Back in the 1990s when the web revolution was starting, there was much discussion about e-commerce taking over from “brick-and-mortar” stores. Of course, we’ve seen that story play out; the “Great Retail Apocalypse” of 2017 is attributed at least in part to the rise of online shopping, particularly on Amazon.com.
While many of us have moved our shopping from physical to information environments, Amazon itself has been making incursions in the opposite direction. They’ve established popup Kindle stores in shopping malls, established physical bookstores, opened the forward-looking Amazon Go stores, and bought the Whole Foods supermarket chain.
And now, Amazon has opened a new physical retail store in New York dedicated to selling products rated four stars or more by its online customers. Beyond the fact that the real-world store’s product selection is influenced by the online store’s feedback mechanisms, the way these products are organized in the physical space also mirrors categories in Amazon’s information environment. Groupings include most-wished-for products, those trending locally, and Amazon Exclusives, all categories we’re used to seeing in Amazon.com.
At this point, many brick-and-mortar retailers have established information environments with online organization schemes that take cues from their physical retail outlets. It’s fascinating to see the process happening in the opposite direction.
When Twitter launched, its concept was easy to understand: you’d “follow” accounts who could post short messages through the system. When you logged in, you could see a list of these messages in the order they were published, starting with the latest. (Of course, you could also post messages that the people who followed you could see in their message lists.)
Twelve years on, many details of how Twitter works have evolved, but the basic principle remains the same. That is, except for the message list; that has changed in a significant way. A chronological list of messages doesn’t scale very well you’re following hundreds of active accounts. So a couple of years ago, Twitter changed the way it presents messages in its “feed”: instead of showing you the latest stuff in the chronological order the messages were posted, the feed changed to show messages that Twitter deemed most relevant to you.
This algorithmic feed arguably made it easier for newer users to see valuable content, but it made it more difficult for experienced users to keep track of conversation threads that depended on the order in which messages were posted. Twitter is now enabling a setting to allow users to determine whether they prefer to see the algorithmic feed or the simpler chronological one by default.
This is a major structural change to the environment that will benefit the people who need it. I’m one of those people: Seeing tweets in this simple reverse-chronological order is one of the reasons why I prefer using third-party Twitter clients. I’m glad to see the return of the simple reverse-chronological feed. (Although I wish Twitter would work with third-party developers to get their apps back to full functionality — I so much prefer using the Tweetbot app in my Mac over the Twitter web interface!)
Last week I had the privilege of attending the UX Week conference in San Francisco. One of the things I like best about going to a conference is meeting new people. Alas, talking with people I don’t know can be challenging. It’s often not until we find we have something in common that the conversation starts flowing. (It’s easier when you’re a presenter and the other person saw your talk; then you have that in common.)
This is even more difficult when interacting in information environments. At least when communicating in physical environments, we have rich cues that give us a bit more background about the person: how they dress, the tone of their voice, their demeanor, etc. You get no such cues in information environments; often all you see is the person’s name, perhaps a thumbnail of their photo, and a few words they’ve written. It’s thin material to build a conversation upon.
I sense this is the issue Facebook is tackling with a feature it’s currently testing called “things in common.” According to a report in CNET, this feature will add contextual information to people’s names when they post in public conversations: it’ll highlight the things you and that person have in common. So for example, if both of you attended the same school, that fact will appear under the person’s name. The feature will only show information people have made public and will respect audience and privacy settings.
Facebook gets much grief in the media (often with good reason) for its cavalier attitude towards personal information. That said, this feature sounds like a good thing overall. The more I can know about the people I’m interacting with, the more likely I am to start our relationship from a position of trust — to give them the benefit of the doubt. And if the other person is expressing a position that’s different from mine, I’ll probably be less likely to cast them as evil or stupid immediately if I know we come from the same hometown or have similar interests.
I wonder what (if any) unintended consequences could arise from something like this. Would it be weird if the information is asymmetrical? (I can see where the other person is from, but they can’t see where I’m from.) If so, I may assume a degree of familiarity that could be creepy from their perspective. In any case, this new feature sounds like an interesting way of adding richness to an interaction between two strangers. I’m looking forward to experiencing it.
A big change is coming to the Facebook mobile app over the next few weeks. Yesterday, the company announced that it’s redesigning their mobile app navigation bar. This is the bar you see at the bottom of the iOS app (and the top of the Android app) with shortcuts to the most important parts of the Facebook information environment:
The issue, of course, is that “most important” is relative: what’s most important to me may be completely irrelevant to you. For example, see that “shop” icon in the center of that screenshot above? That’s for the Facebook Marketplace, the company’s eBay competitor. I never use Marketplace — in fact, I sometimes annoyingly end up there because I mis-tap that center icon. I wish I could have something else instead of Marketplace in that nav bar, and that indeed seems to be what’s coming.
Soon, Facebook will start rolling out a version of the app that changes the primary shortcuts for each user of the application. Initially, the choices will be based on usage, but eventually the app will allow you to choose which shortcuts you want on the bar. (Well, all except three. You won’t be able to change the shortcuts to the newsfeed, notifications, and main menu. That makes sense, as those are undoubtedly the most important parts of the Facebook environment.)
While we haven’t gotten a glimpse of how Facebook plans to implement this feature, I’m reminded of the customizable main navigation bar of my favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot:
See those up and down arrows in the two rightmost icons? That means you can long-press those to get more options:
This allows you to customize two of the five shortcuts in the navigation bar. It’s not something you use all the time, but it’s convenient to have; a detail that makes the app more useful and personal. Is this what Facebook is doing? I don’t know — but I hope it is. I have very little use for the Marketplace and Video links in the navigation bar, and wish I could change them to something more useful.
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.