I’ve Been Had

Today I spammed everyone on my AIM contact list with an invitation to join Facebook.
I was searching for co-workers on the social network, trying to
understand the more useful apps and plugins available to the average
user, when I inadvertently clicked yes and authorized Facebook to
contact everyone on my buddy list. I was distracted. I was
multitasking. I was not as careful as I should have been. And, with one
click, I was totally humiliated. My heart stopped for what seemed like
an entire minute while I prayed for a confirmation screen that never
came. I had misread a question, given my permission, and there was no
going back. I just sat there and wondered how I’d explain to my
colleagues, friends, peers, and, of course, the random total strangers
I’d added to my list along the way, that I was a complete idiot who’d
let Facebook hijack my buddy list to solicit memberships. I was one
more unsuspecting pawn in the Facebook battle for world domination.

There is value in centralizing data. So many of us are out
devouring and contributing to content-rich websites and social
networks, connecting with long-lost friends, classmates, colleagues.
We’re finally in a position to leverage ‘who we know’. Because, what
have we always heard? It’s not what you know, but who. And the who has
never been more accessible. We’re separated by miles and years and
jobs, but we’re just a click away thanks to networks like Facebook and MySpace and LinkedIn.
There are new social and professional network sites trying to get in on
the action every day. Today alone I had two colleagues try to get me to
join Plaxo Pulse.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they even knew they’d asked me to join.
Recently a friend’s contact list had been hijacked by Spock (I refuse
to link to this evil entity) to invite 2500 of his closest friends to
join him there. I felt better about my 125 AIM
messages when I compared it to 2500. But the sting was still there.As
more and more of these networks fight for our information, who’s going
to prove the front runner? Clearly he (or she) who owns the most data
wins. And Facebook’s shift from social network to ‘platform’ seems to
suggest they believe they can connect all of this decentralized data
floating around on the web and make it accessible via their single,
simple, interface. So while the data might be scattered amongst iTunes, flickr, Amazon,
AIM and other lesser known entities, a series of simple web
applications can integrate all of it into the Facebook platform. What’s
more, Facebook turns it around and provides an aggregate snapshot of
your contacts’ data. It’s really a win-win. Or is it? Recently Facebook has taken some heat
for invasive marketing tactics via it’s Beacon system. Beacon takes
data from external websites and makes it available to your contact list
with the intention of promoting product through passive endorsements.
If you bought something on Amazon, and you’re my friend, the thinking
is I might be interested in that product as well. Because you, my
friend, are just so darn influential in my life. The problem with this
theory is you might be my friend, but I might not want you to know I
just bought zit cream from my favorite zit cream website. Its an
invasion of privacy and Facebook is still working that one out. Beyond
that though, Facebook is starting to look like the Borg. Resistance is
clearly futile. If you want to be in touch with anyone in this 21st
century the easiest and most practical way to do it is through the
web/Facebook, and peer pressure is unavoidable. Come on, everybody’s
doing it. There’s a suggestion of youthful trendiness that we all fall
victim to. Once you make the leap, though, you’ve sold your soul to the
internet’s equivalent of the devil. Because once you create that
profile, there’s (allegedly) no getting that data back. You can’t quit
Facebook. Not really, anyway.

What does it all mean? To those of us working in technology? And
those of us consuming it? These are tough questions to answer. But it
seems clear that one of the most valuable assets of our time is our
data. Our information. Yet, in spite of that reality, our data is
clouded by a mix of fear (identity theft) and ignorance (my dog’s name
is my password!). What’s our responsibility as creators of content, and
websites and systems and as participants of networks? What is our
contribution? How can we influence how all of this unfolds? I believe
that how we interact with, and collect data from users, needs to
reflect truth and authenticity. Sure, we publish privacy statements and
terms of use policies. We won’t store data or we won’t sell it or give
it away or use it without permission. But it’s more than that. We need
to help users understand what it is they’re providing and how easy it
is to exploit. We need to give them an opportunity to change their
minds, or confirm their understanding of an interaction. In my case for
instance, a simple ‘confirmation’ page would have saved me the
embarrassment of having to apologize to 125 friends and colleagues for
that unwanted IM spam. Facebook knew exactly what it was doing when it
required only a single click to access my list. I think it’s a cheap
tactic in the race for the most data. The downside is, I’m no longer as
enthusiastic about the value of Facebook as a networking tool. I see it
as suspect now. The upside is I’ll be more careful when I use little
web apps like that. But our standards for collecting this data aren’t
set in stone. We’ve only just begun, so what more can we do to extend
real value for the user, and tap into the thing that’s most valuable to
our clients? We can consider a user’s understanding of their valuable
points of data as part of our commitment to simple, usable web
experiences. We should see how we collect data as part of usability. We
should only collect what is absolutely critical to the experience and
we should make certain the user understands the cost of sharing their
data and the return on their investment of trust. Finally, we need to
keep our promises. Sharing data should have some reward for the user,
in terms of access to content, or connections or something of value. We
should treat our user’s data as sacred. If we expect to foster a
long-term customer relationship, we need to respect what we know about
a user and what we continue to discover. It’s common sense, really.

