I recently ran across this video for the latest version of my favorite task management app, OmniFocus:
“Tags” is the leading feature of version three of the app, and this video highlights its power: it’s all about giving end users the power to create personalized information structures that allow us to be more productive. Another example of information architecture as a key product differentiator.
One of the most famous aphorisms in management is Peter Drucker’s observation that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This phrase succinctly captures an important idea: when deciding the way forward, data is your friend. Rather than discussing directions in the abstract, this concept encourages us to break down problems into impartial facets we can trace over time.
However, as useful as it is, there’s a flip side to this concept: with a compelling enough measure, we can lose sight of the ultimate “it” we’re trying to improve. The point of losing weight isn’t to read a lower number on a scale; it’s to get healthier. The number is a proxy for health — and an imperfect one at that. “Health” is a complex subject with lots of nuances. Articulating it as a single number can make it easier to understand, but oversimplifies a complex whole.
We compound the problem when we base incentives on these numbers. Let’s say you’re promised a $500 bonus if you lose a certain amount of weight by a particular date. At that point “health” is twice abstracted: your goal is now neither health nor weight but the money. The numbers start to become more important than the ultimate thing we want to achieve. The map is not the territory, but we’re being incentivized to navigate the map.
We hope to get to the goal on the real ground the map represents. But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the map is so compelling that it becomes the territory. This has happened with measures in social media such as follower counts on Twitter.
Back to The Verge article. High-level summary: After a recent kerfuffle between two “creators,” YouTube is changing how its system displays subscriber counts. Creators compete for subscribers, and their fortunes wax and wane accordingly. In this system, follower counts are a proxy for popularity. It’s an imperfect measure, but it’s clear and compelling, and so emerges as the locus of attention for an economy of influence. I didn’t realize it until reading about this issue, but there’s a secondary market on these stats: websites like Social Blade exist solely to track how these people are doing relative to each other. It’s a big deal.
But what’s the ultimate goal here? What social function is this system enabling? (What’s the equivalent of “health”?) Is it entertainment? Commerce? Both?
IDAGIO is a music streaming service. It competes with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music — big players with deep pockets! But IDAGIO is different: it only streams classical music.
If you’re into classical music, you know the other music streaming services aren’t good at classical. Not because of the quality of the recordings, but because they’re set up for pop music, which is usually consumed in single tracks. Classical music, on the other hand, is usually presented in “works,” compositions that consist of several tracks. Structuring information in this way is the first feature IDAGIO highlights on its homepage:
The best search
Unlike other streaming services, we organise music by work not track. Compare all recordings of your favourite work, browse different interpretations, and find the latest albums.
Information architecture as strategic differentiator.
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.