Tag Archives: UX

Rare Content; Well Done

Medium is a platform born from the minds behind Twitter for publishing and discussing longer-form works. Rather than targeting the rapid back-and-forth microblogging niche Twitter addresses, Medium allows for more detailed contributions, often resembling feature articles or editorials. Quality, user-generated content is rare on the internet; and Medium provides one of the cleanest, least intrusive ways of making it accessible.

Source: Medium

Medium is currently a relatively small service—at least compared to Twitter—but enjoys a strong, growing community of dedicated contributors posting, sharing, recommending, and curating the growing pool of content.

Pinning down an identity for Medium in this nascent stage is tricky. On the one hand it employs many of the extrinsic reward motivations—such as reputation and scoring—popularised by content aggregators and recommender services. I’ve touched on these concepts in previous posts, and Medium compels users to share and rate content in the same ways that Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot have in the past. These services leverage the desires of users by allowing ‘up voting’ of articles to surface—or bury—quality content. This currency of reputation and scoring is paired with a robust system of curation and tagging that tasks users of Medium to thematically organise content and build their own personally-curated collections.

By marrying these two systems together Medium is able to entirely self-organise around user behaviour. It is as meaningful for users to contribute high-quality content as it is for them to gather and collate that content in a collection. Whether they’re authors or curators, users of Medium can be a part of a rich ecosystem where their contributions be recommended, voted, scored, and—most importantly—commented on.

Medium is able to deliver and package this content so successfully because it relies on the same simplicity that propelled Twitter into the stratosphere. It does away with so much of the artifice and bloat associated with most WYSIWYG publishing platforms and offers an elegant, direct platform. Like Twitter, Medium puts the simplicity of content first-and-foremost. It is easy to publish, read, and recommend items because every piece of the workflow is built in service of the user.

Usability and user-centered design is always best when it is simple. Rather than being caught up in the zeitgeist of sacrificing simplicity for the latest interfaces, fads, or ‘feature-added’ hooks Medium is able to provide such a rich user experience by confidently relying on the strength of its contributors and providing as few distractions as possible to the quality of their work.

Simplicity isn’t just a feature for Medium; it is their chief strategic advantage.


Further Reading: I highly recommend Giles Colborne’s book Simple and Usable for any and all of questions you have about user experience and user-centered design.

Colborne, G. (2011). Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. Berkeley: New Riders.

The Age of Agnostic Applications

So many features of the social-web rely on the idea of an ‘always on’ or interconnected set of experiences. Location data, check-ins, running commentaries on social media, and ‘smart’ data is all dependent on making things universally accessible and always providing what is needed when it’s needed.

The monolithic power of a service like Facebook is only so successful because it is ubiquitous. Having Facebook locked to a single proprietary ‘Facebook’ device would fragment users at a device level in addition to divisions at the level of the platform or ecosystem they’re tapping into. Fragmentation and interoperability are already among the chief problems online, and dividing already fractured user-bases ultimately benefits nobody.

Device agnostic platforms–such as Amazon’s Kindle reading application–demonstrate not only the value of cross-platform interoperability, but the amazing potential for apps that transcend the narrow boundaries of single-function devices. Amazon realised earlier than most that tying content to their platform–rather than a device–not only extended their potential user-base, but retained that user-base despite their migrations to the newest technologies and gadgets. These users could confidently build their content libraries through Amazon without feeling ‘locked-in’ or trapped by a certain hardware provider. Furthermore, Amazon intelligently leveraged the multi-function nature of many of the devices that Kindle content appears on to create experiences that exceed the capabilities of any device on its own. Amazon’s Audible recorded audio-books synchronise seamlessly with progress in the text of an eBook, and regardless of which device you have with you be it an Android phone, an iPad, or a Amazon eReader your reading progress will always be matched by the Kindle app across platforms and media formats. Allowing users to freely move between listening to an audiobook during their commute to a dedicated reading devices at home provides the sort of everyday, user-focused experience that separates the merely functional devices from those that make our hearts sing.

There’s plenty of scope to see how this sort of interoperability is truly transformative. So long as portable content adheres to some sort of extensible, flexible standard that can be interpreted and parsed by a variety of devices, any number of asymmetrical interactions could be possible.

As the ubiquity of smart devices grows, creating mature workflows for harmonising content between devices permits not just portability, but enables hitherto unimaginable levels of potential that we are only just scratching the surface of.

Facing the Facts

Google+ failed to dislodge Facebook in any meaningful way. Google is fully integrated into my workflow, I make use of a wide variety of Google online services, I manage multiple accounts, and use Google’s MX records to manage my domain’s email.

I use Google for a huge portion of my online activities, but I don’t use Google+.

The service is amazingly slick. It’s attractive and engaging. It’s more logically laid out than Facebook and harness the tremendous power of Google’s backend to do amazing, magical things like recognising, identifying, and tagging images automatically and offering best-in-class features like realtime video chat via Hangouts.

Sure, it doesn’t do quite as many things as Facebook does, but what it does do it does well. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to pick any single category where Facebook offers a superior experience.

So, why is Google+ a ghost town?

Because social networks are intrinsically valueless. The entire purpose of these networks is generated and propped up by the connections you have within the system—and nobody I interact with is invested in the Google+ ecosystem.

Being the best at something doesn’t matter if the audience is entrenched elsewhere. Everyone would probably prefer to use Google+, it’s one less account you need to juggle, it’s better integrated into your devices, and the forthcoming Google Glass will hook it directly to your face. We’d be crazy to move to Google+ on our own if none of the people in our lives moved too.

But, in a Heller-esque case of circular logic, everybody likes Google+, everybody agrees it’s great, and nobody moves.

Six Degrees of Web Navigation

The pseudo-game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ is born from the idea that any actor in a feature film can, in six-or-less ‘hops’ via other actors be connected back to the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon.

I like films. I like watching them, I like collecting film trivia, and I like talking about films. I am fairly indifferent to Kevin Bacon as an actor, but have become fairly adept at this game over time simply by force of circumstance and watching too many films.

For this week’s activity I invited a friend who is only passingly interested in film to use the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) to play this game against me. I asked that he navigate the connective web of actors orbiting Bacon while speaking to his decision making processes and the usability of IMDB as a tool for finding out what he needed to know. I chose to examine this scenario specifically as it gave my observed user a compelling motivation for performing complex searches (beating me at the game) and it offered a wide variety of approaches to navigating a resource (IMDB).

Through a combination of observation and direct, focussed question I arrived at some understanding of his needs when using the site. He was extremely helpful in keeping up a running commentary of his navigation through the site, and gave me a great set of talking points that resonated with what I had been reading about UX design. Many of his searches fell apart immediately with poor choices of searching methods, but the fact that almost any meaningful piece of data (names, dates, titles, genres etc.) had fully realised, relational links to every other piece of data made recovery a breeze. Rarely did the interface or tools of IMDB inhibit his progress, and he candidly offered that he liked how it ‘just worked’.

The first thing that struck me was how similar many of the concepts in good UX design were to those praised in good writing: Explicit is better than implicit, concise is better than verbose, constrained is better than unconstrained. At every step of this process, my observation was finding that IMDB had nailed the basics — search was simple, intuitive, and unobtrusive. The site had set out to do a specific thing and that focus on simplicity had allowed it to be great at something. Prompts were clear and consistent, default options were well-configured to reduce effort, and the various toggles and actions favoured punchy, active verb use such as ‘Remember my search’, and ‘Enable additional fields’ rather than less-friendly, subtractive alternatives.