Posts Tagged ‘design’

Facebook credits: Brilliant, Evil or Brilliantly Evil?

by Hang

Venturebeat is reporting that Facebook is planning to introduce a system of giving people credits for status updates:

My first reaction to this was “That’s evil“.

My second reaction was “That’s brilliant“.

After further consideration, I amended it to “That’s brilliantly evil“.

Currently, my position is that it could be any one of the three depending on how they choose to go about it.

What Facebook has done in essence is linked social status to economic status and I think a lot of how this will play out depends on how facebook crafts the narrative around this.

Let’s look at the three alternatives in turn:


By turning social interaction into a economic exchange, facebook turns the default social relationship from one of Balanced Reciprocity into one of Negative Reciprocity.

When we deal with close friends, we engage in a gift culture. I do good things for you because I like you and I expect you’ll return the favor at some later date. With strangers, we are forced to default to an economic exchange because there does not exist a sufficient level of trust to permit a gift culture. What role someone plays in our social sphere is determined by what sort of reciprocity interaction we engage in.

If facebook links their virtual currency up directly to social status with no other viable alternatives, then it forces people to negotiate an economic exchange in relationships which were previous based on gifting. This becomes a hugely uncomfortable experience as one person now occupies two different reciprocity relationships and it becomes unclear what the social obligations are.

If credits become the default social currency of facebook, then I predict disaster. If someone on the site ever thinks “Hey, how come he gave John 300 credits but he only gave me 200 credits? He must like John 50% more”, then facebook is in for some tough times ahead.


At the same time, if facebook designs this feature right, it could be the holy grail of monetization that they’ve been searching for. I’ve never been too convinced that advertising was going to be the business model for facebook given that they have such a rich social tapestry to explore. If they manage to design this feature so that economic exchange is an augmentation of social interaction, then they can leverage credits as a more authentic form of social engagement.

Many of our real world authentic social interactions are marked by economic exchange. Buying a beer for a friend or bringing back souvenirs from a trip abroad for example. In these cases, money spent makes these activities seem more authentic, not less. How can facebook exploit this? I’m not quite sure. But if they manage to strike the right balance, they could end up with a system that both promotes even deeper social engagement while at the same time, make them money hand over fist.

Brilliantly Evil

The most chilling of these three alternatives is that facebook manages to co-opt social status by turning it into an economic exchange. DeBeers convinced America that you buy a diamond to demonstrate your love for a girl and that you love her because the diamond is expensive. The DeBeers mentality is that the only authentic way to demonstrate social status is through economic exchange.

If facebook manages to accomplish this, then the result will be that every facebook employee will become an instant millionaire but facebook profile pages end up looking like something from MTV Cribz.

The road ahead:

Facebook credits has the potential to greatly enhance the range of social expression on the site but it also has the potential to become a complete disaster. Which one of these paths facebook ends up taking depends crucially on the narratives that it’s users adopt and these narratives depend crucially on how facebook credits ends up being designed.

At this point, I’ve only had a few hours to digest this so I don’t think I’m ready to give design suggestions but here are some things I suggest would be worthwhile to explore:

  • What do credits incentivize? Can they become subject to the overjustification effect? Any incentive scheme is going to distort behaviour, and always in ways you never anticipate. Deciding what credits do will have a major function in how they are used.
  • What does credits make comparable that previously wasn’t? How many home cooked meals is getting picked up in the rain after getting a flat tire? It’s precisely because such questions are hard to answer that make gift exchanges so convenient. If Facebook puts a value on something that was previously hard to price, it removes some of the social ambiguity that makes friendships run smoothly.
  • How close to money should it be? Behavioural Economics has shown consistently that Humans regard money-items as very different from non-money items. Under the right conditions, people will prefer $10 gift cards over $15 in cash and are willing to steal $1 chocolate bars but not $1 bills. By calling them credits, facebook pushes it towards the money end of the spectrum which may or may not be what they desire.
  • How close is the link between cash and credits? How many different ways are there of gaining credits and which of these methods is credible? In the original article, the only two ways that credits can be earned are through buying them or building up reputation. Is someone who gives out lots of credits a person who’s rich or a person who has high social status? Is there any way to tell? If there is, does buying credits increase or decrease your social status?

