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Whenever I meet with startups to review their services and/or apps, I generally always stress the importance of usability. It’s so critical that a service be useable – both to keep current users and to have those same users recommend the service.
Since my first visit to Austin for SXSW many years ago, there was one thing I noticed that bugged me regarding usability at the Austin Convention Center. Lots of panels during SXSW are on the 3rd floor at the convention center but this floor and area is the hardest to get to. It’s obviously easy to get into the building on the first floor and there are lots of options to get to the 4th floor, but getting to this mysterious third floor was always odd. I am sure that if you have been to SXSW, you know what I am talking about.
To get to the third floor, there was just an escalator at the far end of the convention center or an elevator down that same hall. If you were coming into the building at the top end, it was just poor usability in the method needed to get to the third floor.
But there was always a simple fix – the huge double escalator from the first-to-fourth floors has a landing on the third floor but there is no path from the escalator to the third level. Why was it built like this? To torture people as they can see the third floor and it would be just a short hop across but yet there is no way to get across without fear of falling and a certain death?
Continue reading “The Austin Convention Center Realizes the Importance of Usability” »
Last November I took a look at the user experience for a new user who attempts to access Twitter.com. Tonight I’d like to provide the same new user experience for a person attempting to use Google Buzz. I don’t plan to touch on the privacy issues which seem to be the big topic as of late. In my opinion, the user experience is miserable and probably pushes away many new users (especially those who aren’t “social media experts”). For the purposes of this post, place yourself in the role of a new user no matter what your so-called expertise level is. You should also read Adrian Chan’s Google Buzz breakdown.
Let’s begin with a simple question — what exactly is Google Buzz? Is it a new type of messageboard/forum? Should a mainstream user be able to compare the user experience to something they already know? Or is this a brand new type of online user experience?
Accessing Google Buzz
When a user agrees to use Buzz, the only link to Buzz appears inside of Gmail on the left menu under their Inbox. Is Buzz a folder like the Inbox, Sent Items and Spam are? No, Buzz is an entire entity – welcome to confusion. Let’s assume Buzz remains inside of Gmail, the link to Buzz needs to be moved away from the folders. Frankly it should become a “module” similar to the chat module. This would also allow for customization and some items could be pulled into that left menu module as well based on user requirements.
ignore the 669 new messages in the inbox, I use Gmail mostly as a newsletter catcher
Continue reading “Welcome New Buzz User. Now Get Outta Here!” »
In client work recently I have come up against the the importance — and difficulty — of satisfying multiple user positions and experiences. Social media work because the author and the reader are satisfied. Sure, social MEdia need to be satisfying to me, but if they are to scale and succeed, the social system needs to reward readers and recipients, too.
This has brought up a few interesting principles of late. I want to share them just because I find them interesting.
The first is that there’s an asymmetry between the interest which motivates the user who "acts" (creates, posts, etc) and the user who responds. Not all systems are built around a coupled statement-response model of communication, of course.
But there’s an intrinsic interest in response for a lot of users and use cases in twitter and other conversational tools. If I ask a question on twitter, I am motivated by my question, which is something I want an answer to now. The person who is asked (who sees) the question has no interest at all. His or her interest can be piqued and aroused — but is not the same as mine.
The act of answering may more likely be the motivation, and not the content of the question. Question and answer systems are difficult because they involve satisfying two users, the asker and the answerer. If these user experiences are satisfied in real-time, then the interaction itself handles the experience. If they are satisfied out of synch, then each user has to produce his/her own interest: one in the act of asking, one in the act of answering.
This asymmetry extends to other aspects of communication in social media. Take, for example the case of sharing.
Because users are different, and have different personalities:
- Some who share do so because they want to share with (someone).
- Others share because they want to show to (others).
- Some share to exchange for (something).
These are different experiences and are met with different technologies or have different technical solutions.
For example, the user who shares with someone probably posts the photo in order to send it along. Sharing is the act; The photo is the symbol. This user wouldn’t post this particular photo if it weren’t for the person or people s/he was thinking of.
But take a person who finds something online, and book marks it because it is interesting, but has no person in mind to share it with. Later, this person decides either that the thing is interesting enough that others would find it interesting, and shares it. Or s/he thinks of a person who might enjoy it also, and shares it. Sharing in this case has come afterwards. It is a second act, it adds value to this person’s user experience, but wasn’t the original motive or interest.
The user in our first case, on the other hand, wanted to communicate from the beginning. Communicating was the primary act, and was the motive and interest.
These are just two simple examples of how the activity involved in sharing stuff online can be broken down into two acts: one of saving the thing; one of sharing the thing. And that these are different, depending on whether they are governed by the act of saving or the act of communicating.
In the first case the action carries the content. Communication leads.in the second the content precedes the act. Communication follows.
