Words Matter in Interfaces

Visual design is powerful, but the words are what people quote to one another.

And they are the only part of the design that survives across time and media types. They can be held intact in a human mind.

Erika Hall

Source

As soon as I read this quote on Joshua’s blog, I thought about my reluctance to use Snapchat. I once had a conversation with someone who is an ardent user of the social network and after explaining a few basics of the app to me, he grew weary of my inane questions and simply said, “if you’d been with the app since the beginning, this would not feel weird to you.”

Indeed, I see it as this – visual design needs a lot of historical context to understand. If you’ve seen it evolve over time, you can understand it well. But if you are dropped into it anew, it’s all strange and confusing to you. A new user might even be scared of clicking things, if they have no idea what they’re doing.

I love playing a game called Egg, Inc. For the first few months of playing the game, I would notice these cute little drones flying around. I thought they’re just an easter egg by the developer. Unrelated, I would notice that at random times, my resources would shoot up, by random values which made no sense to me.

While reading a post on reddit one time, I discovered that you’re supposed to smack those drones out of the air. See, in the game, you’re running a chicken farm, and you believe those drones are a violation of your space, so you can shoot them down, for a reward. Sometimes, fast moving drones appear and shooting them down is difficult but awards you with an exponential value. All of this would be in the onboarding, but I can never recall there being a specific time when I was told to hit the drones. In a way, that is an easter egg – you’re supposed to discovered on your own that those cute flying objects are actually an annoyance to your character and shooting them is the right thing to do. But I felt betrayed. How many months had I wasted not knowing about this growth hack?

I can’t expect a game of all things to label everything. The elegant interface of Egg, Inc, would only be made more clunky by the addition of ugly labels. But I can expect this from Snapchat. Their job is to make it easy for me to use their interface, specially if I’m a new user.

An interface made up entirely of swipes is revolutionary, but a hindrance to people who have not understood it from the beginning. The same is true for all visual design, and it’s worth remembering for everyone who is involved in the task of designing interfaces.

n.b. Notice how quickly Erika’s ideas were attacked by someone who puts more value in visual design than textual context. I would have expected people to have differing opinions about the topic, but one opinion doesn’t invalidate another. It’s an opinion, not a fact.

My wife asked me the other day – why do you use twitter? Isn’t it full of bile and anger? This is why. Great ideas are often posted to it, and inquisitive minds go where the water of knowledge is.

Falling into Faith — Acko.net

The following is a critique of a post I recently came across in my RSS feeds-

 

This is augmented by the ease of concerted flagging and other public shaming campaigns, which create a guilty-until-proven innocent environment.

Source: Falling into Faith — Acko.net

This is a weird post, and it set off all kinds of alarms in my head. But I read through the author’s convoluted logic till the end. Some of it doesn’t make any sense, the rest of it makes sense, but is faulty logic. It’s clear that it’s a rambling, onerous post about somehow not protecting white privilege, but also not condemning it. It seems to want to put logic above everything else but the relationship between the example and the conclusion is tenuous.

This line above was the one that sprung out to me the most. The author seems to want to say that the constant vigilante justice meted out on social networks stifles free speech. But forgets a couple of things –

  1. Every example the author gives – James Damore, SubscribeStar – is one of extremism from the right. These are harmful rhetoric, and conspiracy theorists whose right to free speech is somehow being taken away by the people. Somehow, the ‘people’ having the right to decide who gets to live in the public sphere is not acceptable to the author. Instead, pure logic and pure freedom are the only things important to the author. This is, of course, the wrong approach, because there is no such thing as pure freedom. All of life is about the exceptions to the rule. The exception to the rule of free speech is one where someone means someone else harm.
  2. The author seems to want to criticize public movements on social media. But here’s the thing – it’s not like there’s a recourse. Elsewhere in the post, the author criticizes the left for controlling the institutions that mediate over ideas on social networks, namely the Trust and Safety Boards –

bootstrapping their own inquisition in the name of Trust and Safety

This means that the author doesn’t trust the devices created to remove negative influencers from social media, and doesn’t accept that people should be able to run their own campaigns to remove such people from there either. So what’s the recourse? What can people do to root out truly evil ideas from the public sphere? The author falls silent on that aspect. As it is, the tools that Facebook and Twitter (and WhatsApp) have created to combat misuse are woefully shortsighted and pathetic attempts at appeasement. That leaves the users to fend for themselves, so why would they not band together and attack the trolls and bad actors? Yes, they would get a few folks wrong and that’s where the author jumps in again to criticize, but not to give solutions –

Nuanceless policing bots and scripts make it trivial for innocent bystanders to get hurt.

All in all, a frustrating read to go through. Why did I? Well, for some reason, I’m subscribed to this person’s RSS feed and this was a recent article on there. Everything else by the author is purely about technology.

