Pinterest and Instagram: effortless sharing in a post-literate society

Alistair Fairweather wrote a good article about Pinterest and Instagram called A picture gets a thousand likes. He presents a theory on why these sites are so popular:

But what unites Pinterest and Instagram is their simplicity. You can add photos, comment on them and “like” them. That’s it. No apps, no games, no location based check-ins – in short, no clutter.

I agree with Fairweather on the role simplicity plays in the rapid rise of these networks. He goes on to link these sites to creativity:

But what both Pinterest and Instagram tap into is our almost universal need to create. With Instagram this is more literal: you take a photo of your surroundings and share it with the world. With Pinterest you are essentially sharing someone else’s images – but the act of choosing is a form of creativity. Pinterest users compete to construct the most beautiful mood boards, agonising over which photos to include and exclude.

I agree that it’s a need to create that drives people to these sites, but I think they’re successful because they provide a platform that’s built on a very effective false promise of creative pursuit.

I believe these sites give users the illusion that they’re creating something without the necessary work that is required to make something good. Sharing pictures is effortless. And if we know anything about online behavior, it’s that people hate doing actual work when they can just click a button instead. In fact, Mashable recently said the following about Facebook’s “frictionless sharing”:

Facebook felt constrained by the Like button because it was an implicit endorsement of content. Facebook wants users to share everything they are doing, whether it’s watching a show or hiking a trail, so it decided to create a way to “express lightweight activity.”

So in essence they’re saying that clicking the Like button is too much of a commitment for people; the action is too heavy. In their view, we need something a little more indifferent and “lightweight”. Pinterest and Instagram are sufficiently “lightweight” when it comes to sharing. You just pin a photo, or if you’re really ambitious, you take one and apply a filter to it. You could argue whether or not that action constitutes “a form of creativity”, but I’m pretty sure which side of that argument Tolkien would have taken.

So why is this a big deal? I fear that the behavior on sites like these is moving us ever closer to a post-literate society:

Literacy: the ability to read and interpret the written word. What is post-literacy? It is the condition of semi-literacy, where most people can read and write to some extent, but where the literate sensibility no longer occupies a central position in culture, society, and politics. Post-literacy occurs when the ability to comprehend the written word decays. If post-literacy is now the ground of society questions arise: what happens to the reader, the writer, and the book in post-literary environment? What happens to thinking, resistance, and dissent when the ground becomes wordless?

When we start talking in pictures and likes only, don’t we lose our ability to think and argue? I hope not, but scanning through Instagram and Pinterest feeds I have to wonder if this is where we’re headed. Instead of pinning pictures, my vote is that we all start writing 500 words before 8am instead.

Where have all the Information Architects gone?

Lis Hubert wrote a thought-provoking piece for UX Magazine called The De-Evolution of UX Design. The link-bait title put me off a bit, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s a well-written article that you won’t be ambivalent about – you’ll either agree strongly, or disagree strongly. In essence, Hubert laments the decline of the Information Architecture function in UX:

It’s been seven years since I took that first step into IA, and, sadly, it seems that the practice of understanding and prioritizing information before designing the interface has been abandoned. And because of that, we are facing a huge problem in the world of UX, which is, simply put, that we are devolving.

She goes over the problems of skipping the IA phase, and then offers some solutions. Her point is in line with the thoughts I shared in my World IA Day talk called A lack of UX purpose (and what we can do about it):

It seems that ther’s unfortunately plenty of UX work out there that jumps straight into wireframes without first understanding the design problem, as well as the purpose of the solution. Purpose ““ the reason for which something is done or created ““ often appears to be missing. And this is where I believe Information Architecture can come to the rescue.

So, needless to say, I’m in the strongly agree camp on Hubert’s article. But maybe you won’t be, so definitely give it a read.

The danger of seeking perfection in our work

Paul Scrivs in The Uniformity of the Design Community, a good post on the dangers of design trends:

This isn’t a manifesto, but merely a reminder that there are different aesthetics out there that will get the job done better. There are different designs that you still haven’t even thought of yet that will solve the problem more efficiently. There are hundreds of more designs that will tell a better story than your current design. Don’t settle on what you or the community are satisfied with all the time. Look outside of the trends and become the person that starts a new one.

Creative pursuits like design and writing are journeys in discovering how we can get better at solving problems. There’s a balance to be struck, though. We have to push ourselves beyond current trends and obvious solutions, but not so far that we end up as digital nomads – always traveling towards the elusive horizon of perfection, but never completing anything. Yes, we need to do exceptional work, but we also have to complete. Dmitry Fadeyev sums this up well in his essay On Perfection:

Instead of chasing perfection, we should be chasing completion. A work need not be prefect, but it has to be complete. Unlike perfection, completion is not about chasing an unattainable goal, it is about meeting a fixed one. There is no such thing as a perfect work, because everyone judges things differently, so there is no standard by which such a thing can be defined. There is however such a thing as great work – work that has been completed and deemed exceptional “” either by others, or by you. But this can only happen when the work is done.