of us, even presumed ‘experts’ can fall victim to guerilla data
collection tactics. It’s embarrassing. It’s painful. It’s avoidable.
The difference, though, is we have the ability to influence change. We
have the option of applying some code of conduct to how websites
interact with users. We’re not done. We’ve only just begun. Facebook
doesn’t get to decide. We do.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog]

Web = Magic?

As consumers of digital media, do we have a responsibility to understand the technology, even a little bit?  I guess I’m not really talking about myself here.  But I am talking about those average consumers.  People like my mom or my in-laws.  People who still don’t understand what a web browser is, or that AOL is not the internet.  My intention is not to put them down, or diminish their importance as we continue to evolve user experiences.  Instead, I’d like to encourage them to, quite simply, figure it out.  I want my mother-in-law to stop calling me whenever she can’t get on the internet because she forgot to plug the phone cord into her dial up modem.  Not because I’m not happy to help, but because the more you get about how it all works, the more you can take advantage of the advantages and efficiencies technology, or more specifically, the internet, can add to your life. We should be afraid of crossing the street against the light, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or eating puffer fish.  But we should not be afraid of technology.  If we use common sense, and we’re careful about the information we share, we can dive right in without fear.  You cannot break a website.  Those are words to live by.  As a user, you cannot break a site.  Fearless exploration is encouraged. 

Remember too, its called interactive technology because, in order for it to work the way it was intended, it requires your participation.  That doesn’t mean its ok to just mindlessly click random buttons.  Part of the interactive experience comes from contextual queues.  Paying attention to button text, instructional copy, visual imagery meant to guide your eye, all of this is your responsibility in the interaction.  One of the hardest messages to communicate to the fearful is really so simple.  Read.  Read what the buttons say.  Look for those helpful messages that will guide you and make your experience easier to navigate or more intuitive.  They should be there.  If they are not, well, that’s a whole other blog post.  But generally speaking, a web experience is structured around a fairly standard framework.  You should be able to get to the information you need within a click or two.  And those clicks should be clearly marked in some way or another.  Take responsibility for your experience and pay attention.  Read the page. 

Once you’ve committed to your part in the experience, its important to remember that technology is fallible.  I know. I know.  Everyone is always talking about the internet like its the cheeze whiz of the new millennium.  But please remember, it is not without it’s flaws, and it’s dependencies.  Your experience depends on a variety of things, the speed of your connection to the internet, the speed at which your pc processes information, the kind of information you are attempting to access.  Clicking into a page of text is very different than clicking into a streaming video.  Sometimes, and I know this is a terrifying consideration, you might just have to *gasp* WAIT.  Nothing boggles my mind more than watching someone click into a page and then witnessing an immediate melt-down while waiting for the page to load.  The incessant clicking that ensues is enough to make my head spin. What you might be interested in knowing is that in addition to your connection speed, your computer speed and the type of data you’re accessing, your browser may be processing many many lines of code with each of those clicks.  It could take a little while. Patience is a virtue.