These distinctions may seem trivial but they’re not. They have significant implications for:
- how the system scales
- who finds it useful (and who finds it a waste of time)
- what content is produced as a leave behind
- how personal or public it is in tone
- how easily it can be organized and structured, and so on
Social problems can have only social solutions.
Tonight at the TechAviv meetup in NYC, uTest CEO & Co-Founder Doron Reuveni provided an overview of how their testing marketplace works. I call it a testing marketplace because companies bring their applications and match up with testers from around the world. They currently have 15,000 testers from 150 countries available to complete the tests that companies setup.
Companies can select the characteristics of testers they want for a specific test. I asked the management team about payouts to the testers and they told me typically they start at $2 and go up from there to about $30. The tester gets paid only if the company accepts the bug report. uTest also provides load testing and can bundle the bug testing on top of the load testing as sometimes applications perform worse under load.
In the video below, Doron speaks about a new product launch coming from uTest next month. It’s called "AppGrader" and will allow startups to get free reviews of their web applications using a select set of testers in the uTest service. The information on the example Doron showed included usability reviews, first impression reviews, etc. Looks like it could be a win for both startups and uTest as startups get a chance to test the service with limited functionality for free and as the startup grows, they will come back to uTest for more involved bug testing.
This is a short post I want to put out there to get discussion going on structure in social media. As I’m still thinking about talk tools, and short-form messaging ("status culture") in particular, I’m having to contend with some tricky conceptual stuff around structured user experiences. Facebook and other social networks are much more structured than twitter, status updates, and short-form messaging. From a Ui and user experience perspective, these tools bring a lot of order and organization to user actions and interactions. That has the benefit of limiting noise and of creating a lot of different sub-system of user actions. Games, gifts, leaderboards, rankings, ratings, post vs comment types, tags, social navigation, what have you. Stuff I and others have written about in terms of pattern languages and design approaches.
Twitter and its kin are unstructured. I’ve come up with the proposition that when structure is under-determined in site/system architecture, social practices handle the organization of experience. The burden of structure is shifted from architecture to interaction handling.
Different types of talk are well documented. Erving Goffman’s symbolic interaction has made huge contributions to our understanding of forms of talk as "framed" encounters. Framing happens in time, in positioning of actors, in turn-taking, "keying" and "footing" changes related to statements and what they mean. But facework is critical to his analyses. Not to mention use of body language, eye contact, tone of voice and so on.
What are the possibilities of open systems of talk? I’ve begun thinking about this from the perspective of multiple personality types and frankly it’s getting ugly. How does a socializer relate to a pundit? What kind of twitter activity attracts a harmnonizer? Does an inviter look for retweets? It’s simple with a single user model, but more realistic if we can account for the different kinds of user personalities and what they are competent and interesting at doing online.
Since social practices emerge on social media without any directed guidance and only through the undirected participation of users who each have their own reasons for doing what they do, the challenge of designing for emergent practices is a tough nut indeed. Where is the threshold for the emergence of a particular practice? And what’s the upper limit for an open tool’s population — the limit point beyond which it drowns in its own unstructured noise?
I was thinking last night about some cool things to do on twitter, for example. But which I haven’t seen. There are four ways to contextualize a tweet: the accountname, pic, @name, and hashtag (#). The rest is the tweet statement itself. So I know a tweet from /bbcnews is news. Or it could be indicated #worldnews. Or the pic could be the bbc logo.
Given these limited means of contextualizing a tweet — that is, providing cues to the reader as how to read it — there is still a lot that one could do.
–Use an #clickmypic as a clue. Create a user pic that is legible only in orig size (viewed on profile page). Embed a message or clue in the pic. Tweets could then be created that were:
- trivia pursuit questions: the pic is the category
- save the planet: the pic is a question, e.g. what’s your contribution this wk? Response is whatever small thing you’re doing this wk to save the planet
- coupons/discounts — viewable only if you expand the pic size
- movie character — the reply should be the movie the tweeted movie quote comes from:
–A #tagyourit game. Self explanatory
–#onethingyoudontknowabout me. ditto
–#soundtrack (what i’m listening to)
–#flixsterquiz (never-ending flixster movie quiz question)
There could be tons of these small twitter games, with @naming for pass along. I’d like to see a brand try something like this out. It seems to me that the creative possibilities for open or unstructured talk tools are huge — all that’s needed is the creative, and a simple-enough or familiar enough game structure to make it fairly obvious how to play. (The game rules supply structure, tweets become the game’s "moves".)
