Don’t Hammer Screws: Nielsen on Social Media Outsourcing

In his latest AlertBox entry, Jakob Nielsen effectively shows that “usability suffers when an organization puts its website content on social sites without adapting it to the particular site’s features.” This is true enough: One should no more use YouTube in the half-hearted ways Nielsen identifies than one should use a hammer on screws.

However, Nielsen also claims that this argument “count[s] in favor of keeping social features on your own site where you can design them to provide a better user experience for your customers.” I take issue with this claim: Nielsen’s blaming bad UX on social media platforms, when it rightly belongs with development teams (as it usually does).

In other words, it’s not that you can’t design good UX with social media outsourcing in place; it’s that the makers of the sites Nielsen points to just didn’t—whether for lack of vision, budget constraints, insufficient technical expertise, or laziness.

(In most cases, I suspect the difference comes down to people using site-provided widgets or embed code rather than APIs. Whether this is a failure of strategists, UXers, designers, or developers probably varies.)

Nielsen seems to acknowledge this distinction in his qualification to the first claim I cite above. That is, when he writes, “without adapting it to the particular site’s features,” he seems to understand that good UX featuring social media outsourcing is indeed possible.

As proof that it can be done, I offer up the following, a simple example of a site that does social media outsourcing right. (Full disclosure: I led the charges on strategy and UX for this site while working for Mind Over Media.)

Case Study: WUTube

Waynesburg University asked us to devise a media-rich, recruiting-focused site that featured students in their own environments. We wanted to outsource some of the material to YouTube and Flickr for a number of reasons, some of them likely familiar:

  • The budget for the project precluded dedicated media servers or high-end hosting.
  • Waynesburg’s target audience—prospective students (and their parents)—already lived on YouTube, and identified themselves as looking for a Waynesburg presence there.
  • The school’s staffing situation made an easy-to-use, low-cost data and media administration tool a mandatory for the project.
  • In a way that was admirably forward-thinking at the time, the school recognized the need to play a role on maintaining their online presence outside the classic “admissions microsite” model. In short, maintaining credibility demanded increased activity on YouTube in particular.

Note that the finished product, WUTube, avoids the pitfalls Nielsen identifies, in part through good design, in part by making heavy use of APIs for the various social media sites involved. Heavy customization, to be sure, but surely Martha Stewart and Harvard Business Publishing (two of Nielsen’s examples) could have sprung for it.

In particular, WUTube overcomes these obstacles (links are to screengrabs on Flickr):

  1. Nielsen’s categorization problem, wherein relying on the social media site’s default means of organizing content serves nobody. Instead, WUTube organizes all content—inluding videos—by student, which is to say, by the main draw to the site.
  2. Lousy titles for the media. WUTube’s administrators and the students involved have been diligent in creating fine, descriptive titles for the images and videos used on the site.
  3. Obtrusive, distracting branding. WUTube includes a set of branded hyperlinks, but they’re located out of the way on the home page. Otherwise, the content feels much more integrated with the site than in Nielsen’s examples.

Again, the problem Nielsen’s pointing to isn’t with the tools; it’s with organizations using them poorly.

Art vs. Illustration: Shepard Fairey, Art and Technology

There’s a Shepard Fairey discussion starting on the Facebook page of Arts on the Block, a community arts organization for teens in Montgomery County, Maryland.

AOB leads off the discussion:

The author of a New York Times article on Shepard Fairey – the artist whose portrait of Barack Obama (now on view at the Portrait Gallery here in DC) became the iconic symbol of the campaign- claims that Mr. Fairey is less like art and more like “a canny illustration of what everyone already knows.” What do YOU think?

I responded:

I think that when the author puts what Fairey does in those terms, he’s defining art based on the technologies and practices he’s accustomed to thinking about, rather than allowing the visual image to speak for itself.

That is, he calls Fairey’s work “illustration” because it begins with photographic images and ends with software, rather than beginning with beginning with an image in “the mind’s eye” and ending with “hardware,” the painter’s array of brushes and paints and canvases and so on.

These kinds of claims fail to understand where the human artistic touch enters into the equation. Fairey still has to understand color and composition, for example. And he has to understand his complex software as well as any painter understands his or her hardware. Just as importantly, he has to understand the cultural context of his images better than most artists do.

It’s worth noting that people made the same kinds of claims about photography, yelling that it’s not an art because the human hand need not intervene (much). This debate went on for many decades, until Ansel Adams drove the last nail into that coffin. I hope Fairey does the same for these digital techniques.

I would add here just some further fuel to the fire, from “a critique by artist Mark Vallen” who charges Fairey, mainly, with plagiarism):

What initially disturbed me about the art of Shepard Fairey is that it displays none of the line, modeling and other idiosyncrasies that reveal an artist’s unique personal style. His imagery appears as though it’s xeroxed or run through some computer graphics program; that is to say, it is machine art that any second-rate art student could produce.

Comment at the AOB page (click “Discussions”) or here.