Also, it’s a good exercise in spotting every logical misconception that the author has made. Which ones did I miss?

 

Changing my relationship with Facebook

I’ve come across two posts today that are of high interest to me (and probably to you, dear reader).

First is this official Facebook blogpost here. It talks about how Facebook has discovered that those who use social media passively, just for browsing, end up sadder than those who use it actively, commenting and chatting with friends. I’ve seen people use Facebook for posting material which I sometimes thought was too long or too short or too general to be posted on what is supposed to be a rather private network. But if it brings joy to them, and helps me connect with them, then why not, right?

The second post is here. It’s a heartbreaking tale about how the algorithm destroys relationships and makes us devoid of important information. The algorithm is prioritizing information for us and in the process is making us less human. Please do read it.

I’ve been thinking about Facebook’s blogpost and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to game the system. What does that mean? It means to post frequently and interact with people. It means to force the algorithm to think that I’m some sort of high value poster. Till date, I’ve refrained from cross-posting my tweets to Facebook. I believed that Facebook is reserved for longer posts, meatier ones that mean something to the people to whom I’m posting. But the algorithm doesn’t think like that. The algorithm rewards those who post often instead of those who post things of value. So I guess that ends now. Thoughts are thoughts, no matter how small they are. I’ll post them on Facebook simply so that one day, when I want to post something of value to my friends on Facebook, the algorithm deems me of enough value to make sure they see my posts.

Some of you may object to this on the basis that you see my posts on twitter (and other places). Well if you do and do not interact with my posts on Facebook, the algorithm will downgrade me for your experience. In that way, what Facebook does to control our lives is highly personal and deeply disappointing. Hopefully, you’ll see that.

To all others, I hope you like my short gripes which I send out every once in a while. I’ll try this for the year of 2018 and share the results with you at the end of the year. I posit that inputting more to Facebook will mean I’ll also get more output from it. Let’s see if that turns out to be true.

Twitter backlash, again

Every time twitter changes something, it faces backlash. That’s not new, that’s common to all consumer tech companies. There’s a set of users around the world used to things the way they are and some who are looking forward to the change. Whenever Facebook makes a change, they get floods of comments attacking them. Perhaps that’s why Facebook has gone shadowy about all the changes they make to their algorithm. They’ll talk to the public about it, but not really explain anything.

When twitter changed the look of their app and service a few weeks ago, many liked the change and I got upset about it. It’s not that I use the official app or site a lot – I don’t care for it. But it seemed like such a useless change when there are so many other things to deal with.

The same happened yesterday, when twitter announced that they’re increasing the tweet chars limit to 280 for some users, as a test. I’m not part of the small group, but I’m one who’s been saying for a long time that this should happen.

Others, as John Saddington, over here on his blog, believe this betrays the fact that twitter is ending up like the next Yahoo!, having lost its soul a long time ago in the many quagmires it failed to defuse in its long march to infamy.

While I agree that the service is, in general, in shambles and begging for someone to whip some sense into it, this change is not anything which will destroy twitter. If anything, it’ll give users such as me some breathing space.

Yes, I can be pithy and reword my tweets to be exactly 140 chars or less. But who wants to? “Brevity is the soul of wit”, said the man who wrote 884,647 words in his career. Well, I don’t want to be witty all the time. I want to get my point across, and if it takes 145 characters to do so, so be it.

Yesterday, while discussing this change, twitter made a feeble attempt at giving a technical reason for this change. They explained on their blog that the reasoning is that some languages, unlike Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, are more visual in nature and can explain a lot more in one character than others, such as English, Spanish, and French. Therefore, they are making this change available for the latter languages. They also explained that only about 9% of all tweets reach the 140 characters limit.

That last bit surprised me. I thought about it a bit and realized that this number, 9%, is probably flawed for various reasons –

  1. Twitter has a lot of spam. Like, a lot. So, when someone talks about 9% of all English language tweets, they’re probably counting a lot of bots, crap, spammers, and the general noise you see on twitter. Remove all of those and the number might actually jump into double digits.
  2. Most people who want to express themselves better have gotten used to the idea of tweetstorming. They know that twitter’s not going to fix this issue, so they use tools, or just hit reply manually to post things in a better way. If twitter counts tweetstorms as one tweet, I’m sure, again, that they’ll tip over to north of 10% easily.
  3. Everyone else who ever faced the predicament of having a red negative number blocking their tweet just went ahead and reworded the tweet to fix things. Had they any method to tweetstorm from the official app, they would have done so, and, again, twitter’s numbers would be more truthful.

Given these factors, there’s not less reason to implement 280 chars, but more.

