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22seven: an observation, a complaint, and a suggestion

Yesterday saw the Beta launch of a new Mint.com-type startup in South Africa called 22seven. They’re essentially aiming to give people better insight into the money they spend, and help them make better decisions about that. Or to put it in their own words:

We use smart information-gathering technology so our users can see all their financial stuff in one place. W’ve applied insights from behavioural economics so our users can better understand the way they think. And by employing principles of play, our users become more engaged, and more willingly engaged, with their money.

It didn’t take long for the banks to start freaking out about the security implications of giving your banking credentials to a third party, but there have also been some defenses of the safety of the service. Instead of rehashing those arguments, I’d like to make three quick comments about the new service.

An observation

I’ve been watching this unfold with fascination over the last 24 hours. Everyone who attended the launch event in Johannesburg seemed really impressed, but it didn’t take long for some (legitimate) concerns to arise as people started trying out the service:

That’s a sentiment I agree with, but things started to go downhill a bit from there as the tweets became more and more negative. We’re a finicky bunch of complainers, aren’t we! But as I caught myself just in time before getting sucked into the negativity vortex, a phrase jumped into my head: Schlep Blindess. As in – these guys don’t have it. In Paul Graham’s excellent essay he describes schlep blindness as the inability to identify hard problems to solve:

The most dangerous thing about our dislike of schleps is that much of it is unconscious. Your unconscious won’t even let you see ideas that involve painful schleps. That’s schlep blindness.

He ends his essay by explaining how to avoid schlep blindness:

Some ideas so obviously entail alarming schleps that anyone can see them. How do you see ideas like that? The trick I recommend is to take yourself out of the picture. Instead of asking “what problem should I solve?” ask “what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?”

And that’s why I admire the creators of 22seven. They’re working on a problem we all want solved, but most of us are too scared to work on. And for doing that, they deserve enormous credit.

A complaint

Speaking of finicky complainers, can I be one of those for a minute? Ok, cool. Obviously my first instinct was to scrutinize the design of the site, and even though there’s a lot to like about it, I have to mention a couple of things that I believe are not implemented correctly from a UX Design perspective.

First, forcing someone to wait for a Flash (!!) animation/introduction to load when they click “Register” is just not a good thing. Users don’t have patience for that stuff. If I ask for a registration form, my expectation is to see a registration form immediately. But my main beef is with the registration form itself:

22seven-registration.jpg

Here are some of the issues:

  • The text has very low contrast with the background which makes it difficult to read. Come on, everyone – join the contrast rebellion!
  • We know that it’s bad to use multi-column layouts in forms.
  • Speaking of contrast, what stands out are the phrases “About you”, “terms of service”, and “privacy policy”, while the primary call to action (“Yes, I do”) is a grey button on a dark grey background.
  • While I’m nitpicking, if the button says “Yes, I do”, shouldn’t the title be “About me”?

We just don’t have to re-invent forms any more. The hard work has been done for us – we know how forms should be designed. And I don’t want to get into the Flash debate again, but why build this thing on a waning technology when you can build a responsive HTML web app that works on all devices?

A suggestion

Lastly, I’d like to offer a suggestion. If it is indeed true that 22seven has not met with South African banks yet, that’s a situation that should be rectified soon. In fact, my suggestion is that 22seven meets with one bank and work with them on an API solution that will allow them to access users’ banking information without having to store their credentials at a 3rd party. That’s what OAuth is for. And based on everything we know about Michael Jordaan (the CEO of FNB), wouldn’t FNB be the perfect bank to partner with on this? Once they’re on board, and FNB’s handsome and smart clients start using the service, the other banks are sure to follow.

I’d like to end where I began – on a positive note. I’m truly grateful that 22seven is tackling the banking/money management problem in South Africa in a very real and committed way. I think they vastly underestimated the backlash they would get from users when they’re suddenly asked for their online banking credentials (otherwise the web site would have been littered with trust-building explanations and images). But that’s a fixable problem, and so is my UX nitpicking – they’re not difficult issues to address.

So despite my complaining, I’m extremely excited about 22seven, and I’m rooting for them to succeed. I hope you’ll join me.

Good design practice: agree on the problem before tackling the solution

In 1955 David Ogilvy wrote a fascinating letter about his habits as a copywriter. One of his points jumped out at me:

I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.

This is applicable to design projects as well. If clients (internal or external) ask us for some quick wireframes, it is our responsibility as user experience designers to push back and make sure everyone agrees on the problem and the goals of the project first – before the design cycle starts. It sounds so obvious, but I see people falling into this trap all the time.