I know.  I know.  I said the big bad word ‘CODE’.  Sometimes the word  ‘code’ causes people’s eyes to bleed, or roll into the back of their heads.  I am always amused by this.  You don’t have to write code to be ok with the fact that code exists.  What is code?  Simple.  It’s the thousands of lines of a foreign language, that live behind the pretty pictures, that make the pictures work.  It’s that simple.  If you’re uncomfortable with the concept of ‘programming languages’ or ‘code’ you need to get over it.  You don’t need to care any more than you do.  But don’t be intimidated by the fact that it exists.  Get this – there is a computer in your car (more than likely) and elements of how your car functions are managed by coded commands.  You never know they are there and you probably never think about them.  But they exist.  Your cell phone.  Holy smokes!  There’s code involved in how you make phone calls.  I’ve actually had clients say to me ‘. . .don’t mention code please.  Whats-her-name gets upset.’  Are you kidding me?  Don’t get upset.  Just nod knowingly in meetings where code is discussed and you’re already ahead of the competition.

I guess my point in all of this is, there is no magic here.  And whatever actually *happens* on the web is due in large part to your interaction with it.  Here’s your take-away:

Be patient.

Be fearless.

Be informed.

Be smart.

Wait.  Read. Try.


The Importance of Audience

One of the most disturbing things about the Web 2.0 Summit
in San Francisco last October (aside from the small number of women in
attendance) was a panel discussion by what one might call “average
users.” The theme of this year’s Summit was “Discovering the Web’s
Edge.” The organizers took that theme and explored the edges of gaming,
technology, social networking, and–in this case–the edge of the Web’s
users. Namely, older users (at the mid-to-high end of the baby boomer

The panel consisted of three men and two women and began as good, clean fun. One of the couples already had a YouTube presence,
which was discovered partway through the panel and then broadcast on
the big screen to the delight of the audience. The facilitator asked
questions about how they used the Internet which, not surprisingly,
consisted mostly of emailing, personal ads, and Craigslist–which one
user had recently discovered and was extremely excited about. Her
excitement was amusing to everyone. (In fact, she seemed to think
Craigslist was the Internet.)

But, what started out as a few giggles from the audience over one
user’s Craigslist enthusiasm soon grew into uproarious laughter over
just about everything that came out of the panelists’ mouths. At that
point, we looked at each other in horror and realized that the audience
was no longer laughing with this panel, but at them.
Everything at the Summit up until then had been a lot of preaching to
the choir: designers and developers talking to each other, about each
other and for each other. At that moment, the Summit audience should
have been listening more closely than ever. Sure, some of the
panelists’ statements sounded naive or silly or uniformed. But, like it
or not, these “technically impaired” users represent a far greater
portion of our audience than those that are more “like us.”

It’s easy to insulate ourselves from the real world and ignore the
needs of the average user. But, we’re not building experiences for each
other, we’re building them for a particular target. And we would
venture to guess that 9 times out of 10 a target audience is made up of
those “average” users. As developers, we run the risk of contributing
to the lack of usability on the web by building for ourselves in spite
of the research or user information we uncover in the process. Admit
it. We’re all guilty of it. You want your clients to “think outside of
the box” or grasp your brilliant “creative.” We’ve heard more than one
irritated Creative Director suggest, at one time or another, that the
client just doesn’t “get” the big idea or can’t possibly embrace this
cutting edge technology? We know they are out there. We’ve worked with

Yes, we have a responsibility to push our clients to think about
their business and the Internet in ways that may seem new and
unexplored. But, at the end of the day its not really about them, or
us; its about the user. The user that thinks that Craig’s List is the
internet. We don’t work with the average user. We’re barely aware of
them any more. We gorge ourselves on the latest trends as dictated by
our favorite blogs and news sources and summits and conferences and we
get farther and farther away from that user. But who says we’re really
the experts and we get to decide what’s bleeding edge? We’re just as
guilty of insulating ourselves by reading the same blogs, the same
feeds, using the same technology and not exploring anything outside of
our technological comfort zone. This leads to an unhealthy sense of
what’s happening in the world around us and what our mission as
creators of Interactive experiences is really about.

So, does every site need to be created with your mom (or grandma) in
mind? No. But we need to make real efforts to define and understand our
site audiences — even when their technology skills may not be as good
as ours. There are generations of people that aren’t “here” yet. But
that doesn’t make them stupid. If we don’t reach them, we’re missing
out on a significant faction of our commercial targets. And we’re doing
our clients a disservice by not reaching their intended audience.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog