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

Looper, UI design, and capability vs style

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw Looper last night. It is, of course, as brilliant as everyone says it is. After watching the movie I went back to all my Instapaper’d articles about it, and my favorite so far is an interview with the director called Noir to near-future: ‘Looper’ director Rian Johnson talks sci-fi, Twitter, and the fate of film. This answer, in particular, jumped out at me (my emphasis added):

The minute you say “science fiction,” the question of world creation comes up. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing?

No, that was the production designer. When I was writing I was really just disciplining myself to focus on getting the narrative as tight as possible. To tighten the screws on everything, and to make sure that it ticked and that it ran from start to finish and that it had a solid spine.

And so I was focused on that and I wasn’t even thinking about the world-building elements at all. Which I think was good because it meant the designers and I just worked together. Every design decision, it wasn’t preconceived, it came out of the needs of the story. And so making the world seem like such a desperate place was a way of accentuating that feeling of “you better hold on to your slice of the pie, or else it’s destitution,” you know?

I love that approach, and I think we need more of it in web design as well. Start with the story — the core functionality of the product. Then look at that functionality, and only add the “production value” (styling) that will help tell that story. Nothing more.

It reminds me of a point Ryan Singer makes in his article UI and Capability. In the excerpt below, think of story as “capability”, and production design as “style”:

Affording a capability and styling it are both important. But it’s essential to know which one you are doing at a given time. Style is a matter of taste. Capability and clarity are not. They are more objective. That person standing at the edge of the chasm cares more about accomplishing their task than the details of the decor.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that, just as we’ll forgive a movie’s shoddy special effects if the story is great, users will forgive a style they don’t love if a product helps them to accomplish a goal effectively.

Follow people rather than topics

Callum J Hackett gives some good advice in Reading the Unexpected:

This is why I prefer to follow people rather than topics. I’m able to get a good sense of their character and interests, and while I know what kind of wonderful links and commentary to expect 90% of the time — all part of the initial attraction — I also look forward to that remaining 10% which I’d never have predicted or sought out myself, but which I still enjoy reading.

We need that kind of spontaneous discovery. We need to be exposed to the unfamiliar and the unexpected, even if it’s only truly interesting one time out of a hundred. If all our interesting content is redirected from individuals to subject-specific sources, we will inevitably place subtle, unnoticed restrictions on the things that we see, and we will continue to reinforce our prejudiced ideas and interests without thinking.

This ties in well with a very interesting discussion between Susan Greenfield, Maria Popova, and Evgeny Morozov with the New York Times, weirdly titled Are We Becoming Cyborgs? Here’s Maria Popova:

The Web by and large is really well designed to help people find more of what they already know they’re looking for, and really poorly designed to help us discover that which we don’t yet know will interest us and hopefully even change the way we understand the world. […]

When you think about so-called social curation — algorithms that recommend what to read based on what your friends are reading — there’s an obvious danger. Eli Pariser called it “The Filter Bubble” of information, and it’s not really broadening your horizons.

I think the role of whatever we want to call these people, information filters or curators or editors or something else, is to broaden the horizons of the human mind. The algorithmic Web can’t do that, because an algorithm can only work with existing data. It can only tell you what you might like, based on what you have liked.

Longing for an open(er) web

At first glance, Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost might come across as typical nostalgia for times gone by. But he makes some really good points about the changes we’ve seen over the past few years that have closed down the web in significant ways. I especially like this conclusion:

I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They’re amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they’re based on a few assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.

Let’s briefly look at the two fallacies Anil points out.

The fallacy that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth

I think designers and product people were so traumatised by the aesthetic crimes committed on MySpace pages by giving too much flexibility and control to users that the pendulum has swung way back into the opposite direction. One of the things that are cited as a core component to Facebook’s early mass market success is the complete lack of flexibility when it comes to the design of “your page.” By taking that choice away Facebook not only introduced consistency, but by making everyone’s pages look the same they also took the burden away from users to spend countless hours making their pages unique just to impress their friends. Instead, they could focus on the content.

But times they are a-changin’. There is a renewed expectation for customisation (Android!) and personalisation (Zite, Flipboard, Prismatic). Read Frank Chimero’s The Anthologists, where he talks about users looking for “new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume.” The challenge for designers now is not how to hide complexity, but how to work through complexity and arrive at what Karen McGrane calls “appropriate visibility” in her essay for The Manual called Ear Trumpets and Bionic Superpowers:

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriate visibility?

We have to figure out how to provide flexibility and control without hurting user experience. And like Fred Wilson says, “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do it.”

The fallacy that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks

On this one I agree with Anil unreservedly. The best analogy I can think of to illustrate the problem is to look at online publications’ link policies. Some publications make a point of linking to source articles prominently and early on in any piece they’re writing, while others hide the source link (if it’s there at all) at the bottom of the article in the hopes that no one will see they’re not actually the ones who wrote it. Matthew Panzarino explains the difference this way in Stop Not Linking:

If you truly believe that what you’re writing is worthwhile then you’ll trust that your readers will come back to you the next time you have something to share. So please, start sharing more liberally and encouraging your readers to view the source materials if they feel that they want to, without making them dig for them.

They will appreciate it and, if you’re honest and passionate, they will still happily read what you have to say. You are not diminished by the fact that other people have original thoughts as well.

The same goes for social media sites, ecommerce sites, everything. If you are confident in the value you provide to users, you don’t have to try to control them and lock them in with fancy tricks. You’ll just provide the value and know that if you meet a real need, those people will be back, and they will be the most loyal customers in the world because you respect their freedom.

And if they don’t come back, you’ll learn from it and tweak your offering until they do. By doing things the long, hard, stupid way you’ll sacrifice short-term returns for a long-term sustainable business with happy customers. And I think we can all agree that’s something worth pursuing.

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.