The word “paywall” is one of many we use to describe aspects of digital experiences that reveal how we metaphorically think of them as places. A wall is a barrier, and with a “pay” wall we erect a financial barrier between parts of an information environment. We use the word most often in the context of journalism, where publications such as the Wall Street Journal have adopted it as their primary business model online.
Back in June, Facebook announced that they’re experimenting with “subscription groups,” giving admins the ability to set up paywalls for their Facebook groups. According to a post on The Verge, admins will be able to charge between $4.99 – $29.99 per month for membership in groups. Facebook is positioning the pilot as a way for group administrators to get rewarded for managing their communities. The company has tested advertising to groups in the past; I’m glad to see it exploring sources of revenue beyond selling the attention of its users.
If you want to see an excellent example of an information architecture that affects your day-to-day experience, examine the contents of your pantry. In many countries, most packaged food products will include a label that looks something like this:
This is what is known as a nutrition facts label. The label shows you various informational facets about the foodstuff you’re about to consume: carbohydrates, sodium, fats, vitamins, nutritional energy, etc. These facets are often presented both in absolute terms (e.g., energy in calories or joules) or relative terms (e.g., energy as a percentage provided by the foodstuff against a standard, usually defined by the government.)
In many cases, such as the one above, the visual presentation of nutritional labels has a clear information hierarchy. In the United States, food’s energy potential (measured in calories) is often the primary facet. This feature of the label’s design reflects the culture’s general understanding that consuming lots of high-calorie foods can be unhealthy. (Some countries establish strict regulations on how these labels can be laid out; they do this because layout tweaks could mislead consumers — intentionally or not.)
In any case, the presence of nutritional labels transforms our experience of consuming food. In a culture in which food is widely understood to have these informational characteristics, eating a cheeseburger is not a mere matter of qualia; you can’t just enjoy one without knowing that in doing so you’re using up a certain number of the day’s allotted calories. This is not to pass judgment on the concept of nutrition labels. Having access to more information about food can help you make decisions that lead to a longer, healthier life. But what is beyond question is that understanding food not just in terms of taste, satiety, texture, etc., but also in the more abstract terms of sodium content, fat content, caloric content, etc. changes the experience of eating.
Earlier this week, Twitter launched a new feature: Bookmarks, which allow users to save a tweet for later reference. Many people (myself included) have used Twitter’s “Like” feature to do this in the past. But liking is different than bookmarking, and adding this feature is a way of clarifying Twitter’s ontology.
Although it seems like an intriguing addition to Twitter, I don’t need another inbox in my life. I’m a long-time practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, so I seek to reduce the number of nooks where I’m storing stuff for later retrieval. (I already have an Instapaper queue that I haven’t visited in months and which is gnawing at my conscience.) Twitter’s Bookmarks seems like another such place. Still, it may be useful if it helps make clearer the intent behind “liking” stuff in the Twitter environment.
Facebook is constantly tweaking the algorithms they use to select which items appear on your newsfeed. In a recent blog post, the company announced upcoming tweaks that will have an important impact on the structure of the environment:
Today we use signals like how many people react to, comment on or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed.
With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed. These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to – whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.
We will also prioritize posts from friends and family over public content, consistent with our News Feed values.
This is a big deal, not just for users but also for commercial entities using Facebook as a platform. The way I read this post, these commercial posts will be de-prioritized in favor of posts from friends and family. As a Facebook user, I’m excited about this, but I can see how this is going to hurt many businesses.
In the near-term, Facebook itself may be one of the businesses hurt by the change. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects some of the company’s engagement metrics to go down as a result. (Read: Facebook’s advertising business may suffer.) The tradeoff, according to Zuckerberg, is that time spent in Facebook will be more valuable for its users.
I’ve been critical of Facebook in the past because of the way it monetizes its users’ attention. This change sounds like a responsible step towards an information environment that is more respectful of its users’ needs.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a popular web video series created by and starring Jerry Seinfeld. Originally published through Crackle, the series recently moved to Netflix.
Most Netflix video series are grouped in numbered “seasons,” mirroring the way TV shows have been released in the past. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is also grouped in batches, but these are not called seasons. Instead, they’re called “collections,” and they have quirky names:
This approach reinforces the show’s theme (coffee) and silliness. It also raises interesting issues. The Netflix UI relies on the user knowing what seasons are, so there’s no need for additional labels for season selectors. This is not as clear given this show’s quirky labels:
Another issue is that season-based shows have an explicit sequence: shows produced in season one precede those in season two. I don’t know if that’s true in this organization scheme. These labels hint at themes for each collection; I expect shows in “Light & Sweet” to be, well, light and sweet.
