In the blink of an eye and the touch of a finger

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This method of arriving at the financial returns for changes in user experience has been doing the rounds recently. The writeup talks about how Amazon may possibly lose 1% in sales for every 100 miliseconds added to page load time. With all the data at one’s disposal it seems reasonable that one has been able to establish a relationship between sales and speed. While it may be easier to quantify and A/B test in this specific instance, there are multiple user experience initiatives where it’s not easy to measure interactions or the impact of change.

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In this light, I have been wondering how Apple would have worked out the business impact of changes in its font from Helvetica Neue to SanFrancisco Neue. Although it seems like a harmless change (because, in most cases, all functionality remains intact), and new users may not argue, old users will most definitely be rattled by the changes, because they have been used to using the same interface, with the same font, over and over again. While some decisions to change the typography (or font) are clearly led by rationale to make the type work for newer (and smaller devices) and offer better legibility, it also impacts users emotions in two ways.

Cognitive bias

Firstly, we associate certain connotations to specific fonts and font styles. This, like many other things in our world, is often influenced by our cognitive biases and the culture we grow up in. For instance, sans serif fonts are commonly used on official U.S. government forms. But, in England, sans serif fonts are more commonly used by tabloids.

The context in which different fonts are used changes how we feel when we see them.

Objective readability

On top of all that, some fonts are inherently easier to read than others. And the harder our eyes and brains have to work to interpret a piece of text, the worse we report feeling afterwards.

Serif fonts were originally used by the print press, as serifs are proven to help the eye move from letter to letter faster.When computers were first used, computer screens had low resolutions. Serif fonts had to be created using vectors, which just didn’t look right with the low pixel-density available back in the days. So, early designers defaulted to using sans serif fonts, which were created as bitmaps.

Screen resolutions have come along way over the past few decades. We’re at a point where pixels are barely recognizable up close. As such, serif fonts liked Georgia are becoming more and more popular.

Experimenting with typography

While you may still have a hard time convincing your clients or your other team at work to make that extra investment in typography to improve the user experience, the fore-mentioned formula does help in arriving at the return of the UX investments. The method allows one to use the expected change in monetary value for every user interaction that the change in customer experience (or UX) development will arrive at for a user or a customer and then multiply the monetary value with the total number of customers impacted by the change while including the time period and the cost of development as other important considerations.

As more and more touch points become enhanced with elements of technology, they become more measurable allowing organizations to improve customer journeys. However, as human behaviour interacts with new forms of technology it often conveniently arrives at methods and ways of interaction which no one perhaps would have thought through at the stage of inception or development of the technology and its manifestations in the form of devices. I wonder if Apple at the time of developing the Watch would have thought that more than half of the users would use their nose to interact with the device! But then such are the intricacies of human behaviour which in turn makes improving user experience as much a science as it is art.

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Bots taking over us getting back on algorithms

So it appears now one can apparently wish a friend happy birthday on Facebook just by typing a “1”. This is awesome, scary and undoubtedly the future all wrapped up in one little text-based payload. Because typing “happy birthday!” means typing thirteen more characters than typing “1”. But it also means loading Facebook and loading that friend’s profile page. Clearly, Facebook is doing away with the barrier to interaction.

Which leads to the question: at what point do bots start talking to bots? You know, why should you have to type “thank you!” when you can reply to a text with “1”? Or better yet, why should you have to type the “1” at all? If Facebook knows you want to say “thank you” to everyone (bots included) who wished you a happy birthday, shouldn’t they just give you the option to let Facebook do that for you on your behalf?

And that leads to the idea of having Facebook automatically say “happy birthday” to a friend on their birthday each year. If you can do that and then the Facebook “thank you” bot can reply to the “happy birthday” bot, we would have some hot bot-on-bot action.