To return briefly my problem of personality types, and whether we can find personality in tweets, and twitter (and status update) use practices that correlate with personality types, I think the answer is yes. But it’s neither foolproof nor straightforward. We update and tweet on whim and fancy, mood, and conversationally. Those are practices that fall outside of personality type-casting. I’ve managed to find strong consistencies in how a lot of people update:
- people who tend to describe feelings, moods, or activities (Self-oriented)
- people who solicit a response, address someone else, frequently @name (Other-oriented)
- people who multiply @name, who tweet events they’re at, who they’re with (Relationship/activity-oriented)
I’ve found some fairly consistent example of updates and messages that include:
- identifying with something a person is into (Self is attributed a pastime, goal)
- identifying with a value, cause, political theme (Self is associated with a value)
- identifying with a group, practice, or status sign (Self is attributed desired status)
- positioning and location (indirectly soliciting contact and making Self available)
- third person comment (Self is reflected upon, "judged" or joked about)
- event-specific (what Self is doing)
- mood or feeling (how Self is feeling)
These and other kinds of status updates and messages seem consistent with the user’s personality type. Now, theoretically, a functioning social system would reveal that personality types that go well together can actually be seen forming networks. Those who like activity should be found with those who are active. Those who identify with attributes of others should be found with those others. Those who em-cee should be seen mentioning those people they find interesting (em-cees can spot the rockstars, tend to talk about them more than their own Selves). And so on. Many many natural couplings and sets of users whose personalities should produce emergent social practices.
I’m very interested in doing this in collaboration with psychologists and have started doing so. Interestingly, social media tends to be a field for social psychologists — and this is more a matter of personality (even clinical) psychologists. Social psych takes on status, social hierarchy, roles and positions — the kinds of things that are common to community. My approach here is to find personality-based combinations and their practices, which is a different tack (is also more user-experience based).
That’s what’s on my mind. Designing and building successful social media tools, applications, and uses around open systems and especially talk-based systems is creating more challenges for design methodology than did the web-based social networks. I think it can be done, but it’s going to be a lot more sociological and psychological than most design approaches are used to.
The first law of social interaction design is the law of user centric design. The user centricity of social media is obvious. Social media are voluntary, and they mean to their users what their users put in and take out of them. Users are interested users, not needy or obliged users. Even users who can claim to have goals and objectives are motivated to participate, contribute, even just read and lurk, because they want to. Compelling social media do not compel users — users become compelled, for whatever short or long-term interest it is that compels them.
That said, we recognize that social media are highly psychological. The reasons that motivate any given user may be rational, or not, may be task or goal-oriented, or may be a reflection of distraction, compulsion, or even "addiction." The fact that social media use involves psychological interests has a couple implications for designers, builders, and users. First, it means that we cannot know the reasons for a user’s use, or by extension, the reasons that an application is used. Second, we cannot even assume that a user knows those reasons. I like to say that to know what a social media application does, turn it off. We will soon know why and how we use an application by what we miss.
This leads us to a corollary of the first law: the value of social media is specific to the user. Ask any user why he or she uses it and you will get an answer specific to that individual. Reasons for use are not generic, and are not generalizable. The social media application is individuated by its users — that is, it accrues uses and reasons for use as it accrues users. Furthermore, ask any user what he or she uses it for, and you will get uses specific to that user. The value of social media is a combination of how a user uses it, and what reasons s/he can provide for using it. Value is in the eyes of the beholder. It is subjective, individual, and non-generalizable. We cannot ascribe one value to a social media application, and should approach any claims about an application’s value with caution. (They are likely to reflect the value perceived by that person, given the context and interests of his or her use of it.)
A second corollary obtains from the first law: users use social media based on existing and past experiences with other media. Users do not invent uses for social media wholesale, but rather use new applications to extend their current habits and uses of other media. A user who chats will likely use Twitter differently from a user who blogs. A user who uses IM will likely use Twitter differently than a user who is a Facebook addict. And so on. Research is not required to prove the claim that we blog, update, comment, post, upload, review, rate, recommend, IM, chat, email, and tweet very differently. I’m not likely to suddenly start commenting in all caps on Youtube tomorrow, any more than a heavy chatter is to suddenly switch to Twitter for conversation. Each of us is a bundle of habits and repetitions. And we use social media according to how we can each see them fitting into what we tend to do.
A third corollary follows, and it is that we cannot know what the user is doing and experiencing. The web as biased in favor of the affirmative, meaning, it captures action but not inaction. Clicks are recorded, but not reading. We know only when a user does something, and that something is captured as an affirmation. There are no "contradictory" or "negative" acts counted online. An act of opposition would look the same to the web server as a an act of affirmation. All actions are, in communication theory terms, a "yes." The inability to know what user’s experience confounds all media, but it is complicated online by the fact that we can track and measure some things. And we focus mightily on them. In the case of Twitter and in the culture of status updating, however, we have no means by which to know what and how much is being read. It takes a retweet, a comment, or a reply to publicize and manifest the reader’s attention to a message. This is, of course, why we count our followers. Their number is a substitute for attention and visibility, meaning relevance and acknowledgment. Each and every tweet solicits a response, and in its loneliness is one of the small moments of irrelevance we suffer through daily in our contract with social media. There is no way of showing others that we are paying attention without making it obvious — by saying so.