I have to admit, I’m intrigued by the credit system and the social implications that it has. With the right design principles, it could potentially be a game changer much in the same way that the Facebook Application Platform is. And yet, in my discussion with friends so far, I’ve heard nothing but pessimism and I think this is a reflection of all the various ways a scheme like this could go wrong. I guess there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens.

March 27 2009

Slate commits the facebook redesign fallacy

by Hang

Ugh, yet another media establishment is running the fallacious facebook redesign argument and acting all clever about it. Sadly, this time it’s one I actually respect.

March 23 2009

Improving the social dynamics of customer service

by Hang

It’s a common complaint for the tech savvy that you need to go through the gauntlet of dumb questions (did you check if the computer is on?) before you get anywhere with customer service. What if a company made it a policy that a certain proportion of their customers could get “upgraded” into getting direct tier 2 support. Now customers have an incentive to be nice to the reps because the reps are able to reward them and reps have a better gauge of what level of technical sophistication the customer is.

Google’s lead visual designer quit due to a clash of cultures

by Hang

Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer announced yesterday that he was leaving Google to join Twitter. At the root of it, Bowman’s decision to leave stems from a clash of cultures between the world of Interaction and Visual Design. The best way to understand this this clash of cultures is to listen to the ghost stories each field tells the young’uns.

In Interaction Design, around the campfires at night, it’s common to hear a variant of this chilling tale:

I heard, there was this company once, where they, like, got these totally great designers to build this user interface for them and they were all excited about it being the best thing since sliced toast until they tried to watch some people use it in the real world and it, like, totally sucked. The things everyone thought were easy to use were completely confusing. Luckily, they went through several iterations of redesign and testing the thing until it became something users loved.

Interaction designers are actively trained to filter out expert opinion as a justification for design decisions. The expert, no matter how qualified and trained they are, is ultimately, not the user and is ultimately, totally ineffectual and predicting what the user is like. The only way that design decisions can be justified is through feedback from actual users. Uttering the words “I prefer…” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way to move you from the potentially-an-ally category to dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized category in the eyes of an interaction designer.

Over in the Visual Designer camp, a different ghost story is being passed round the campfire:

I heard, there was this company once who hired this, like, genius visual designer who built them this totally bold and brilliant design. But then, in an attempt to please everyone, the design was buried under so many focus groups and QA evaluations that  integrity of the design was destroyed and what was ultimately put up, like, totally sucked and ended up pleasing no one. Luckily, a more design friendly management was put into place and the original design was restored which ended up creating the emotional bond with the users that saved the company.

Visual designers are trained to keep their artistic integrity in the face of pressure and to be the keepers of the secret knowledge against the tide of the aesthetically ignorant. Uttering the words “consensus seeking” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way for you to become a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of a visual designer.

You can see both of these dynamics play out in the Google saga. Douglas Bowman’s characterization of the design process at Google:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

The debate on border pixels dragged on because Bowman became a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of the interaction design team.

Similarly, on Marissa Mayer’s attempt to reach out towards the visual designers:

A designer, Jamie Divine, had picked out a blue that everyone on his team liked. But a product manager tested a different color with users and found they were more likely to click on the toolbar if it was painted a greener shade.

As trivial as color choices might seem, clicks are a key part of Google’s revenue stream, and anything that enhances clicks means more money. Mr. Divine’s team resisted the greener hue, so Ms. Mayer split the difference by choosing a shade halfway between those of the two camps.

Is so, tin-earred it’s cringe inducing. Like rich yuppies trying to connect with the less affluent by speaking the language of the “street”, Marissa reads the culture of visual design so wrong and her attempt and consensus and compromise ends up doing more harm than good.

The sad thing is, both of these viewpoints are perfectly justified and are the result of a counter-intuitive lesson learned. Both of these ghost stories are repeated precisely so the newbies in the field don’t end up making the same mistakes the pros once made. Unfortunately this means for both sides, the views of the other side look like ignorance.

Look, I was like you once, and then I learned better. So I’m just going to sit hear and wait for the other shoe to drop for you Mmmkay? Do you want to hear a ghost story while we’re waiting?

So what you end up getting is a staring contest where each side is waiting for the other to finally blink. Unfortunately, in this case, Douglas Bowman blinked first and both Douglas and Google were both impoverished for this.

