According to a report on The Verge, Twitter will soon start testing new ways of displaying tweets that should give them more context. Some features clarify messages’ positions in conversations using reply threads:
I’m more intrigued by two other features: availability indicators and context tags. The former are green bubbles next to the user’s name that indicate whether s/he is online and using the app at any given time. (Much like other chat systems do.) The latter are tags that allow users to indicate what a tweet refers to. Having a bit more context on what a tweet is about should help avoid non-sequiturs. (I assume it would also make it easier to filter out things you don’t want to bother with.)
Features like these should drive engagement in Twitter and add clarity for users; a case of alignment between the company’s goals and those of its users.
I’ve written before about how social networks are fostering human interactions in what have traditionally been solitary environments. Earlier this year, Facebook launched a new feature called Watch Party that exemplifies this trend. It allows a group of people to simultaneously watch a video and discuss it in real time.
Watch Party has been around for a while, but it hasn’t been broadly available. That changed a couple of days ago; now it’s possible for anyone to share a video for communal viewing in his or her newsfeed, timeline, group, or page. (Here are instructions on how to set up a Watch Party.)
This feature isn’t entirely new; for example, YouTube Live offers similar functionality. However, Facebook’s greater reach makes it an appealing alternative. I’m fascinated with how people interact with each other online. Watch Party is a great example of a feature explicitly designed to get people to interact in real time around a shared experience in an information environment.
According to a report on The Verge, Twitter is redesigning its iOS apps to de-emphasize follower counts. Per the story, this is just one item of metadata being de-emphasized, ostensibly to raise the profile of tweet content by comparison.
Follower count on Twitter serves as a proxy for credibility. An account with more followers has more influence on the network. Twitter users are therefore subtly incentivized to gain more users, and this may influence the type of content they post.
So I can understand why Twitter would want to de-emphasize this measure. That said, the screenshot shared in The Verge’s article is very subtle. I wonder if it’s subtle enough? (You don’t want to lose the follower number altogether.)
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.