’t fixed yet, but I’m confident that Google is now on top of it and will give us regular updates on what’s going on. At this point it looks like a 3rd party application had a sync issue with GCal, and that instigated a weird chain reaction. I’ll update again with more information once it’s all been fixed.

Update 12/12/2012: We’re mostly back up and running. It sounds like BusyCal had a conniption during one of its regular syncs, and used an API call that created the whole mess. I’m told that the API call that was used doesn’t give them much logging, so we’re not able to figure out exactly what happened. That’s too bad, but at least we’re mostly restored (still some events missing, but we’ll live with that). They ended up undeleting all events that were deleted when the issue happened. I think we could have done that on Friday, and still not sure why it took so long to sort out, but since this post went out Google became really involved and responsive, so I’m happy with that. And that, as they say, is that.

The future of online publishing

It’s an exciting time for publishing. After what feels like years of magazines and newspapers ignoring the Internet in the hope that it will go away, a new wave of innovation is happening. I wanted to share some of the content that I think provides some good context and thinking around this topic.

In one of the most important articles of 2012, Craig Mod defines a new way to deliver content called Subcompact Publishing. He starts off with an important observation:

In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It’s the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.

Craig continues with a Subcompact Manifesto. The gist is that this new type of publication is small (both in issue and file sizes), HTML(ish) based, and completely focused on portability and reader needs. But it’s important to hear Craig talk about this, so if you haven’t read his brilliant article yet, it’s a good idea to do that first before continuing.

Craig’s post prompted quite a few responses. Jason Kottke followed up with a bunch of examples of Subcompact Publishing, including three of my favourites: Evening Edition, NextDraft, and The Magazine.

Jim Ray wrote a good summary called 29th Street Publishing and the Next Wave of Digital Publishing, in which he also points to some of the challenges that exist on the publishing side to make this a reality:

Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, which is what many traditional publishers have been using to quickly put together iPad versions of their magazines, is trying to solve an impossible problem. Publishers don’t have the resources to build digital native versions of their print magazines (which still manage to be quite lucrative, btw) so they bolted some tools onto their existing workflow and shipped it. This has all happened before, of course, when these same publishers were trying to figure out how to make workflows built for printing presses talk to an FTP server.

By starting fresh, 29th Street (and other upstarts, like The Magazine) can build proper apps that readers actually enjoy, instead of just pushing out a bloated PDF of a magazine into the Newsstand app.

I linked to this a while ago, but I want to mention Ben Brown’s concept of Reader Aware Design again, because it’s very relevant to this discussion:

Enormous piles of data are being collected about our browsing habits. When do we visit? What have we visited recently? This information is squirreled away in the cloud in order to better sell us things. Instead of just handing all that data over to Google and Facebook and Twitter, sites should leverage some of it to enhance the reading experience. In addition to becoming device aware through responsive design techniques, our sites should also strive to become reader aware.

Ben did more than just write about this — he has since released Aware.js, a jQuery plugin that implements many of the features he talked about. It’s definitely worth checking out. I’m keen to play with it on this site as well.

I also like Frank Chimero’s reflections on another emerging form of publishing he calls anthologies:

I think the web is heading toward an age of anthologies, where users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume. Anthologies are distinct from remix culture, because the source material is not modified. Some of these tools will be automated like Flipboard or Facebook’s timeline, but I’m interested in the opportunities of manual tools which require our attention to pass over what we’ve saved, bookmarked, liked, hearted, and favorited on the web. The chosen material is sorted, arranged, and given edges. An anthology flies in the face of the web as it exists, simply in that one may “finish” because it “ends.” I hope we are finally admitting to ourselves that we can’t stomach as much as we thought. We’ve realized that the way to make sense of this meal is to step away from the table for a while and come back later.

Frank mentions Readability’s Readlists as an example of this. I haven’t tried Readlists because I’m still a little uncomfortable with taking other people’s work and packaging it in a way that sends very little traffic back to the original source, but maybe I’m just being old school.

Finally, on this week’s episode of 5by5′s The Crossover, Gina Trapani and Jason Snell discuss the evolution of publishing, and it’s the perfect companion to what’s been written on the topic over the past week or so.

In short, we’re about to see an influx of great ideas in the publishing industry, and for the first time in a long time, it looks like readers like us will be the real winners.