PS: In anticipation of the criticism that I have no business talking about visual design when the design of my own site sucks so much, I know, it’s being fixed, be patient.

March 14 2009

Facebook: why the disrespect for events?

by Hang

It seems like how I use facebook is radically different from how facebook thinks I use facebook. For me, events are one of the killer apps that facebook provides, it’s basically the driver for my social calendar. But facebook has oddly seemed to relegate it to the red headed stepchild of it’s feature list. I talked a while ago about how you could infer company priorities through their mobile offerings and it’s quite telling how facebook regards events. Let’s review the status quo:

  • Facebook for the iPhone app: events are completely missing. Theres no way to see them, there’s no way to interact with event news on the news feed, it’s almost soviet in it’s denial that events exist.
  • Facebook website for the iPhone: Events are linked to prominently on the front page but the event description page is missing several crucial pieces of information. Address is listed but not location, both host and description are missing and, most importantly, the attendee list is missing. Photos for events is devoted an entire tab despite the fact that maybe 5% of events I go to ever upload any photos.
  • Facebook Mobile: This is the only mobile offering that actually has a usable event interface but it’s also the least rich in user interface and most annoying to navigate to.
  • Facebook main website: Post redesign, events are getting an incredibly short shrift on the new main website. Sure, you can see what everyone else is going to but trying to figure out how to get to a list of my events for the next week took me twenty minutes of poking around (click on the event app in the bottom left). I’m not sure anyone but a power user can still figure out how to see what events they committed to more than two days in advance.

I have to admit, I’ve quite puzzled by facebook’s attitude on this given that not only do I regard events as an essential part of facebook, I regard it as pretty much the killer app of facebook mobile. When I’m away from my computer, the chances are better than even that I’m heading to an event, at an event or leaving an event. Facebook needs to recognise the opportunity it’s been missing by neglecting events and return them back to their rightful place in the facebook ecosystem.

January 29 2009

Please hold…

by Hang

I’ve had a lot of time to think about the usability of phone systems after been on hold for 45 minutes now (and that’s not hyperbole, I can see it right there on my skype window). Frankly, I’ve always been stunned by how abysmally awful most phone systems are designed. Let me list the ways…

  • You call me when you’re done with holding. Rather than have people sit around listening to call music, why not allow them to punch in my phone number and have you call me when you’re ready to talk to me?
  • Remember who I am. You call a number and it doesn’t know you from Adam. Caller ID exists, use it in an intelligent manner. If I called just 20 minutes ago and I told you my issue was with a notebook, not a cellphone. Shouldn’t you be able to use that to infer that my issue is STILL with a notebook? You told me 20 minutes ago to please listen carefully, some options have changed, I don’t need to hear it again.
  • Never ask me the same thing twice. If I told my address to the last person, don’t make me tell it again to the next person. If I told it to you last month, just ask to confirm it’s still the same, don’t make me repeat it. If I told it to the automated system, don’t again ask me to tell it to the human being.
  • Remove the cruft from the system. Pare down your voice prompts to the barest minimum possible. Don’t add a word that’s unnecessary. As a HCI person, it was hammered into us that users don’t read anything so be sparse with your dialogs. Well, users hate hearing stuff even more.
  • Give me feedback. Tell me what position I am in the queue and how long my expected wait time will be. Don’t leave me in the dark.
  • Provide me a text version of your phone tree. Don’t make me wait for all your options to be said out loud, put up your phone tree on a website in text format so I can skip through all the junk and get to where I want to go.

The general level of usability in phone systems is depressingly low and doesn’t seem to have gotten significantly better over the years which is a pity because they could be much less aggravating than they currently are.

January 13 2009

iPhone apps that should have GPS integration

by Hang
  • Clock – Why can’t the time zone for my clock be set automatically to which time zone I’m in.
  • Weather – I want the default display to be the weather of my current location.
December 15 2008

The state of Australian ecommerce

by Hang

While cooking dinner last night, I accidentally broke the handle off of my pan and so I thought I would get myself a new one as an early Christmas present. Looking online, I was confronted full force with the sheer retardedness of the current state of Australian online ecommerce.

Let us currently review the state of the online offerings of the 4 largest department stores in Australia:


November 19 2008

Why the Drudge Report is Bad Design.

by Michael

Jason at 37Signals recently posted about how the Drudge Report is “one of the best designed sites on the web.” I just couldn’t let this one go.