A fourth corollary follows, and we have suggested it already: to show that s/he is paying attention, the user must act. Communication is not just the performance of a statement; that would just be expression. Communication occurs when that statement is accepted or rejected. This "yes or no" response is what transforms expression into communication, what makes of it an action system. Designers know of actions. But in communication, the action is on either the message or its author. It is this possibility, that we can respond to what is said or to who said it, that implicates relationships in social media. And the ambiguity of which was intended that can often subsist in social media use fuels the engine for further participation.
Social media professionals can do no better than to keep the first law in mind. And to bear in mind, also, that users are different. For designers, this should mean occasionally forgoing standards or conventions for something else. Tools designed for writing and publishing online, for example, need not be the basis for fast messaging and lifestreaming. Page layouts common to text-oriented applications will miss out on users who watch and see (some desktop Twitter apps now emphasize visualizing the stream of users over and instead of their posts). For marketers, it is unlikely that top influencers are the ones to reach on Twitter — other kinds of users are more motivated to retweet and promote. And for inventors, solving some of the big problems, such as awareness and attention, or addressing use cases that involve under-served user types, can offer compelling opportunities.
The law of user centricity tells us that we cannot know what we might do, nor can we know what can be done. But that in all cases we should ask, what is it capable of? We will address this in the second law.
I’ve been using Friendfeed for a good bit of time now and would consider myself a semi-active user. For the purposes of this post, we will leave my belief that FF is a conversation stealer on the side. Over the last few weeks I’ve started to realize that there are user problems and usability issues with Friendfeed. Let’s remember that at the core, Friendfeed is a message board.
Friendfeed reminds me of Gmail
I guess it makes sense that Friendfeed reminds me of Gmail as the founders of FF created Gmail. I am a Yahoo Mail user and while I have a Gmail account, I do not enjoy using it. Neither application has the organizational tools I believe are necessary to make the tool useful for the average Internet user.
There are no folders in Gmail and there are no forums in Friendfeed. In Gmail you can apparently "label" mail. On Friendfeed you are left with just a rolling list of items. On a typical message board, content is organized by type. For example on the Flyertalk message board, Jetblue content isn’t in the same location as Delta content or content about France. If the same content was posted on Friendfeed, it would all be jumbled together. Content about bacon, photo memes or photos of kids would be in their own forums and I wouldn’t be forced to view them every minute. Sure I could hit the hide button on all of the content but that would take forever and the hide button doesn’t work.
Note: Lists and the ability to remove certain feeds from a user do not address the content categorization issue.
Cross conversations are messy
Here’s a common scenario:
- I post a message on Twitter
- Friendfeed picks up the message and posts it to my Friendfeed stream
- Another person replies on Friendfeed
- They have it set to copy Friendfeed comments back to Twitter
- I reply to the person on Twitter
- It sends my reply back to Friendfeed as a new thread
- repeat cycle
And this is a very, very simple example. Imagine when there are multiple participating in a thread. If I reply only via Twitter, it looks like I am not replying to the person when someone reviews the thread on Friendfeed. And with the ability to send information out/in to other services (Facebook, etc.), it just complicates this issue even further.
Users who don’t participate but are still active
I’ve touched on this subject before. On a message board, when someone posts a question or a comment, they are expecting others to reply. People who reply know that the others in the conversation are actively participating. On Friendfeed, this isn’t the case.
Here’s an example – yesterday popular chart blogger Erick Schonfeld announced his baby’s birth (congrats!). His Twitter post was injected into his stream on Friendfeed. Several people replied to the thread as you can see below. However I still don’t understand why there is any reason to reply to the thread when Erick doesn’t participate on the message board. His last comment was back in November.
This example was just one of a million I see everyday with the same issue. People "talking" with someone who isn’t there – we could call them ghosts. They created an account, may have participated for a bit and are now gone. But their content is still injected into my stream. It’s easy to say that I should just remove the people but that would mean I need to check for "ghosties" every day. Friendfeed should put the accounts of the ghosts into an inactive state if there is no actual activity in a certain period of time (I would open the bidding at three months). This would help to keep the community more engaged and active. Otherwise we are talking to people who don’t exist just waiting for them to reply.
I think Friendfeed has potential to grow and while I don’t see it as a mainstream tool, they need to figure out how to address the issues listed above if they want to move past the super early adopter set. They should also spend time figuring out why so many users start using the service then drift off into ghost town. Even popular users like Tamar Weinberg are starting to see a slowdown in interaction on the service.
One of the most important things for all startups to realize is that if you want to hit the mainstream with your application, you need to think like the mainstream thinks. So many startups miss this point and stay in their small tech box and wonder why they never get out of it.
Update: Check out Hutch Carpenter’s post on FriendFeed.