Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
There’s certainly a lot of hand-wringing going on about Facebook Home. And although there is some truth to articles like Facebook Home — My Personal Hell and Why Facebook Home bothers me: It destroys any notion of privacy, I feel like making this story’s headlines about how boring Facebook is and how it’s just another step towards evil corporations owning all our data is missing out on what’s really important about this announcement. The much more interesting question is this: How does Facebook Home impact identity?
Perhaps the best analysis I’ve seen about Facebook Home is a tweet written by Rebekah Cox back in January 2011:
The first company to fully execute on embedding your identity into your phone (making a truly first class experience) wins the next decade.— R. Marie Cox (@artypapers) January 29, 2011
Rebekah expands on this in her post Mobile Identity, in which she concludes:
A mobile experience that truly represents your identity — in a way that both resembles and enhances an in-person conversation but still affords you control over how you portion out your attention and provides context — could tie the knot for the myriad communication channels available.
That certainly sounds like an accurate description of what Facebook is trying to do with this new product. Now add to that Dan Frommer’s analysis in Who’s Going To Buy The Facebook Phone?:
What about those millions of people who have bought Android phones who don’t really care that they’re Android phones, or even smartphones? […] My guess is that many — most? — of these people are Facebook users, and could easily see some utility in having Facebook features highlighted on their phones. And — bonus — Facebook’s software looks good. Much better than the junk that ships with typical low-end Android devices.
Put these two things together — identity and easy access — and Facebook’s strategy starts to become clear. For the majority of people life increasingly revolves around the Internet and their phones. This cartoon pretty much sums it up:
Image source: DOGHOUSE
It’s also clear that many people’s identities are getting tied up in Facebook. And Facebook is really good at accelerating the pace at which that is happening. Much has been written about Edgerank — the algorithm Facebook uses to decide what stories to show in people’s News feeds — and how it ends up promoting confirmation bias by only showing users stories that they are likely to agree with. Facebook knows the truth behind Clay A. Johnson’s words in The Information Diet:
Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?
What’s even more interesting about this is that Facebook is in the process of reversing a media trend that started with telegraphy. Before the introduction of the telegraph all news was local, and had a high “information-action ratio” — meaning that you could do something about what you read or heard about. But as Neil Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. […] Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.
Television and the Internet kept this trend going. All I have to do is say the word “Kardashian” and you’ll know what I mean. But Facebook — and particularly Facebook Home — is a return to “news that’s relevant”. Because it’s news about the people you have let into your life, and therefore news you can do something with (even if it’s just liking a status). Whatever your thoughts are on the privacy and sociological implications of Facebook as a service, you have to admit that it increases “information-action ratio” by (1) giving you information that’s relevant and (2) reducing the effort required to take some kind of action on that information1. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
What Facebook Home is really about
So, let’s tie all of this together. What Home allows Facebook to do is put Edgerank and people’s “social graphs”2 on steroids by giving them easy access to their identities. A Facebook-centric phone that constantly tells you what you want to hear about yourself and your friends means that you’ll find less and less use for the rest of the Internet. And that’s very, very good for Facebook since engagement is everything for an ad-based business.
Where does this leave us? I’m trying to reserve judgment about where this road that Facebook is paving will lead us. All I know is that they are doing some very smart things from a strategic business perspective. They are making news relevant again. They are shaping people’s identities (with a lot of help from Edgerank). And now they have found a way to go beyond apps and do a complete takeover of the device that most people never leave out of their sight.
Tech journalists can write about privacy and the virtues of quitting Facebook all day long. The rest of the world won’t even hear about it, because they’ll be too busy getting immersed in the lives and identities of the friends they agree with.
Even though the mere thought of giving up coffee and switching to tea makes me break out in a cold sweat, I really enjoyed Teresa Brazen’s The tea, leadership, loyalty axis. It’s a good reminder about the importance of being mindful and present:
These days, people who aren’t checking their phones, email, or doing some other kind of work in their head while in conversation with others really stand out. Have you noticed how good it feels to be around these anomalies? How often are your colleagues really giving you their undivided attention (and vice versa)? Make no mistake: inattention is noticed, no matter how sly we are at texting under the table.
It reminds me of this classic tweet from Scott Simpson:
My new standard of cool: when I’m hanging out with you, I never see your phone ever ever ever.— Scott Simpson (@scottsimpson) June 17, 2010
(link via @tarungangwani)
I’ve long been fascinated by the links between coffee, craft, and product design. Peter Baskerville’s answer on Quora to the question How do you compete with Starbucks in the coffee industry? is another great example of that. His answer can very easily be applied to building an online product (my emphasis added):
I concluded very quickly that Starbucks was good for tourists and those folk looking for brand association, but their appeal to the quality espresso seeking locals was limited to just one curious trial. I also saw that they were in fact following the age-old successful chain formula of adequate product + brilliant marketing rather than the other way around. So they were not actually targeting my niche unique coffee/service market, which is where I believe the independents fit in.
This is so true for the current state of software development. We used to swim in a sea of adequate products that employed brilliant marketing to convince us they’re better than they really are. Now, the products and services we gravitate towards are increasingly brilliant niche products that don’t have to rely on an overdose of traditional marketing to gain traction. From Dropbox to Clear to Instapaper, people are flocking to quality products after their “one curious trial” of the do-it-all marketing-driven alternative doesn’t quite meet their needs.
Peter goes on to list 8 specific strategies that Australian coffee shops have used to beat Starbucks. With advice like “Quality above all” and “Let your customers own you”, his answer gives product designers plenty to think about.
In Human Intervention as a Competitive Advantage Derek Sivers makes the case that automation isn’t always the best option:
When everyone else is trying to automate everything, using a little human intervention can be a competitive advantage. The problem is when business owners see it as a cost, instead of an opportunity. Trying to minimize costs, instead of maximize income, quality, loyalty, happiness, connection, and all those other wonderful things that come from real human attention.
You can buy a fancy phone routing system, so people have to listen to 9 options, choose option 5, then listen to 6 more options, or you can hire a charming person to pick up the phone on the first ring, and make a great impression. Which one do you think will win you new fans? […]
I know what you’re thinking — how does this scale? Derek explains that in the post as well…
Ryan Holiday’s Our Regressive Web is the best thing I’ve read so far about the importance of services like Google Reader and Delicious. He starts off with this statement:
The collapse of these services, to me, represents an alarming reduction of key services designed to improve online information from the user’s perspective.
Ryan explains how RSS helps to reduce noise and clutter, and he provides a theory for why it never really took off beyond geek circles:
In an ad-impression and pageview-driven business, a service that allows users to opt out of the noise and get content delivered directly to them is dangerous.
Maybe I’m just suffering from confirmation bias because I’m still pretty bitter about Google Reader’s shutdown, but this is a really good analysis. Well worth reading the whole thing.
Kate Crawford wrote a very good critique of Big Data methods in The Hidden Biases in Big Data:
Data and data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design. We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations. Hidden biases in both the collection and analysis stages present considerable risks, and are as important to the big-data equation as the numbers themselves.
Kate uses some interesting examples from Hurrican Sandy and the City of Boston to make her argument, and ends with the conclusion that is a common plea among qualitative researchers:
We know that data insights can be found at multiple levels of granularity, and by combining methods such as ethnography with analytics, or conducting semi-structured interviews paired with information retrieval techniques, we can add depth to the data we collect. We get a much richer sense of the world when we ask people the why and the how not just the “how many”.
Thanks to Shopster for sponsoring Elezea’s RSS feed this week — I’ve been looking for something like this for a while!
Shopster is a new kind of groceries list app that learns what you purchase and where, so it can remind you later on.
Whenever you check an item as purchased, Shopster learns the location where you got it. The next time you look for the same thing, a geofenced alarm will be triggered when you are near the location.
Features: - Autolearning of locations when checking items as purchased. - Geofenced reminders for your products, based on your prior buying history. - In-place editing table, for quick corrections and editions. - Unique ruler to quickly enter the number of items you need to buy. - Smart autocomplete, to assist you entering frequently purchased products, based on your previous history. - Reorder items with a simple tap and hold.
Check out Shopster on the AppStore, it’s only $0.99
This is my overriding concern — there’s no way out. There’s no way out of a bad design, an incompatible plugin, a browser bug, missing content, the endless list of potential issues someone could potentially encounter with a website whether it is responsive or not.
That’s an excellent point, and providing a “way out” echoes one of Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design, written in 1995:
User control and freedom. Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
Jordan argues that giving users that control and freedom on a responsive site might feel like a cop-out, but it could be necessary:
The last thing I want is to lead users into a mass exodus from a responsive design I have put so much thought and effort into. I just think if it helps the odd user out in doing something they happen to find more comfortable in a pinch and zoom environment for whatever reason then we should probably do it rather than prevent them from doing it.
That’s a very sane, user-centered approach. It’s also worth noting that if the mass exodus does occur, it’s a clear sign that something is wrong with the responsive site. That’s valuable data.
But it all comes down to execution, of course. Users shouldn’t be asked to choose between entering the building or going straight for the emergency exit the minute they arrive at the site. It’s ok to make the exit visible, but forcing a deliberate, upfront choice between the mobile/responsive site and the desktop site puts an unnecessary burden on users.
In short, this kind of placement is ok (although the “Full Site” language is problematic):
This is not ok:
Whatever that means these days… ↩
Kenton Kivestu defines the difference between accuracy and precision, and then discusses what it means in the context of product decisions:
There is a significant opportunity cost in consistently prioritizing precision over accuracy. Accuracy is about launching what the market needs, precision is about optimizing and delivering relentlessly on it. Unless you’ve nailed the former, material effort on the latter is going to be wasted because you’re optimizing something too far from the true north (the accurate goal) you should be pursuing.
This is an important point. Any call for data-driven design (in the quantitative, 41 shades of blue sense of the word) needs to come with a disclaimer that it’s an extremely useful approach to get closer to the middle of a target (precision), but it’s useless if you’re shooting at the wrong thing (accuracy).
(link via @ixhd)
For the first time, you can collect and save articles, photos, audio and video by organizing them into beautiful magazines. These can be private, or if you want to connect with like-minded enthusiasts, you can make them public and share them on Flipboard and beyond. Now everyone can be a reader and an editor.
I’ve been playing around with this feature a bit, and I like it so far. It’s definitely an early release, so there are a few things missing. For example, you can’t edit the title of an article you’re adding to a Magazine, and you also can’t move articles around to be in a different order. But I’m sure those features will come. For now, it’s a great way to organize1 content — and the timing is particularly good with the impending demise of Google Reader.
I’ve created two magazines so far, which you’re welcome to follow on Flipboard. UX Design is all about design and related disciplines. Technology and us desperately needs a less cheesy name, but it’s a collection of articles about the various ways technology impacts our lives.