While we are figure our communication niceties,  it appears completely paradoxical to me that while we let Facebook take over the simple task of wishing someone happy birthday, we do not trust its choice of content or music for us. There is enough and more that has been seen and heard about the algorithm that powers the Wall and decides to show what we may want to know at that point of time based on our interest or Spotify whirling down the its endless cycle of songs in the shuffle mode like a Ferris wheel based the artists that one has chosen.

David Bryne who is curating the Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London has a thing or two to say about why us-humans beat any alogorithm hands down when it comes to curation.

Why this insistent emphasis on choices and filtering now? It’s obvious: when everything is available, within reach, accessible, the problem becomes not one of scarcity but of abundance. Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for you? How to separate the music from the noise? Pre-internet (and before there was a host of world music guidebooks), I used to go to a record store in Times Square subway station and buy Latin records. Did I know anything about them? Very, very little. I was following vague clues – the cover graphics, the producer, the band members, the other artists on the same label. A risky way to find stuff, it would seem, but once you learn to read those clues, the odds are surprisingly good. 

And then this bit on how the social media platforms curate the content for us.

Social media recommendations, of course, are a form of curation. The internet memes and viral eruptions, the algorithms and whims of the herd, sweep us along and these, too, increase the value of the things they recommend. Are they unbiased? Not so much. They’re often trying to sell you something, or gather information on you that they can then sell to someone else, so trust in that world is a rare commodity.

I love Twitter where I spend a fair bit of time everyday and I shudder at the though of Project Lightning may do to it. I am the least bit surprised when Apple at the launch of Apple Music tom-toms about DJs who will man the internet radio or Twitter, Linkedin and Apple going out and looking for human editors to curate news and content for us.

More choice is always good. Or imagine going to a library and finding books by the same author again and again or sitting infront of a national television broadcaster as a sole television channel which decides what programmes we should be watching. However, the big worry that may arise with the introduction of editorial discretion is the problem of trust. Facebook was sharply rebuked for clandestinely manipulating users’ news feeds in a psychology experiment last year, so Apple and Twitter will have to prove their reliability and good judgment. How will Apple’s editors handle news unfavorable to Apple, for example, and how inclusive will Twitter’s conversation shapers be when it comes to airing unpopular points of view on a given subject?

Still-thriving web communities like Digg and Reddit rely heavily on user participation. These platforms automate only to tally up the popularity of stories among their readers, and then have the moderators vet to ensure quality. Clearly, it’s a a mix of human and machine that helps us distill the web into something digestible. Right now, the momentum seems to be swinging back in favor of the conscious curator, the human that can make decisions for us in order to tame the big, beautiful chaos of the web.

Why did the expensive notebook company need to go digital?

The Expensive Notebook Company (via New Yorker)

I almost balked when I saw a calendar app from Moleskine on the App Store. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Moleskine and collect hordes of them. I have the LEGO edition, the Lord of the Rings edition, the Star Wars edition, the wine journal and the traveller’s journal. And I use none of them because I feel they are so special that they are meant to be treasured and not to be used. There is a sense of pride in using a product that accounts for Hemningway, Picasso and van Gogh as part of its lineage. Unlike the note-writing apps, there is something very intuitive about Moleskine, perhaps as it does not involve learning where to click or where to go and what to do. It is immediate.

The idea that non-digital products and ideas have become more valuable may just seem to work against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley but, in fact, it simply shows that the evolution of technology is not linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.

And therein lies the rub. I find the transformation of Moleskine to its digital avatar at complete odds. Moleskine’s ascent is symptomatic of a shift that I call the revenge of analog, in which certain technologies and processes that have been rendered “obsolete” suddenly show new life and growth, even as the world becomes increasingly driven by digital technology. This goes beyond the well-documented return of vinyl records, encompassing everything from a business-card renaissance sparked by  MOO.

Interestingly, Evernote, the digital app which competes with Moleskine has opened a marketplace for physical products, including notebooks, special Post-it notes, desk accessories, and even bags with the bestseller product being the Evernote Moleskine. Evernote might have set out to eliminate unorganized stashes of paper notes, but the future is not paperless.