The product discovery process can take months, weeks, or even a few hours if there are tight deadlines. But it cannot take zero hours – that’s a recipe for disaster.

There can be no wisdom without data

Nick Carr on the belief that remembering facts becomes less and less important with the increased accessibility of information online:

But this idea that knowledge can be separated from facts – that we can know without knowing – really needs to be challenged before it gains any further currency. It’s wonderful beyond words that we humans can look things up, whether in books or from the web, but that doesn’t mean that the contents of our memory doesn’t matter. Understanding comes from context, and context comes from knowing stuff. Facts become most meaningful when, thanks to the miracle of memory, we weave them together in our minds into something much greater: personal knowledge and, if we’re lucky, wisdom.

Perhaps this is the kernel of truth in the “Google makes you stupid” argument. The field of Information Science teaches that wisdom comes from knowledge, which comes from information, which comes from data. If we can’t hold enough pieces of data in our heads for at least a little while, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Working at a startup vs. a big company

Interesting perspective from the CEO of Ooga Labs:

In fact, I would argue that you learn the wrong things working for a big company, and that it’s actually not good experience. A good experience is when you really make something happen in the world. Big companies teach you how to work through layers of bureaucracy and how to solve problems in very risk-averse ways “” in short, how to make something happen in their organization. A big company is not the safe career choice. It’s the risky choice. It risks your mind and your life.

This goes hand in hand with another misconception that big company jobs are more secure than startup jobs. In my experience the chances of a startup running out of money and a big company needing layoffs are roughly the same.

Creepy content

“Content” Creep is an important article by Drew Breunig. I try to shy away from the word “must-read”, but this is probably as close as it gets. Breunig takes a step back to analyze the constant stream of web content we see every day, and he draws some interesting macro conclusions about the current state and future of publishing on the web.

He starts off by explaining the problems with the word “content” itself, and goes on to use the content farm “company” Demand Media as an example of the problem with measuring quality in web publishing:

Unfortunately, even if we assume page views are capable of measuring quality Demand’s business model prevents them from doing so. Because Demand’s “approach is driven by consumers’ desire to search for and discover increasingly specific information across the Internet”, page views are only capable of reflecting how well Demand’s “content” has been optimized for search engines. If a piece appears in search results, is clicked by a user, and closed because the writing is shoddy, Demand is only able to measure everything before the click. At best the page views metric can measure the quality of the headline. At worst they reflect the SEO tricks employed by a site.

Or to put it more succinctly:

Demand has created an environment which incentivizes SEO hacks more than good writing.

This is so true, and results in the type of ad-infested web sites I’ve written about before as well. Breunig goes on to explain what he calls the impending “content crunch”, and the need to adjust business models to account for quality. His conclusion is spot on:

It’s hard to believe a single word could slate an entire industry for failure. On its own, the word “content” is merely awkward. But as a unit of measurement, “content” affects business is real ways. Ignoring the variables audiences care about in order to populate Excel spreadsheets incentivizes weak writing short on substance and attention spans. All this would be tremendously depressing if it wasn’t creating an enormous opportunity for people with the courage to look beyond the numbers, where it’s too messy to measure, and invest in journalism, videos, photography, and art people might actually enjoy.

A site that immediately comes to mind as an example of the kind of courage Breunig speaks of is the brilliant Brainpickings – “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.”

The article and Breunig’s main conclusions remind me of one of Clay Johnson’s points in his book The Information Diet:

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar””the stuff that people crave””media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?

The problem lies not just with the content farms, but also with us – the people who click on the links because it gives us more of what we want (even if it’s not good for us). The only solution to this problem is something that sounds like a pipe dream – expecting readers to be more conscious about the information they allow into their lives so that content farming ceases to be effective. In Johnson’s words:

The first step is realizing that there is a choice involved. As much as our televisions, radios, and movie theaters would have us believe otherwise, information consumption is as active an experience as eating, and in order for us to live healthy lives, we must move our information consumption habits from the passive background of channel surfing into the foreground of conscious selection.

For bonus points, read A long sentence is worth the read – it’s also a really good related discussion on the topic:

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.

Beautiful.

Mark Twain’s excellent 19th century guidelines for writing on the web

We just don’t rant like we used to. Sure, there have been some good ones recently, but we have lost the art of being angry and highbrow at the same time – a skill that gives the rant a deliciously icy, brutal feel. For example, when you read something like Mark Twain’s 1895 rant about the rules of fiction, the current crop of angry that comes across our Twitter feeds feels a bit Mickey Mouse.

