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Disagreeing, comments, and 2012

I know I shouldn’t write meta-posts. I really enjoy reading such posts by the writers I follow, but for some reason it feels presumptuous of me to do the same. But hey, it’s the end of the year and no one is reading anything anyway. So I thought I’d let you know about two things that have been on my mind about my writing here.

Disagreeing

I enjoy arguing. But I mean that not in the way most of the Internet means it. I mean it in the way the Dictionary means it:

Give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share on’s view.

I don’t just enjoy writing such arguments, I also enjoy reading them – particularly if someone is making an argument against one of my opinions. But I really dislike mean-spirited fights online, so much so that I’ve had to close comments on a couple of posts this year because things just got too rowdy.

After particularly contentious fighting in the comments section of a post I usually vow to stick to writing non-controversial stuff, but before I know it I’m back to arguing (again, in the sense of “giving reasons in support of an idea”). I finally realized that I should just run with that instinct and not try to censor myself. But from here on out I’m going to set very specific rules for myself on how I’m allowed to argue. And for that I turn to Paul Graham.

In his brilliant post How to Disagree, Paul goes through what he calls the “Disagreement Hierarchy”, or “DH”. I’m not going to restate what he said – you should definitely click through and read that post. I’ll just say that my commitment to myself (and to you) is that I will always argue/disagree at levels DH5 or DH6 of the Disagreement Hierarchy. As Paul says, it results in better arguments and happier people:

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

Arguing (yes, in the Dictionary sense of the word) is important because we all learn from it. But we have to rise above name-calling (DH1) and skip all the other levels to a point where we do the hard work and disagree in a way that moves the conversation forward. That’s what I hope to do here.

Comments

Oh, comments. I’ve gone back and forth on this so many times. Sometimes I leave comments open, other times I close them. Sometimes I close comments on a post, get called out on Twitter about it, and then open it up again. It’s confusing and it’s causing me headaches. So I’ve made a decision to close comments on all posts, at least for a month or so, or until someone writes a convincing argument on why sites should have comments (please use DH5 or DH6 in your argument).

To me, the most convincing argument yet to not having comments is Matt Gemmel’s post Comments Off. I can’t say it better than he did, so please go read his thoughts on the issue. For me, the biggest reason is what Matt calls the burden of moderation. It takes a really long time to moderate comments, especially if a post gets popular while I’m sleeping and I wake up to 40 comments that I have to read through to make sure no one called someone else an idiot. As Anil Dash said, if your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault, so moderating comments is not something you can just ignore. It has to be done.

I’ve had to get up at 5am way too many times to spend an hour deleting comments and asking people to be nice to each other. That’s time I could have spent (1) sleeping, or more importantly, (2) writing something new. So I’m going to give the no comments thing a go and see what happens.

As Matt says in his post, this doesn’t mean I don’t want feedback. We’ve already established that I enjoy arguing, so I also enjoy reading peopl’s counter-arguments (or support, of course). So like Matt, I also hope to get the following types of feedback:

  • A tweet to let me know if you agree/disagree and why.
  • A post on your own site using DH5 or DH6 to agree/disagree with something I said.
  • An email if you don’t want to say anything publicly.

I will link to responses that are DH5+ and add to the conversation (even if it makes me look stupid for writing something). I’m not turning off comments to discourage engagement disagreement, I’m turning it off to help me sleep better and give me more time for writing (this is a side project, so I need all the extra time I can get).

2012

So those are some of my thoughts about what you might see here in 2012. For bonus points, go read this excellent post on how to make a better Internet, and what to do about things that annoy you. For me, lesson #9 will probably become my writing goal this year:

Stop reading bad writing. Keep writing good writing.

I’m not there yet, but I do enjoy trying. Thanks for coming with me.

Everything for free, always: how Facebook ads show us the sad state of the Internet

I don’t like anonymous sources, but this post by “a former CTO [who] was briefed on Facebook’s advertising strategy” caught a lot of people’s attention last week. This paragraph, in particular, stands out:

What most users don’t know is that the new features being introduced are all centered around increasing the value of Facebook to advertisers, to the point where Facebook representatives have been selling the idea that Timeline is actually about re-conceptualizing users around their consumer preferences, or as they put it, “brands are now an essential part of people’s identities.”

Brent Simmons had a very succinct response to that last quote:

Pukin’

I agree.

John Gruber then linked to a page that Facebook set up to explain how they make money. Facebook says that it now costs over a billion dollars a year to keep the site running. That’s a lot of money, for sure. But it’s a damn shame that advertising appears to be the only viable way for Facebook to foot that bill.

Facebook says that they have over 800 million active users, and that “more than 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.” So let’s, for argument’s sake, say that about 500 million users visit Facebook every day. If each of those users paid Facebook $2 per year, the revenue would cover the cost of running the site. Just increase that to $3 per year, or 25c per month, and you suddenly have $1.5B revenue per year (or roughly $500M profit, based on Facebook’s rough estimate of their operating costs). Let’s be clear about this: it’s the cost of one coffee per year.