But, here’s a prediction, if I could make one –

When twitter revisits these numbers in a year or two, they’ll see that the number hasn’t really shifted a lot. If they see 9% now, they’ll, maybe see 10-11% a year from now. The reason is simple – when we’re given an arbitrary limit, our thoughts go towards meeting that limit instead of finding ways around it to fully express ourselves. Now that twitter has gotten everyone used to 140 chars, when the noise settles, those who need a few extra chars to express themselves will take those and use the space. Others will not. Simple.

This new limit is nothing to fret about. It’s not going to destroy twitter. That’s already to job of twitter’s bad advertising, political hand-wringing, and spam. All this is going to do is give some breathing space to people like me, who need a few extra chars once in a while.

Side note – I noticed that tweetbot took the 280 char limit and presented it beautifully since yesterday. I haven’t had to update my app for it. No good twitter app has a hard limit of 140 chars built into the stream display. That just shows that there’s no real reason for twitter to go back to 140 chars. The endless stream of tweets that people are used to will work exactly the same way as before. Don’t worry about it. Worry about everything else that’s still wrong with twitter.

p.s. – My thoughts are partly explained by Colin Walker here, funnily enough, in fewer words.

Photo by mkhmarketing

The Secret History of Blah

Let us begin.

The world is full of interesting things. Wonderful creations that change your lives, make it easier to reach for the stars or talk to your loved ones. There are countless people toiling away in garages, labs, offices, and corners of public spaces, working on their masterpiece. They will soon release their creation into the world and you will wonder, “how was that even made? What was the process of the creation of this marvelous thing?” Continue reading

Word of the Day: Fungible

Fungibility, according to Wikipedia, is an economic term used to describe the property of a commodity whereby it is directly interchangeable with something else. For example, if you don’t care whether the rental car you get is a Mercedes or a BMW, then they are fungible. It was used by journalist Stijn Debrouwere in an awesome article about the future of newspapers and media companies in the age of the Internet, by calling his article –

A treatise on fungibility, or, a framework for understanding the mess the news industry is in and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Source: Fungible

Continue reading

Notes for Week 2 of 2014

So, it’s been an interesting week. Some observations –

Social

Found this gem of a Difference between Facebook and Twitter –

Facebook – 

“Best Practices

Making API calls directly to Facebook can improve the performance of your app, rather than proxying them through your own server.”

Twitter – 

“Caching

Store API responses in your application or on your site if you expect a lot of use. For example, don’t try to call the Twitter API on every page load of your website landing page. Instead, call the API infrequently and load the response into a local cache. When users hit your website load the cached version of the results.”

< p>Turns out, when not losing market share to a third-party app, Facebook is actually quite nice to developers as compared to Twitter. To be fair, tweets constitute a lot more volume and processing, so it would make sense for Twitter to want the devs to cache their data. Also, even ADN  has rate limits but at least their limits are more generous than Twitter.

Seriously though, twitter has millions of dollars for servers and all I have is a 128MB VPS. What the heck, Twitter?

Google(+)

Google is no longer Google. It’s Google(+). Everything we love about Google and it’s services is being slowly replaced by Google+ and the latest victim is GMail. Now anyone on Google+ can email you without knowing your email ID. As a communication tool, this makes GMail more open. But that’s exactly what people don’t use GMail for. They use it for Email. Big difference there Google. You can opt-out, but what’s the bet that option will be going away soon?

What Google should actually do –

Google understands one thing and one thing alone – Search. Pushing Google+ isn’t going to help them overcome the social networks of the world. But there is one thing I covet – the Search API. Seriously, why don’t we see third-party Search apps that innovate the way we see our Search results. That’s one data stream we’ve not targeted yet. Google needs to let people in, do their thing and pretty soon we’ll see people integrating Search with  social platforms. Oh, you wanna see which of your Facebook friends searched for the latest Tom Hanks movie and then clicked on IMDB? Here’s the data to that. Seriously Google, stop letting one segment of the business take over the other, specially since we know you’ll kill Google+ a couple of years from now.

Advertising

Ah, advertising! The Bane of TV show lovers binge-watchers. Advertising has slowly crept in everywhere on the Internet, from YouTube to Hulu. Towards YouTube, go find YouTube5. It’s an extension that replaces the usual YouTube player with a cool HTML5 one and kills all ads in the process. Enjoy.

To Hulu, I say, well, get rid of the “Brandon Switched to Ford” ad. Seriously. It’s a stupid ad, I’ve seen all too much of it and Brandon looks like a total douche for being the black sheep who abandoned the family tradition and switched from a Honda to a Ford. If ever Hulu fails, it’ll be because they keep repeating the same ads over and over again. I do not want to be bored by ads, I want them to be innovative and interesting. (Coincidentally, Samuel L Jackson staring in my face is not innovative. I’m looking at you, Capital One.)