Where Do I Make this Joke?: Facebook-Twitter Integration & a Problem of Social Media

Last night, Jay had a few of us over to play cards. He tweeted:

Jay is waiting for the gentlemen to show up.

This morning, I @replied:

@thebristolkid Gentlemen? I guess you waited all night.

The joke’s a little predictable, a little modally antiquated, sure. But that’s not the point. I saw Jay’s status on Twitter, but I also saw it on Facebook. There, Jay has the Twitter app set his status when he tweets (as do I). So, his tweet about waiting for us to arrive updated his Facebook status more or less immediately.

The point, then, is this: The appearance of Jay’s message in more than one place—and the ways that such multiplicity positions me in relation to Jay and others—reveals one of the peculiarities of online social media, their simultaneously collaborative and competitive aspects.

We’ll get there by looking quickly at my reaction to seeing this message in many places and at the different roles of Twitter and Facebook status updates (in my life, at least). We’ll then consider the differences between online and offline mediators of our social relationships, and finally the two aspects of social media that motivate this post, perhaps best conceived as intersecting pressures on individual online services or platforms.

Perhaps an hour after I @tweeted Jay, when I got around to Facebooking this morning, I saw his status, and, in it, a missed opportunity. See, I meant my joke mostly for Jay, but like so much online comedy, I also meant it to have a public or semi-public aspect. That is, it might have been nice for someone else involved with our card game to see it and to respond. None of those people is on Twitter, though some are on Facebook.

Moreover, I might have liked for some friends who aren’t involved with our game, who may not even know Jay, to see the joke. I’m surely not the only one who’s identified a performative aspect to his social media behaviors; it seems to me that, among other ways, jokes like these function to complement or reinforce my meatspace persona. In a way, I want people who aren’t in on the joke to become in on the joke so that they can better understand who I am and how I think about the world. (Really.)

Given that I have far more friends on Facebook than I do followers on Twitter, should I have held off on making the joke on Twitter, and waited until I made my way to Facebook? Should I have re-posted it on Facebook, violating that strange but compelling prohibition on repeating a joke before the same audience (if not on repeating a joke at all, at least without acknowledging its travels)?

It might be nice if there were a way to tell the Twitter app on Facebook that, hey, that dude I follow on Twitter is this dude on Facebook. Then, it could ask that dude for permission to post my Twitter @replies as comments to his status messages, and we’d be off. (Such a configuration would no doubt require like nine databases and three APIs that don’t and maybe can’t exist.)

Then again, it might not be nice at all. The more I think about it, the more I think my uses for Twitter and for my Facebook status differ—or at least, should differ. Twitter “feels” more directed towards two-way communication—this despite the @reply’s absence from the service’s original conception (Twitter-blog post and napkin-sketch). One’s Facebook status, though it may draw replies, seems more about one-to-many transmission, less about soliciting a response.

My perception of this difference may derive from just how few Twitterers I follow, and how few follow me, as compared to my Facebook friends. That is, on Facebook, it would be as unlikely for others to comment regularly on my status as it is that I will comment on theirs; my Twitter circle is more intimate.

Still, I won’t remove the Twitter app; I continue to want my tweets reflected in my Facebook status. It’s not just that I’m lazy. It’s also that some of the value of these new-ish media forms derives from the knowledge that one has configured one’s digital life in ways that are compatible with those digital lives it intersects, at least for me. The upshot of my decision, though, is a lingering dissatisfaction with every tweet on the terms I’ve sketched here: Each is either too transmissional for Twitter or too solicitational (of a response) for Facebook.

However unique this situation, or idiosyncratic my response to it, it does belie a larger problem of social media. And it’s important that I don’t say “problem with”: I’m not criticizing, just critiquing.

For comparison’s sake, our offline interactions with each other are structured by lots of different institutions, among them school, work, coffee shop, club, public transportation, and movie theatre, depending on your inclinations.

The online institutions that mediate our relationships, if no less powerful, are far more transparent. I know more or less exactly how Facebook will shape my contact with Jay before I sign up, because Facebook has been designed with that purpose made explicit. This transparency creates a marketplace: We choose among competing platforms based on our conscious ideas and expectations about each.

This may be less true for very early adopters, to be fair; that a group of early Twitterers created the @reply without regard for the built-in purposes of the service—and that the service then assimilated the @reply—shows just how much power can come from the ground up. Still, at the moment in which one creates a Twitter account, I suspect the rule is that one expects to participate within the bounds of prescription.

An armchair Foucauldian analysis might tell you that each of the offline institutions works just the same, that spatial configurations and designations of authority have been implemented—perhaps no less by design—in order to shape social relations. Even if this is so, though, these functions are so obscured that it takes a Foucault to expose them in the first place. We participate in these institutions for reasons far more complex, entangled, and at times unconscious than those that motivate our signups online.

The problem, then, is this: The free-market competition among social media platforms and their underlying collaborational ideology—best demonstrated by the obligatority of the API—may be fundamentally incompatible, or at least, only partially resolved. The partial integration of Twitter and Facebook illustrates the conflict. The existence of a Twitter Facebook app is a foregone conclusion. Yet, in order to remain different, to remain competitive, the two can’t be integrated completely.