Or perhaps we need to change our definition of perfection and reframe it as the process of getting a little better each time we complete something. As Khalil Gibran said:

Advance, and never halt, for advancing is perfection.

To design without thinking

Linds Redding’s A Short Lesson in Perspective is essential reading for anyone in the creative industry – particularly those who make things for the web. He laments the loss of time to think and reflect about designs before they go out the door:

Pretty soon, The Overnight Test became the Over Lunch Test. Then before we knew it, we were eating Pot-Noodles at our desks, and taking it in turns to go home and see our kids before they went to bed. As fast as we could pin an idea on the wall, some red-faced account manager in a bad suit would run away with it. Where we used to rely on taking a break and “stretching the eyes” to allow us to see the wood for the trees, we now fell back on experience and gut feel. It worked most of the time, but nobody is infallible. Some howlers and growlers definitely made it through, and generally standards plummeted.

It’s a strikingly honest essay about the creative process and the pressures of working on the Internet today.

Finding what really matters: an essay on the online economy of sharing

I have a feeling that we live too much of our lives through other peopl’s eyes. It seems as if w’ve changed our definition of what is worthy and real to accommodate an economy based on the currency of sharing. It’s an economy that measures an event’s value by the number of likes and retweets it gets. An economy that changes our decision-making because we start to seek out the things that have the highest “sharing value”, while we shun the quiet, everyday activities that make up a life.

As I graze through my Facebook feed tonight, I munch on the extraordinary and exciting lives of others. A live performance in San Francisco. A hike in Cape Town. A business success in Miami. A funny and clever thing someon’s son said. And of course, the photos. The endless, happy photos of dancing, mountains, wine, exotic travels, more wine, and lots and lots of babies. Everyone is having an amazing time in an amazing world.

Twitter shows me something slightly different. I see people who are drowning in success and ambition, and I can’t help but envy them. Through Twitter I see how smart everyone else is. And as inspirational as that is most of the time, I sometimes look at how high the bar seems to be set and then I just want to sit down and rest for a while.

Everyone knows that’s not the whole story, of course. No one says “I’m lonely” on Twitter. No one uses Facebook to post their deep, dark thoughts about marriage or parenting or work or the future or the past. We all know it’s not real but we have to keep up the facade. If one of us were to break down, we would all lose the ability to believe we are who we pretend to be, and that’s not something w’re prepared to do.

Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time to stop consuming so much of other peopl’s perfectly manicured public lives, and start producing just a little bit more. I wonder what would happen if we measured the value of an activity not by how great the photo opportunity would be, but by what value it would add to those we’re with – our family and friends.

I guess I’m just worried that if I keep looking at my life through other peopl’s eyes, I might go blind to the things that really matter.

The ultimate product question: How do you know what’s important?

Ryan Singer wrote a very clear and succinct definition of Product Management in Advice for product managers:

“Managing the product” means deciding what we do to the product and then making it happen.

When you unpack that, it involves strategy (what is important to do?), resources (how much time can we spend on it?), managing development (what do we need to build in order to do it?), managing experience (how will it look and work, how does it integrate into what we already have?). And all of it with regard to the bottom line of the business. Given a strategy, resources we have, a user experience bar to uphold “” given all that, what can we do and why is it worth doing?

It’s a great primer for anyone who wants to understand what PM’s do – especially for people who are considering making a career change to Product Management. There’s one part I’d like to unpack a little more, and that is prioritization. Ryan touches on it as follows in a section entitled “Deciding what to do”:

I try to lead every decision with user experience. What is the user-facing situation we want to change? Or if the motivation isn’t because of a user benefit, but a pure business reason “” what is the impact on the user, and how can we align incentives so this at minimum makes sense to the user? This is critical.

He advocates for “leading with design”, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. But how does this work in practice, particularly in large organizations with a variety of product lines and a gazillion stakeholders? We’ve spent a lot of time trying out different ways to solve the problem of prioritization, so I naturally gravitated towards that section in Ryan’s piece, and hoped for a little more detail. Ryan, if you’re listening – I’d love to see a follow-up post where you explain your process a bit more.

This is important because I believe the hardest part of a Product Manager’s job is answering the strategy question that Ryan uses in his definition: What is important to do? Once you know what to do, the how isn’t necessarily easy, but you’ve at least started the race and you know what you’re running towards. You’ll work with developers to understand technical requirements. You’ll work with designers and guide them through a user-centered design process. Running the race is the fun part. Deciding which race to run is the excruciating part, and it makes or breaks a product.