Ultimately, the underlying “grouping by season” structure remains; what varies is the labeling of individual collections. Streaming services such as Netflix aren’t beholden to the traditional constraints of TV publishing. This show’s taxonomy hints at a different way of consuming TV content, one that eschews sequential order in favor of the exploration of themes that span multiple episodes.
I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, it’s served me as a virtual water cooler, allowing me to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. (Especially important when I lived in a part of the world that lacked an active design community.) But Twitter has also become a source of anxiety, frustration, and abuse. This is partly due to the place having grown despite being devoid of a vision of what it ought to be.
One of the signs of this lack of vision is how many of Twitter’s key features have been adoptions of user hacks. Addressing people by their @-name, hashtags, and retweets were all user inventions. Tweet threads is the latest such innovation adopted by Twitter.
Threads first emerged as a way to overcome the platform’s 140-character post limit. Users would reply to their own tweets, often numbering them to create a sequence. While threads are useful (in that they allow for longer ideas), they’re are also difficult to write and read. This new feature should fix that.
I’m glad Twitter has added a way to make threads easier to create, but I don’t understand why we need this at all. We already have an effective medium for long-form writing. It’s called a blog, a format that has many advantages over Twitter threads. Given that you’re reading this on one, you know where I stand on this.
The Trust Project is a consortium of news organizations that aims to “build a more trustworthy and trusted press.” They’ve defined a taxonomy of “Trust Indicators” to help add context to news stories so readers can get a sense of where the information is coming from. The taxonomy consists of eight core indicators:
Type of Work
Citations and References
These indicators in turn have attributes that account for such details as the publication’s corrections policy, its ownership structure, authors’ area(s) of expertise, and so on. The full list is available in the Trust Project’s website.
As part of its initiatives to fight fake news, Facebook has said it will begin adding these credibility attributes to news stories. This should allow its users to make more informed decisions about their sources for news.
Improving contextual awareness is always a good thing. I hope this initiative helps curtail the spread of misinformation by increasing transparency.
How do you show meaningful geographic information at various scales in a small screen? That’s the challenge faced by designers of mapping applications on smartphones.
Both Google and Apple — makers of the two most popular maps applications — keep evolving their apps to improve their clarity and information density. (Justin O’Beirne has published a fascinating look at how Google and Apple Maps evolved over the course of a year. Worth checking out.”)
First, we’ve updated the driving, navigation, transit and explore maps to better highlight the information most relevant to each experience (think gas stations for navigation, train stations for transit, and so on). We’ve also updated our color scheme and added new icons to help you quickly identify exactly what kind of point of interest you’re looking at.
The latter point is particularly interesting to me. Points of interest are marked with a variety of icons that can be in one of eight colors:
The combination of colors with the form of the icons gives you information about what they are in a very compact form:
The first thing that comes to mind when I see such schemes is, “what happens with people who are color-blind?” This particular application doesn’t appear to rely completely on color (icons are a fallback), but color is central to the maps’ visual hierarchy and some of these seem awfully close.
That said, Google Maps and Apple Maps do an admirable job of conveying useful information in smartphone screens. Designers of such apps face various challenges that aren’t present in many other systems, including the fact that users can arbitrarily vary the scale of the map. This requires careful consideration of hierarchy: knowing which elements to present when is key. It’s worth studying the ongoing evolution of these apps as they move to display ever more information in the same constrained space.
If you stop someone on the street and ask him or her for a list of movie genres, they’ll probably recite a few familiar ones: action/adventure, comedies, dramas, documentaries, and so on. If you ask a few folks, you’ll probably hear lots of overlap between them. I’d also venture most people’s lists have less than ten items in them.
Netflix’s list of genres, on the other hand, has tens of thousands of items in it. Of course, nobody is expected to navigate such a long taxonomy by themselves; instead, the system uses it to recommend new movies to its users. Somebody who’s looking at an “absurd stoner comedy” (an actual Netflix micro-genre) may be interested in more, so the system recommends others grouped under that genre.
This 2014 article on The Atlantic on how these “micro-genres” work is a must-read for information architects. And if you want explore them yourself — and possibility discover a weird new movie — here’s a complete list of Netflix’s micro-genres.