It’s a load of bollocks, and one in a stream of “hey, let’s take a widely criticized site, call it awesome, and everyone will praise how witty and insightful we are.” It’s as if everyone thinks they can be hailed as geniuses if they rebel against the norm.

Design is not synonymous with utility, and the Drudge Report fails horribly at both.

Good design? Really?

Good design? Really?


It’s patently absurd to call this good design. from first load, I don’t even know what the page is.

Sites that are successful yet have bad design aren’t necessarily successful BECAUSE of bad design (therefore making it good?), but IN SPITE of. This is the same reason Fox is #1 in viewership despite their utter lack of journalistic integrity, taste, and quality. Fox isn’t #1 because it’s good news, it’s #1 because right-wingers have nowhere else to go. The Drudge Report isn’t popular because of its piss poor design, it’s popular because right-wingers surf it religiously.

The Drudge Report hasn’t changed the design, ever. This could mean that the first design was perfect. It could also mean that Matt Drudge simply doesn’t care. It doesn’t mean that the users love the design… they could be sticking around because no other site has the content they desire.

Let’s move down this point by point

  1. “There are no tricks, no sections, no deep linking, no special technology required. It’s all right there on one page. “But it’s a mess!” you could say. I’d say “it’s straightforward mess.” I wouldn’t underestimate the merit in that.”
  2. There ARE sections… if you can suffer to scroll down far enough. Straightforward = good. Mess = bad. Straightforward + mess = good & bad. Straightforward + non-mess = good & good, i.e., better design.
  3. It’s unique. Certainly. So is every dump I’ve squeezed out of my anus. There’s a REASON the news sites look alike. They WANT to look alike. When you go to CNN .com, without even seeing content, the users say, “oh, this is a news site.” Is it bad to have a news site look like a news site? Saying it’s unique and therefore good is flawed logic – you and i have discussed this before.
  4. It’s important. Drudge isn’t afraid to be noisy. Sure. That’s an appeal of the Drudge Report, and is totally irrelevant to the design. The argument here is for the philosophy of the site, which 37S claims to be good and extraordinary. Fine. Keep the philosophy. Keep a super noisy headline – the site could have top-notch design, and a screaming headline…(get this)… AT THE SAME TIME .
  5. It’s cluttered. It’s messy, and there’s no good flow to the information. “Jason” thinks that constitutes… good design? The design doesn’t “encourage wandering,” it just requires effort to plow through. It’s successful because the users feel that the plowing is worth it. Just because it functions now doesn’t mean it couldn’t be improved. I wonder how many people don’t visit the site for specifically that reason.
  6. Breaking news. Once again, this is a philosophy of the Drudge Report, and not one of the website design. This could be maintained, regardless of design.
  7. One guy can run it. That’s a plus. One guy can also make a myspace page, or a geocities home. That doesn’t make good design, and is more a question of web authoring tools. With tools powerful enough, one guy could nearly run any site on the web. The design could be significantly improved, and still have one guy do it.
  8. No news… once again, Drudge philosophy and concept. Not design. The design is the implementation of the concept, and not having direct info isn’t implementation in this case – it IS the concept.
  9. Sending people away… see above.
  10. It’s fast. That’s definitely a plus. I’ll grant that. However, with a little organization, better fonts, and better layout, the design could be improved without sacrificing speed. It’s cheap. See above. It’s one page. See above.
  11. It makes him a great living – A site’s success can be completely irrelevant to design. See above discussion of Fox.
  12. All in all, it’s bad design. It may function. It may serve a purpose. However, Drudge’s design limps blindly on like the buffoon in the White House he was so fond of.
November 19 2008

A better way of serving ads

by Hang

Here’s a far more non-obnoxious way of doing ads from

If someone has no adblocker installed, show them the original ad:

If an adblocker is detected, replace the ad with an option for them to donate instead to the site:

If you click the X button, the ad will close and remain closed forever:

Those who click ads aren’t typically donators, and those who block ads would probably prefer to donate so this seems like an effective way of pleasing both parties.

PS: Ironically, I spent 20 minutes trying to figure out why none of my images for this post were uploading before realising that any image with “ad” in the name gets blocked by adblock plus. This explains the naming of the images.

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