How others prioritize

There are many established processes for product prioritization, and we’ve tried most of them on the various teams I’ve worked with. I’m particularly interested in methods that can be used on an ongoing (daily/weekly) basis – not ones that are used every few months for long-term planning. The KJ-Method has a lot going for it:

The KJ-Method is a fascinating mix of independent brainstorming, group dynamics, and democracy. It allows a team to be creative and critical in a productive manner, where strong personalities and politics play second fiddle to the independent perspectives and experience of the team.

Jared Spool claims that he can do this process in under an hour with a team, but my theory is that he can only do that because he is superhuman. I find the 8-step process a little too heavy and time-intensive for day-to-day use. It’s great for longer-term strategic planning though.

The Kano Model is another great technique for prioritization:

The easiest way to think of the model is on a two-dimensional grid.

The horizontal axis represents the investment the organization makes. As investment increases, the organization spends more resources on improving the quality or adding new capabilities.

The vertical dimension represents the satisfaction of the user, moving from an extreme negative of frustration to an extreme positive of delight.

As much as I like this model, it suffers the same downside as the KJ-method – it’s too time-intensive for ongoing prioritization. And then there is Amazon’s approach, which is based on the following principle:

Prioritize themes, not projects – Create a list of themes for your product or business. Examples might be customer acquisition, activation, retention, avg revenue per user, avg visits per user, etc. Pick ~3 that are the most important for your product given its stage.

The gist is that they prioritize based on a project’s potential impact vs. cost:

Look for the projects with the greatest projected impact with the least cost, and do these ones first, quickly. Then move on to the next projects, or the next phases of the early projects that had a greater than expected impact.

How we prioritize

I’ve found a stripped-down version of the Amazon method most effective and realistic in our organization. As much as I agree with the principles of each of the three approaches mentioned above, they tend to be unrealistic in the context of ongoing prioritization. So here is the extremely simple process we’ve used on an ongoing basis, with good results:

  1. Have a white board with a permanent two-by-two matrix on it. The horizontal axis represents Business impact (which includes user needs and technical considerations), and the vertical axis represents Level of effort to implement (which includes people and their time commitment).
  2. Write product requests and ideas on sticky notes as they come up, have a quick discussion with relevant people to ascertain business value and level of effort, and then put the sticky note on the two-by-two matrix.
  3. Write prioritization numbers next to each of the features/themes, starting with those that have the highest business value. I like a 70/30 split between high effort / low effort features, but that’s a theory for a different post.
  4. Every week or so, check your roadmap to make sure you’re still working on the right things, and make adustments as needed.

Product prioritization

It’s a simple method, and it’s far from perfect. But it has a few things going for it:

  • It’s detailed enough to ensure constant prioritization based on what’s important.
  • It’s light enough to make it practical for everyday use.

PM’s should spend most of their time managing experience and managing development – two of the activities Ryan points out in his post. I’m sure they don’t skip over the prioritization part at 37signals, but I wanted to give some more context around that because it’s something I struggle with a lot, and I guess I hope I’m not alone. Actually, I know I’m not alone. If we all knew what was important to work on, there would be no failed products.

How to build products that have clear user benefits: begin at the end

Jake Knapp writes that you can build better products by designing the marketing first:

Okay, let’s pretend I grab you and stuff you in a DeLorean. We time travel a few weeks into the future. Your latest project has just been released.

Imagine you can see the launch page. It has a nice simple headline explaining the appeal of your product, with a couple of secondary call-outs. You print the screen, hop back in the DeLorean, and return to the present.

With this glimpse of the future in hand, your team will be better at focusing on the core of the product. If it’s on the launch page, double down! If it isn’t, think hard before spending any time on it.

That reminds me of a similar technique used by Amazon called “working backwards”. It’s outlined in this Quora thread:

For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.

Once the project moves into development, the press release can be used as a touchstone; a guiding light. The product team can ask themselves, “Are we building what is in the press release?” If they find they’re spending time building things that aren’t in the press release (overbuilding), they need to ask themselves why.

These are both great techniques to prevent scope creep and ensure that you’re building products that have clear user benefits.

Going down intellectual rabbit holes

Rabbit holes: Why being smart hurts your productivity is a great post on staying focused without losing the value of going down intellectual rabbit holes:

The names change but the story remains the same. Designers find themselves studying fancy, new CSS3 effects when they should have been wire framing their checkout page. Hapless students find that they are on the Wikipedia page for Esperanto instead of writing notes on Norse mythology. Like Alice led into Wonderland by the White Rabbit, geeks too easily fall into “the rabbit hole”.

I won’t spoil the suggestions for you. See also: The potential and dangers of “˜squirrel projects’.

(via Brad Whittington)


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