In his piece Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?, Robinson Meyer takes a look at the fascinating rise of Upworthy news posts in Facebook and suggests that the recent changes from Facebook and Twitter are about creating one stream to rule them all:
“In the past year, Facebook’s anti-Twitter tactics have reverberated across the site. Its “subscribers” feature was renamed “followers”; it added a verified checkmark next to its celebrity users; it adopted a way of displaying related news stories that mirrors Twitter’s. Facebook is even experimenting with a trending topics section. The larger social network seems to be altering the entire fabric of its site to fight the newer, smaller one.
Meanwhile, Twitter seems to change itself—adding in-line images to its feed, for example—to try and become more like Facebook.
Two social networks, trying to become more like the other. It is, as Buzzfeed’s John Herrman has written, “the fight for the ultimate feed.””
I think Meyer is right…that is the real war going on here. It’s about attention first, and intent second. First, you need to have people’s attention, and social networks are where all the attention is. Second, you need some notion of purchase intent. For the most part, people on Facebook are not there to buy stuff from their friends. This results from the core relationship model, which started off as a symmetric model (we both need to friend each other) but has recently become much more asymmetric. (I can follow you without you following me). Notice that the asymmetric model allows for different intent than the symmetric model. You can follow your favorite sports team, your favorite brands, your favorite people and they don’t have to follow you back. And in many of those relationships, if the person/company in question is selling something, it is much more likely to lead to a purchase than if you can only follow your friends.
Back in 2009 I wrote this: Relationship Symmetry in Social Networks: Why Facebook will go Fully Asymmetric. At the time I thought Facebook would push the follower model to simply grow faster. Now I think it’s clear that it’s also much more valuable from an intent standpoint…we follow things we’re interested in and that’s a heck of a lot more potentially valuable to Facebook than following our buddies from high school.
“A few years down the road, YouTube is clearly a phenomenal acquisition. How would you like to be in the shoes of the company who paid under $2 billion for the world’s largest media and music site ? The 2% of dilution or so that facebook suffered on Instagram delivered them a large part of the answer to their biggest existential threat, their weakness in mobile. Think that was worth 2%?”
A nice overview: How To Launch A Startup Without Writing Code.
I don’t think the recent spate of articles on or around this idea are a fad. I think that focused customer research, prototyping tools, and many off-the-shelf tools make it entirely possible to prove and disprove product ideas quickly and correctly without ever having a working system. Of course, you can’t fully predict what will happen without building the actual software. Social software, in particular, is very hard to simulate because much of the value is social value which is only realized when many people are using it. (at some point we’ll probably see some sort of group usability testing) Even so, you can know a lot about what you’re designing very early on, and in some cases (as the article points out) you can even start charging people money.
This is part of design growing up. Growth hacking, customer research, customer development, etc…all roads lead to knowing and verifying as much as possible before any code is written.
I have several drafts on the topic of research and startups. Until I finish one of those I leave you with Erika Hall’s excellent summary of the topic: How the ‘Failure’ Culture of Startups Is Killing Innovation.
“Somewhere along the way, it got to be uncool to reduce one’s risk of failure.
Part of this may be because the risk of failure is dramatically lower than it used to be. But another reason is that many people don’t actually understand what research is, and have somehow conflated concepts like “rapid prototyping,” “lean startup,” “minimal viable product,” and “[insert] other smart-sounding thing to do” with avoiding research.
Failure is now a badge of honor. Somewhere along the way, it got to be uncool to reduce one’s risk of failure.
That kind of thinking might be fine for entrepreneurs focusing only on their personal risk and fear of failure, but it has real financial, cultural, and opportunity costs for businesses.
Nice article by Aubrey Johnson: Hollow Icons on why hollow icons are just more work for people. This is yet another reason why the iOS7/flat design style just isn’t fully baked; removing too much affordance requires more cognitive load on the user.
His thesis: “Don’t follow bad design decisions to appease a platform.” Obviously nobody is going to consciously follow bad design decisions…but they end up doing so because they don’t re-evaluate what’s working best. When you blindly copy a style for the sake of it you skip over important questions like “Is this icon the best way to communicate this function?”.
The icons in iOS7 Safari are especially egregious, a real step backward from iOS6. But, and this is a big but, I’ve been around long enough to know how hard it is getting anything built, and so I’m joining those optimistic folks who regard iOS7 as a start, not a finish.
Great post by Christina Wodtke on change: User don’t hate change. They hate you.
The first point is critical: user’s don’t hate change. This knee-jerk explanation is almost always wrong. What people don’t like is to have to re-learn something they already knew. They don’t like starting over. They don’t like being forced to change when they’re busy getting work done. It’s easy for designers to assume the new thing is better “at least it’s better than what we had before” but if the user was actually using the previous version then it’s a huge disruption.
So, it’s really about control. It’s about keeping your users in control of their experience. If you must make a big change, then give them control over it by choosing when it happens to them. A simple way to do this is a new feature toggle that lets people move over and back to the new feature. Use a toggle for a while (most people will move over if it’s a positive change) and then clearly warn people that it’s going away. In other words, you have to design the change.
This is my new favorite page on the Web. The Story of our Company by Teehan & Lax.
I like it for two reasons.
First, it’s 45,417 pixels tall. It’s an absurdly long page, yet I was not bothered in the slightest by it. Why? Because page length doesn’t matter when you have a compelling story to tell. People read on the Web. People scroll. The reason why we think they don’t is because they scan before they read. The next time you hear someone say “People don’t read on the Web” you know you’re talking to someone who writes poor content.
The second reason I like this page is because it’s a great fusion of design and design thinking. Not only do you get insight into who Teehan and Lax are, you get a really good sense of what they value. The page itself is a showcase of their design work, and after hearing the long story of how they came to be you really get a very good sense of what it would be like to work with them. Maybe you like their style or not, but you know what you’re getting.
I think pages like this are the antidote to the valid concern that people over-emphasize visual design on sites like Dribbble. I personally have no problem that Dribbble is all about visual design…I actually think it’s proof that Dribbble is a successful community. Among the jobs-to-be-done of Dribbble is to show off visual design skills, to impress others, to feel part of a community, and to get work. Almost all design is judged visually, for better or worse, and so it makes sense that designers are focusing their efforts and sharing their best work there.
However, as Paul Adams recently pointed out, beautiful visual design is only part of the battle. What’s more interesting, from a design solution standpoint, is the design thinking and making that subsequently happened. And that design thinking includes the constraints, requirements, hurdles, and other barriers to design. The making includes the actual building of the product…was it actually built and did people actually adopt it? It’s one thing to imagine a beautiful interface in Photoshop: it’s another to build it and get people to use it.
I think the future of sharing design work will be more about story and less about visuals. You’ll have to tell a story that differentiates you from the thousands of other folks who can very quickly copy a cool navigation bar. You’ll have to explain the constraints you were dealt. You’ll have to talk about the trade-offs you made as a designer. You’ll have to communicate what you learned from your users and how you then used that knowledge in building a better product. In short, you’ll have to describe the entire process from conception to reality, going way beyond a beautiful mockup. The future belongs to the designer who tells a great story.
I thought I was the only one who thought about user requirements like this…a nice insightful piece by Alan Klement: Replacing The User Story With The Job Story. Alan points out that with user stories it’s not as clear a connection between what someone wants to do (their goal) and the task they’re doing to complete it. He also points out the weakness of using personas in this way…people don’t self-identify into personas so it doesn’t make sense to say “As a [persona]” when using user stories. Good stuff. /via @padday.
I just went to Amazon.com and noticed that I was viewing a newly-designed product page. My first thought was “Finally, they got an actual UI designer over there”. But my second thought was “It’s still got way too much going on.”
For some reason everyone thinks Amazon is the pinnacle of design because there is some legend from years ago that caught on about how Amazon tests all of their pages better than anyone. They know exactly what works and what doesn’t so what is there works better than anything else.
The reality is that Amazon has designed themselves into a Local Maximum. They’ve tested and tweaked the same product page over and over and they’ve optimized it as much as possible. They can’t improve it significantly at this point without making a big change. But they can’t make a big change because the only changes they can make must increase revenue (or some closely related KPI). So any big change is a very, very scary thing when that page is driving billions of dollars in revenue. So it makes sense that Amazon only makes small changes to their product page design.
If Amazon were to make a big change, like for example do some actual visual design so everything didn’t have the same visual weight, the mere shock of the change would probably send their revenue downward, at least initially. People dislike change because change is work. They have to figure out what changed, adapt to it, relearn the UI, and still try to get their job done (they one they used to know how to do). So the next time you hear “People hate change” think to yourself “People don’t hate change. They hate the work of change”.
But…humans do like change when it makes their lives easier…the challenge is to keep people in control of when change happens to them. That’s really all people need, is control over the situation.
In Amazon’s current model a revenue drop would not be acceptable. But I think it’s pretty clear that mobile and tablet use is going to change the game here. Amazon’s current product pages are OK on mobile, they’ve clearly gone away from their super long product pages there. My guess is that what Amazon learns on mobile will translate back into their big screen product pages, which will continue to look like crap (and thus be confusing) if they don’t start looking like the mobile pages. A consistent experience across devices will trump a product page optimized for years ago.