I finally also saw the KFC ads that look like some woman with a video camera uploaded to YouTube. That’s supposed to be innovative? Nope. She looks drunk/high/both and you’re not fooling anyone with these ads KFC, those are scripted (or worse, they’re not!).

Finally, saw a teeth whitening strips ad on Hulu that said, very specifically, “If your teeth are not getting white, they’re getting yellow”. Ok, first of all, yellow teeth are perfectly normal and more an indication of stomach trouble than a medical emergency. Second, the ad targets people women who drink coffee. First it was guys who smoke who were targeted and now this. Finally, that text up there. That’s a scare tactic. Pretty soon, they’ll come up with a white paper saying that yes, your teeth getting yellow is a medical problem and you need to use teeth whitening strips in conjunction with toothpaste. All of this will be driven by only one thing – Sales telling the Marketing team to get innovative with the ads. There’s no real medical issue that they’ve tried to resolve.

That concludes the rant session on advertising.

Clients from Heaven

I’ve been building a web app for my brother and he mentioned that the text on the screen doesn’t ‘look black’. For a second, I tried hard not to wonder if my brother is a typical MBA Client from Hell but as it turns out, he was right, the text was actually #2C3E50 which is actually a weird dark blue. Thanks Bootstrap for making me look bad in front of my brother!

WordPress

It was an exciting week to be a WordPress user. Snaplive, a front-end text editing solution was showcased to a few who had signed up for updates. It seems to work really well with WordPress, so expecting some really good things in the future.

Ghost had promised to revolutionize WordPress, but instead it went and setup shop elsewhere. That’s ok, since we have Gust, which is a plugin that ports the awesome Ghost Admin panel functionality to WordPress. Mind you, this just released, so if you’re not ready for bugs (which software doesn’t have bugs?), don’t install this yet.

Finally, a shout out to whatweekisit.com, which I used to, umm, calculate which week of 2014 we’re in. Yeah, I should have just looked at a calendar.

How the Common Man will pay for the Internet soon

If there’s one buzz word that’s promised to solve all the monetary problems of every Internet-based startup in the past two years, its “Big Data”. Everyone’s collecting it, everyone’s recording it and everyone’s saving it for tomorrow. From Twitter’s Billions(of tweets) to your Netflix queue and even your Google Search history, everyone’s looking to figure out how to sell you more stuff based on your habits.

But no one’s actually selling the data. The data in itself is useless, no matter how much of it you have. It’s the connections that are formed from it that are important and that’s what everyone is hankering to sell – information. However, all that these companies are trying to do is sell information to advertising sources and point of sales organizations like Amazon because that’s where they can easily get a large paycheck in exchange for a much larger database of customer information. Continue reading

Title tells all

Take a look at the following tweet –

Interesting isn’t it? The tweet tells you the title of the article and there a link present with it! How wonderful is that?!

Frankly, that’s the crappiest type of tweet I’ve ever seen. Social networks like Twitter and Alpha can mostly only support enough space that if someone is putting up a link, they’ll either put up a title and a link or an explanation and a link. And guess what type of post super busy (read: lazy) business people, SEO Gurus and Social evangelists who use automated services like Buffer or IFTTT go for? You guessed it, the former.

Why does it matter? It matters because in this world of micro blogging and tweeting, everything is just a headline and nothing is context. If I start giving importance to everything anyone ever posts, it’ll be hell for me. So, it only goes to say that it’d be etiquette to ensure that whatever you’re posting is easier to read by your followers. How can you do that? Pretty simple. Do NOT post links with titles. Post links with reasoning. By posting in context, you’re ensuring the other person has an understanding of why you recommend this article or service instead of them just hopping to the link only to discover they’re not interested.

Oh, and SEO gurus, by posting the context, you’re adding more keywords to your posts, thus making sure you get better hits. It’s really a win-win situation even though it might seem to take longer for you to make that post.

By the way, when you look at it, does my post’s title do a good job of explaining what the article is about? Not really. That’s just an example of how bad/wrongly worded blog post titles really are. So by adding context, you’re adding a lot more value to your followers.

Good day and have a good weekend! 🙂

A response to Marco Arment about ADN Freemium

Today, App.net (ADN), the social network that made me drop all others made an important announcement – that it is going to allow free accounts that are invited by currently paying members. I did not intend on writing a blog post about it because this is news that has already spread through wildfire in the tech community. Some have lauded and some criticized it. But the post that made me write is this commentary by Marco Arment.

Marco argues that while such news is welcome, ADN needs to do more to promote user growth instead of focusing on developing the API. He goes on to state that the main reason people are signing up is the twitter like functionality sans the spam and advertisements and instead of building file storage APIs, the team should develop spam protection and open the gates completely to free members. Continue reading