Diversity in Emoji

Have you ever wondered why the Simpsons are all painted yellow? Groening, the creator of the Simpsons believed whenever someone was flipping through the channels, they would automatically know the Simpsons was on when they saw the yellow bodies flash by. Cut to today, and there are a set of people who aren’t happy being identified as ‘yellow’ albeit on the digital medium.

Apple in its new release of Yosemite has made an option available which allows people to pick the colour of the emojis in up to six shades. While I am all for inclusiveness and an increase in the emoji database to reflect the local cultural nuances, it hasn’t definitely gone well with most of the people.

Emoji Colour-shades

On Weibo, China’s largest microblog, some bloggers praised the new selection, especially since previous Apple emoji depicting humans had only come in a single shade: white but more users found the yellow toned emoji mildly offensive (there is a long racist history of using “yellow” to describe Asians) or just inaccurate. Read here. To me, it’s sounds all the more surreal because there were even a recent attempt to ban wordplay so as to encourage pun control.

And all of this makes we wonder what would Paul Grice, the father of linguistics, would have thought of. Grice argued that conversation is a joint activity, an activity that cannot be achieved without the cooperation of its participants. However, I think the rules change drastically when the conversations move online in a non-immediate setting. I have dwelled more on this in a longer Medium piece. There are many aspects of the digital communication that do not account for local cultural nuances and it’s not strange because the biggest internet organisations are headquartered in the US and to give them a fair play, it’s really difficult to the local traditions given that there are so many diversions and discussions within the micro-communities as well. However, it’s also worth noting that China and India now account for the second largest and the third largest internet population in the world and it’s only bound to grow for the future posing a not so easy conundrum.

Visualising the internet

The internet has been described in innumerable ways. At times, it is difficult to imagine the force which we interact we act with so often. Spending most of our days in front of a big screen and then the small screen in our pockets, my attention is certainly divided.

A couple of days back I read this wonderful book by Andrew Blum called Tubes. Blum became hung up on the lack of physicality associated with the Internet. The journey to find exactly what places support and connect with the Internet was triggered following an unusual interaction with a squirrel in his backyard.Once when Blum’s internet broke the cable guy came to fix it, he said something which appeared extremely preposterous to Blum.He said ‘I think a squirrel is chewing on your internet’. And this of course seemed absurd, because as all of you know the internet is the great changer of everything, it has changed revolutions, and dating and shopping and anything that you might imagine.And then Blum realised if he yanked off the wire from the wall, it had to go someplace. So, Blum went on an adventure to find the buildings, installations and people who make the Internet what it is today which ended up in completely unexpected but wonderful book.

Ben Mendelsohn explores this subject in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a short documentary on the internet infrastructure. He takes us inside 60 Hudson Street in New York City, a nondescript building that houses one of the major nodes of the Internet on the east coast of the US.

Timo Arnall,a designer and artist from London, has documented the hidden spaces,the series of massive servers, wires and equipment tucked away in high-security buildings in his project Internet Machine.

And, there has also been an attempt to visualise the immaterial, the network around us which carries multiple giga-bits of data around us in the immaterials project.

In the words of the designers, the Immaterials project emerged from the humble preoccupations of a few designers dealing with some of the invisible, immaterial, intangible stuff we had in front of us. These small experiments led to larger and more visually and narratively communicative work. In the end what I think we’ve developed is an approach to technology that revolves around material exploration, explanation and communication.

RFID-Touch-Project
Image via

Posting (in a hurry!)

It’s understandable that one party or even both parties in a conversation may have only the faintest idea of what is being talked about. We’re all very busy — busier, if I believe the harried responses (when there are any at all) to most emails I send, than any previous generation. And because we spend so much time staring at our phones and screens, texting and tweeting about how busy we are, we no longer have the time to consume any primary material. We rely instead on the casual observations of our “friends” or the people we “follow” or, well, who, actually?

Relishing it with one of the greatest works of art published in the NYT.

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