One of Mr. Twain’s specific complaints in the aforementioned rant is about the rules of good dialogue in fiction. As I read through it, I realized it provides a scarily perfect contrast to the language used on many web sites today:

[When] the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

That’s unfortunately not what most of the web sounds like – but this paragraph from 1895 contains some of the best guidelines we have for effective web writing. Web site and application copy should:

  • Not sound robotic.
  • Use words that two people would use in everyday conversation.
  • Not be gibberish words strung together to sound fancy, but mean something to normal people.
  • Not just exist to fill up space, but have an identifiable purpose for being on that page and in that context.
  • Be relevant to the flow the user is currently in.
  • Be interesting and help tell the story.

It would seem that Mark Twain was one of our first (and best) web Content Strategists.

The elusive goal of lasting beauty in web design

A few months ago Nilay Patel did a good interview with Tony Fadell, the creator of the Nest thermostat. From Inside the Nest on The Verge:

Fadell looks out at the Manhattan skyline and says that he always wanted to be an architect; that buildings stay beautiful forever but digital devices are quickly obsolete. “You look at hardware or software five years later? They’re crap. You would never use them again. People use architecture all the time.”

His voice rises. “What is our form of architecture? What is the thing that lasts of beauty?”

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and the reason I can’t get the interview out of my head is that I just can’t think of a good answer to Fadell’s question.

In web design, what is the thing that lasts of beauty?

Aesthetics and beauty in web design is so subjective, so polarizing, that I wonder if anything lasts of beauty in what we do. As one example among many, the current trend set by Path and Feedly seems to capture everyone’s imaginations. Beautiful, high-quality, full-screen photography with functional interactions and copy elegantly embedded:

feedly-home.jpg

I also find these sites beautiful – and functional. But will it last? 2010 and most of 2011 were mostly about minimalism, and now the pendelum seems to be swinging towards a more emotive aesthetic again. That’s fine because our field is fluid and dynamic, and unlike buildings, things change very rapidly in what we do.

But I do wonder: where are our timeless stadiums?

cape-town-stadium.jpg

In a recent article on Russian architecture Dmitry Fadeyev describes metro stations in Moscow and ends with the following remark:

What’s interesting about this type of architecture is that its aim goes far beyond that of creating a functional underground system. Its aim is to promote a political ideal, and it does it through beauty by enriching lives of the people who get to experience it. The question here isn’t: how do we solve the problem of creating a metro station in an efficient manner – instead the question is: how do we create a station that elevates people’s mood and inspires their lives. This architecture isn’t there just to help you live – it makes life worth living.

Maybe that’s why I think it’s important to talk about lasting beauty in web design. I wonder what would happen if we felt the weight of responsibility a little more when we’re designing. What if we go into each project as if the design will be around for 100 years or more? Would we make it fit into the web environment better, aim to give it a timeless aesthetic, and spend more time considering the consequences of our design decisions? Would we try to design something that “makes life worth living”?

 


Update 1/10/02: Francisco Inchauste wrote a great comment on Google+. Instead of summarizing it, I’ll post it here in its entirety. His point about content being that thing that lasts of beauty is particularly interesting. Francisco writes:

Our raw material doesn’t have a cost. You can cut up pixels and add to them. You can only cut a stone or wood once. Then it’s in a final form. We never find a final form for our digital goods, because by nature they are in a state of flux. The real beauty could be the changing connections of nodes that make up our Web.

The lens (browsers/devices) to view that work is always different and also evolving everyday. I think that’s why people have landed on content as the focus again. The content can evolve in presentation, but at the core is still the same content. So, maybe the goal of lasting beauty is in content, instead?

Product and design in early-stage startups

Fred Wilson on what’s needed to build product in the early stages of a startup, in The Management Team While Building Product:

Building product is not about having a large team to manage. It is about having a small team with the right people on it. You need product, design, and software engineering skills on the team. And you need to be focused, committed, and driven. Management at this point is all about small team dynamics; everyone on board, working together, and getting stuff done. Strong individual contributors are key in this stage. Management skills are not a requirement. In fact they may even be a hindrance.

Startup teams always have software engineering skills on board from the very beginning – as they should. But too often you see marketing and business development skills being added before you see product/design skills. This leads down a dangerous path that too often ends in a catastrophic lack of product/market fit.

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