Facebook and the imperfect past

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


Eric Bellm remembers the early days of Facebook in When Facebook was Fun:

And we grew older. The guy who was your buddy in class or in the dorms moved to a different city, and you lost touch with him, except in the weird limbo of Facebook, where you remain capital-F Friends and your seven-year-old inside jokes remain preserved in digital amber. You don’t notice it, as the News Feed pushes your recent history out of sight, but who you were trying to be back then can still be found in your Timeline. What was once a means of creative expression and a connection to a living community has ossified: a hidden record of who you aspired to be, as you became who you are now instead.

Facebook Timeline is a brilliant piece of behavioral design. It encourages people to reminisce constantly about the past in a way that cuts out most of the bad and non-exciting parts. As Matt Haughey pointed out in a widely-circulated post called Why I love Twitter and barely tolerate Facebook:

At Facebook, half the people in my recent feed are defined by the university they attended, even if that was 50 years ago. Their location is mentioned in posts and prominently on their profile, as well as their entire school history. Heck, the whole notion of organization at Facebook is now defining a person as a “Timeline.” I find the new life history Timeline approach to be a way of constantly dredging up the past, to show others how it shaped this person, and it’s not necessarily the best way to define ourselves.

Jason Kottke expanded on Matt’s thoughts in Twitter is a machine for continual self-reinvention:

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one’s own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with. Twitter’s we’re-all-here-in-the-moment thing that Matt talks about is what makes it possible for people to continually reinvent themselves on Twitter. You don’t have any of that Facebook baggage, the peer pressure from a lifetime of friends, holding you back. You are who your last dozen tweets say you are. And what a feeling of freedom that is.

I find Facebook’s deliberate focus on the past such a cunning piece of design, especially since most other social networks feel more focused on what’s happening now. What’s so interesting is that your past as told by Facebook’s Timeline is only a minuscule part of the full story. Yes, there were parties, vacations, and engagements. But there was also heartache, grief, and lots and lots of plain-old boring life.

Obviously Facebook only tells the story it knows, and most of the time it only knows about your happy times. What we sometimes forget is that it’s conflict that makes the story of our life interesting. In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years Donald Miller puts it this way:

When we watch the news [and stories about violence come on], we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are in.

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that if we’re going to embrace public living (in the form of social networks) at all, we should either go all in with the full spectrum of our emotions, or rather not bother. Because if we only share a small, perfect sliver of our lives, we start to create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and the people who know us.

The best article I read about this stuff in a long time is Leah Reich’s Disconnect:

But sometimes, even now, I think about public mourning rituals. I think about how the Victorians treated grief, how publicly they wore it, how they wore rings made from the hair of their beloved deceased. I recall telling myself I could say something, I could document my grief. It was okay to make it public, even if it felt like a very wrong, obnoxious, and strange thing to do. I remember thinking I needed someone to do something, but I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to ask.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Under even the most ordinary circumstances, how difficult it is to tell people we feel awful, to ask for a little extra patience, to ask for comfort. So to reach through the emotional distance when the stakes are so much higher, when the cost of rejection is risking further isolation at a time when you are already floating on what seems like the last splinter of wood from the great wreck of your life — well, you know, maybe throwing a thing or two at the internet and seeing what sticks doesn’t seem so crazy.

Yes, I know. We’re already in a culture of over-sharing. So I’m cognisant of the fact that it’s not quite practical from information overload and audience burden perspectives for all of us to suddenly start gushing every time we’re having a rough day. So I don’t really have an answer for how this should work. But I worry that our incomplete, happy pasts will someday come back to haunt us when we realise that by ignoring hard times, we have no idea how to deal with them any more.

Responsive design is not an excuse for poor site performance

Tim Kadlec wrote a very timely post about performance and responsive design called Responsive Responsive Design. He starts off by driving home the importance of well-performing sites:

The reality is that high performance should be a requirement on any web project, not an afterthought. Poor performance has been tied to a decrease in revenue, traffic, conversions, and overall user satisfaction. Case study after case study shows that improving performance, even marginally, will impact the bottom line. The situation is no different on mobile where 71% of people say they expect sites to load as quickly or faster on their phone when compared to the desktop.

And then he breaks down one of the most prevailing and dangerous myths of responsive design:

I adamantly disagree with the belief that poor performance is inherent to responsive design. That’s not a rule – it’s a cop-out. It’s an example of blaming the technique when we should be blaming the implementation. This argument also falls flat because it ignores the fact that the trend of fat sites is increasing on the web in general. While some responsive sites are the worst offenders, it’s hardly an issue resigned to one technique.

Tim then shares some very good strategies and techniques for making sure responsive sites don’t become too bloated. Read Responsive Responsive Design.

Related post on Elezea: Why Google might just be right about responsive design in Africa.