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.