Category Archives: Product Management

The morbidity of the Facebook Timeline

Not much happened in my life between being born and 2007.

When Facebook rolled out its “Timeline” to replace their Profile pages, it seemed like a neat gadget.  It seemed like an odd move to get rid of the activity stream that had been on Profiles before, but it was kind of neat to see an overview of the person’s life, along with the large picture they could choose to show at the top.  The Timeline is more visually interesting and distinct than the Profile, but over time something about it bothered me, and I didn’t really get get my mind around it until now:

The Facebook Timeline is morbid.

Where are we used to seeing the “timeline” paradigm?  History books.  Timelines are used for tracking progressions of significant events chronologically, events that usually have an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.

When I look at my Facebook Timeline, I feel it is a weird mesh of the profound and the trivial.  It lists a string of mostly insignificant events, things I’ve liked, comments I’ve posted, photos I’ve uploaded, songs I’ve listened to, and other nuggettes of daily life.  Alongside these minutiae, at one end is my start (birth), and at the other end…my end.  That’s pretty heavy for a social network profile page.

The timeline therefore becomes an online tombstone in progress.  Someday, nothing I do will show up on it anymore, and my friends and family will come to my Facebook Timeline to see what happened in my life, and they’ll see that I liked this viral cat video, or listened to Lady Gaga on Spotify.  Maybe a few significant events will be sprinkled in between, but how much of what we do every day on Facebook is really significant or worth remembering for more than a few hours?

It is this unintentional memorializing of the trivialities of life that I object to, and why I wish Facebook would bring back the old Profiles.  I liked them when they felt fluffy, when they were fleeting, and changed constantly based on my whims, and captured the essence of now rather than documenting my existence for future generations to peruse and be amused by.

If I wanted to create a memorial to myself, a summary of my life, a memoir, I would do so on my own.  There are probably sites dedicated to this.  But why force this morbid paradigm onto my daily communications with friends and family, without giving me a choice in the matter?

Most design decisions Facebook are very much about living in the moment.  The News Feed, the Ticker, Chat, Messaging, Open Graph, Places – all have been built to spread information about NOW, about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and whom I’m doing it with, so to slap a layer on top of this that turns my Profile into a living document of my life is intensely off-pitch.

As it stands, the morbidity of the Timeline has largely turned me off from using Facebook.  Hopefully Facebook will realize the error of their ways and rebuild Timelines to be more temporal and less monumental.  Time will tell…

 

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Tablets and E-readers will be killed off by Notebooks

4607c57e4b473460400x1You heard it here first: despite the fact that they were all the buzz at CES this year, tablets and e-readers are destined for obsolescence.  Sadly, the fax machine may outlive them.

Here’s why:

E-readers:

The only reason e-readers exist is because it’s hard on the eyes to read text on a computer screen for long periods of time. You could argue that e-readers were invented to save paper or reduce printing and distribution costs, but if that were the main reason, then people would have been reading their books, magazines, and newspapers on their computer a long time ago.  You could go read War and Peace right now, but you won’t because it would make you feel like someone is hammering rusty nails into your eyes after the first hour.

So e-readers exist because they have cool e-ink screens that are easy on your e-eyes.  Great.  But what is an e-reader really, besides a tablet PC with a nice e-ink screen and no web-browsing?  In time, tablets will be developed with screens that are similar to e-ink, or perhaps with an “e-ink mode” that can be turned on if you want to read for a while.  And then after you’re done with War and Peace you can go back to watching the latest Lady Gaga video.  Cool.  If I had a tablet like this, I wouldn’t have a need for an e-reader.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I see a tablet with e-ink mode killing off e-readers…so how does the tablet get killed off?

Well, let’s look at the problem that tablets solve – tablets exist because people want something small, portable, and comfortable for casual use while sitting on the couch.  Yes, that’s pretty much it.  The PC industry has been trying to make tablets for years, but they’ve always failed for two main reasons:

  1. The reason everyone acknowledges is that fully-functional PCs have always been too heavy.  Only recently have we started seeing small PCs with enough horsepower to run regular old Windows, Office, Outlook, and have a few web browsers open at the same time
  2. The reason everyone has been ignoring (particularly on the CES show floor) is that the tablet form factor just isn’t all that functional.  If you’re sitting on your couch, it’s okay to use your touchscreen tablet to web browse a little, play MP3s, watch your videos, or use Facebook.  But if you’re doing any serious work on your PC like writing a letter, manipulating files, configuring complex software, using Photoshop…you will want a keyboard and mouse.  The tablet form factor is great for fun stuff, not for serious stuff.