Yes, of course this is naive – it would never happen. Most people aren’t willing to pay for services or content on the Internet. There is an expectation that everything should be free, and that at the same time, companies should respect our privacy and keep The Brands™ away from our personal information. It’s not a realistic expectation – something’s gotta give if no one is willing to pay for anything. But most people don’t think about it long enough to realize that.

A recent article on the Pinboard blog really resonated with me, and by the way it spread on Twitter I know it struck a chord with a lot of others too. From Don’t be a free user:

What if a little site you love doesn’t have a business model? Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t take prohibitive per-user revenue to put a project in the black. It just requires a number greater than zero.

In Facebook’s case that “number greater than zero” is $3 per year (have I mentioned that it’s per year!?). But the non-geek world just don’t think about these things. They don’t think about designers and developers who create apps and need to be compensated for it to keep a service alive. They feel that 99c is too much to pay for an iOS game. They freak out every time Facebook moves some things around, still blissfully unaware that they are not Facebook’s customers, they’re just the product being sold to advertisers. All they want is their free Facebook so they can “inbox” their friends about tomorrow’s party. “Pay for this thing?”, they say. “Screw that – it’s not my problem how you keep the site up. Oh, by the way, just remember that you have to respect my privacy and you can’t show me any advertising.”

It’s terribly frustrating.

I fear we’ve painted ourselves into this free corner, and the only way out is to sell our identities to The Brands™. Steve Jobs alluded to this in his negotiations with the New York Times when he refused to give them access to user information Apple collects in the App store. From his biography:

If you don’t like it, don’t use us. I’m not the one who got you in this jam. You’re the ones who’ve spent the past five years giving away your paper online and not collecting anyone’s credit card information.

We created this culture. We’re the ones who have been giving stuff away for free for the past decade, not collecting anyone’s credit card information. We’ve conditioned users that everything should be free, always. This gives advertisers the upper hand in any negotiation, because they know that their way is the only way that most sites can make money.

Why is this such a big deal? Relevant, contextual advertising isn’t bad, right? Not in moderation, no (see The Deck). But when ads become the only way out and advertisers are the ones calling the shots, users suffer. Also, as a matter of principle I firmly believe that it’s better to pay the makers of things directly than through some convoluted ad system.

We can’t really blame Facebook for choosing this path of least resistance. It’s the hand they were dealt by the culture we’ve created. But I remain hopeful that new services will charge for what they do so that we can slowly begin to define our own identities without The Brands™ trying to tell us who we are.

Who will hold a brief for the real?

the-real-you.jpg

When I saw this image on Comical Concept I first found it funny. And then I realized how scarily true it is. It reminded me of a couple of paragraphs from Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together:

But online, you’re slim, rich, and buffed up, and you feel you have more opportunities than in the real world. So, here, too, better than nothing can become better than something – or better than anything. Not surprisingly, people report feeling let down when they move from the virtual to the real world. It is not uncommon to see people fidget with their smartphones, looking for virtual places where they might once again be more.

It is not unusual for people to feel more comfortable in an unreal place than a real one because they feel that in simulation they show their better and perhaps truer self. With all of this going on, who will hold a brief for the real?

As a constant user myself, it would be hypocritical of me to go on a rant against social media. But I do worry about how this story plays out. What happens when we get so attached to the online places where we “might once again be more” that we get tired of being with the people around us?

On Amazon, Apple, and common excuses for bad usability

Jakob Nielsen explains why saying “but it’s cheap!” is not a good excuse for the Kindle Fire’s bad user interface design:

The difference between user interface design and hardware specs is that better usability is derived from one-time expenses for user studies, design iterations, and coding – whereas beefier hardware (say, adding a camera) is a repeated expense for each additional unit manufactured.

This means that even cheap devices can have great usability because the cost of better research and design is amortized across millions of devices. This is why usability has stupendously high ROI for any big project.

I also like John Gruber’s take on the hardware/software distinction:

[T]hat’s the advantage of software over hardware. You can omit an essential feature and then hustle to get it into your first major update. Good luck adding volume buttons to your Kindle Fire.

Does this mean it’s ok for the first version of the Kindle Fire to have a low-quality UX? Here’s Nielsen again:

I understand why Amazon might want to ship a poor product in late November rather than a good product in February: they want to catch the holiday shopping season. Whether the extra sales are worth the brand damage from a low-quality user experience is difficult to judge.

Amazon has a history of doing this kind of thing. The first Kindle eReader was not a great product, and it didn’t get good reviews. But they kept at it and turned it into something truly great.

This points to one of the main differences between Apple and Amazon. Apple waits until an experience is as close to perfect as possible before they ship. Amazon gets something out there as soon as possible, but then – and this is important – they don’t just move on. They keep working at the product until it reaches an experience they’re happy with.

Both companies are very successful despite their different philosophies on when to ship a product. It proves that we should get over this idea that everyone should just copy everything Apple does. There’s more than one successful business strategy.

I’m sure the Kindle Fire will follow the same trajectory as the original Kindle eReader and become a great device. Eventually. Still, let’s not kid ourselves – the current one isn’t great.

Glitz vs. Plumbing: why I also quit Delicious and switched to Pinboard

Sometimes, you don’t need glitz; you need plumbing.

That’s Charles Arthur in Goodbye Delicious, hello Pinboard, explaining why The Guardian is dumping Delicious as their social bookmarking service. Let me ask you a question. Which of the following two screen shots is prettier?

Delicious:

delicious-screenshot.jpg

 

Pinboard:

pinboard-screenshot.jpg

 

Delicious, right? Now let me ask you another question. Which site is more useful as a social bookmarking site? It’s ok, I’ll answer for you: it’s Pinboard.

Pinboard’s aesthetic[1] is fairly bland, but the  sparse, table-like layout is the best way to organize the vast amount of information you collect on the Internet. The aesthetic fits the purpose of the app. But wait, there’s more. It lets you import from Twitter, Instapaper, and Google Reader (well, back in the day when Google Reader still supported public sharing). It has browser bookmarklets that work effortlessly. It integrates smoothly with a variety of RSS Readers. Sorry for the cliché, but it just works.

Meanwhile, Delicious has become slow, it has constant availability issues, and the aesthetic keeps getting more extravagant. This actually reduces its utility by obscuring the app’s core features. Social bookmarking is about two things – tagging the things you’re saving, and searching for those thing later on. That’s it. The new Delicious owners are apparently trying to turn it into something more, but whatever that something more is, I’m not buying.

Anyway, back to glitz and plumbing. As I’ve mentioned before, great aesthetic design builds trust, increases engagement, and elicits the appropriate emotional responses to a brand. But glitz is something else. Glitz is about making things shiny without asking what the thing should look like to fulfill its primary purpose.

Social bookmarking is Internet plumbing, not glitz. I now use Pinboard, and highly recommend it.

 


  1. Time for the obligatory disclaimer. Yes, Design is about problem solving, and it includes elements such as User Research, Interaction Design, Content Strategy, Visual Design, etc. Here I am referring only to the aesthetic layer of the Visual Design component. ↩

Losing out on the advantages of deep, immersive thought

John Barber writes about the problems with reading on tablets in Books vs. screens: Which should your kids be reading?:

The hyperlinked, text-messaging screen shapes the mind quite differently than the book, according to Wolf. “It pulls attention with such rapidity it doesn’t allow the kind of deep, focused attention that reading a book 10 years ago invited,” she says. “It invites constant change of attention, it invites multitasking. It invites, in other words, a kind of triage of attention.”

Such a skill is certainly necessary in the 21st century, she adds. “But it does not have a place in the deepest kind of immersive thought.”

I’ve definitely noticed this in myself. I get fidgety after reading a few pages on my Kindle, wondering what I’m missing elsewhere on the web. I find myself struggling to embrace boredom. It’s not a good trend.

Related: it’s a good thing I just bought this.

An overabundance of junk information

David Eaves wrote a great review of Clay Johnson’s new book The Information Diet:

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases.

In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value.

In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

It looks like a considered, non-alarmist analysis of the problem, with some good practical advice on how to address it. I just bought it – here’s the Amazon link if you’d like to do the same.

Case study: the user experience of kalahari.com, one year later

When I arrived at kalahari.com in December 2010 the site hasn’t seen any significant UI improvements during the 10+ years of its existence. My job description was pretty straightforward: do something about that.

In this post I’d like to talk about the work our team did over the past 12 months to get where we are today. When I look at the site now I still see so much wrong with it – there are way too many things that we still need to fix. So this isn’t an attempt to hold up our work as some kind of standard. I’m doing this in the interest of sharing our methods and lessons learned with the larger design community. I’ve learned so much from others who have shared their stories that it seems only fair that I do the same. So here’s our journey so far.

Making sense of the landscape

Here’s what kalahari.com looked like on December 1, 2010:

Kalahari.com home page - old

 

If you stepped through the site back then you probably would have felt as overwhelmed as I did. Where do we start? What order should we do things in? After the first few days of having too much coffee and talking to people all over the organization I realized that we had two primary challenges:

  • No formal prioritization or product development process. It was the same situation I’ve seen many times before. Requirements went straight from “The Business” to developers. That kicked off an endless back and forth about what was needed, with only a cursory nod to Design. The “First In First Out” approach to prioritization was also quite common. The result was, well, not ideal. We needed to fix this.
  • No formal user experience design. This was no surprise, and it was the reason I took the job in the first place. There was no user research, no content strategy, no interaction design, and no visual design beyond marketing and merchandizing materials. This is the part that really excited me: the opportunity to introduce User Experience Design into an organization that was (to their enormous credit) hungry for it but didn’t know where to start.

So we immediately got to work on both those problems.
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