And yes, the device that solves both of these problems is the notebook.  Notebooks have keyboards, pointing devices, and are getting lighter, smaller, cheaper, and more powerful by the minute.

We are already seeing people merge notebooks with tablets – HP has a pretty cool notebook called the TouchSmart tm2 (that’s right, I said “HP has a cool notebook”), which features a foldaway screen.  (Not a new idea, but theirs is very slick.)  Lenovo (formerly IBM) unveiled at CES a notebook with a detachable touchscreen (shown above.)  The writing is on the wall, guys – notebook/tablet combos will make pure-play tablets pointless.  And notebook-tablets with e-ink screens will make e-readers pointless.

The only question is how long this will take.  I give it 3 years.  I think the fax machine will still be around by then.

Google makes simplest homepage in the world hard to use

Google has been testing a new homepage lately that strips everything off the page except the search box and their logo.  That’s right, no “Google Search” button, no “I’m feeling lucky” button, no global navigation at the top, and no legalese at the bottom. Note: currently only some users see this new version of the homepage. And now, a week into the experiment, they’ve discovered that it’s freaking people out.  What do you do when you see a search box with no “Search” button next to it?  You probably wait a minute and wonder if the page is broken, right?  Is it still loading?  If you wait, will the button show up? So what does Google do when they see they’re confusing the heck out of people?  Rather than realizing that their old design was plenty intuitive already, they provide documentation explaining the new design.  One of the oldest rules of interface design (for simple features) is: “If you have to explain the interface, it’s too hard.” 500x_500x_firefoxscreensnapz1-thumb_08 But now, as noted by TechCrunch and Valleywag who found two different versions of the wrecked homepage, Google has included text below their floating search box to tell you that they’re actually doing this on purpose: “Hey everyone, despite how it looks, this page isn’t broken!”  Google: if you have to tell us the page isn’t broken, there’s something horribly wrong.

googfade

Vyoom: get your pitch straight!

Rule of Product Management #675: If you’re going to post your mission on your homepage, make sure people can get behind it.  Vyoom, a new “real-time” social network presents their philosophy front and center on their homepage:

We at Vyoom believe members should be rewarded for connecting and sharing with friends, family and co-workers in a real-time environment.

Excuse me, what?  Why exactly should I be rewarded for chatting with my friends and family?  Shouldn’t the mere activity and social interaction of sharing helpful, entertaining, or personal information with my acquaintances be reward enough?  It sure is on Facebook, Twitter, email, or even in person.  Why do I need to be rewarded for this?  If I’m using your site because I want to be rewarded, I’m likely to overuse the site, flooding my friends and family with information they don’t want, and ultimately having them all block me and/or add me to their spam filters.

Further down on their homepage, they claim they have a “real-time” social network that lets me see what my friends are doing and customize what updates I want to see.  Their meta description (shown to search engines, but not on the site) describes them as a

Social network with advanced social capabilities and true real-time data streaming in both a public and a private network all in one platform

This featureset actually sounds like it might be interesting and differentiating, so why lead with the messaging about rewarding me for communicating with friends?  If you have a great new tool that will make my communications easier, lead with that.  You don’t need to bribe me.  If the product is that cool, I’ll use it and I’ll do your marketing for you by telling my friends.  This is a classic case of a split personality site – they seem to have a cool product, but their lead pitch doesn’t even mention its strengths.

And while we’re at it, Rule of Product Management #425: Avoid underlining words that are not hyperlinks.  Their homepage is riddled with underlined words that unfortunately I just can’t click on.

And you might be asking if I actually used the site…well, no.  I tried – I registered, but never got my confirmation email, and you can’t use the site at all without it.  I tried signing up with a different email address, and the registration form broke.   Sorry guys, I’m done.