If my suggestion for a total (or more total) integration were implemented, the differences between tweeting and setting one’s Facebook status, between @replying and commenting, would be two: first, default privacy settings, which we can read as the developers’ ideas about who should see one platform’s version of the same message, and about how that behavioral aspect of the platform should shape our interactions with one another. Still, a user can (and many users do) override these settings on Twitter and, with considerably granular control, on Facebook.

Second, with more significant interplay between Twitter and Facebook, the choice of interface would remain as a difference. But even within either site, one already has dozens of options for tweeting or updating one’s status—not just from the computer, but from the phone, too. A list of applications for interacting with Twitter makes the head spin.

Finally, even in this hypothetical circumstance, brand recognition would still play. One benefit of affiliating oneself with a particular platform is that the affiliation is public. That is, for a variety of social reasons, one may want it known that one is a Twitterer. One may also be motivated professionally; I originally signed up for Facebook, for example, so as to be better able to advise higher education clients on its potential utility in their marketing efforts.

This last factor seems the most crucial difference that would remain, to be sure. But if Twitter and Facebook’s status feature were made virtually identical, I doubt that Twitter could remain important. That is, I think that although Twitter would continue to exist, it could not do so as more than a badge, an obligatory statement of one’s partaking in a certain broad movement.

The point I want to make here is just this: There are non-parallel forces—collaboration and competition—that press against social media platforms. Under certain circumstances, these forces can also come to press against us. In this context, we must look closely at the intertwining of our relationships and platforms. That is, if we’re better off after careful critiques of our classrooms, prisons, and cube farms, then we ought to derive similar benefits from thorough examination of our online institutions. I hope to have begun to provide a small example of how this might work.

Election Coverage Special Effects

NBC just showed Ann Curry’s green room, as though we though all those graphics she was throwing around were real, solid objects.

CNN pseudo-hologrammically projected Jessica Yellin into the Situation Room on CNN. Now Yellin is explaining that there are 35 HD cameras shooting her in Chicago, and those cameras are somehow tied to cameras in New York, such that the paired cameras’ movements can match. As a result, Yellin can appear in the Sit Room, spatially integrated, if jerky and haloed.

Does any of this add to the broadcast? The Curry bit I almost understand; tighter visual integration between her and the many graphics zipping by maybe helps comprehension or something. But isn’t there value in seeing the hordes lining up to get into Grant Park where Yellin is(n’t)? Wouldn’t it be more informative to hear the crowd behind her, as in a traditional broadcast?

Reminds me of Oswalt: “We’re Science—we’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”

Hour Zero with Office 2008

I’m 30 minutes past my late-adopting install of Office 2008 and its three updates, and already there are problems. I’ll skip the major issues that have already been covered, and commence griping about the user experience:

  1. Office applications don’t respect my heretofore system-wide preferences for how fast the cursor blinks, and mine is way faster than theirs. This seems like an easy fix for how aggravating it is, and a terrible oversight (or decision?) up front.
  2. They haven’t fixed any of the interface problems that emerged with the last release (at the latest). For example, in Excel, to edit cell data, I have either to use my trackpad/mouse or use bogus keyboard shortcut Ctrl-U. That this is a problem is not news. I should be able to click either Enter or Return to toggle the edit state of the cell.
  3. Again, after downloading and running three software updates, and after a restart and a rebuild of my Mac’s LaunchServices database, I still can’t open Word documents by double-clicking them, a bug that has apparently plagued Word since the day of its release. Instead, I have to launch the application and then choose File > Open….

(I’ve set this last one apart as it requires more explanation, and is absolutely emblematic of Microsoft’s inattention to the details of the user experience.)

Instead of going with the time-tested tab interface for their preferences box, Microsoft chose to adopt Apple’s “Preference Panes” approach. On the one hand, you want to applaud their attempt to be more OS-integrated on the Mac side, but here’s the problem: Their implementation is problematically incomplete.

The Panes approach works relatively well for the Mac OS’s System Preferences because those groups of preferences are largely unrelated to one another, falling into largely disparate categories and affecting tasks and behaviors no less varied. So, anecdotally, there seems not to be rampant need to jump from one pane to another before leaving the interface, which is where tabs might help. And just in case, Apple has provided not only “Back” and “Show All” buttons, but also a keyboard shortcut, Command-L, to return to the list of panes.

But, I would argue, an Office Apps’s preference groups are much more closely tied together, as they all affect a similar group of behaviors, namely, those affecting the way one works in the application. This is a broad category overall, but in Word, for example, there’s significantly more overlap between the View, Edit, Spelling & Grammar, and AutoCorrect panes than between any four at the OS level.

In my experience with Word 2004, this means more switching between preference groups in the same visit to the Preferences dialogue. Again, this wouldn’t be much of a problem with a tabbed interface, in which you can always see the other options available. But instead, switching from one pane to another requires two clicks. And, perhaps more to the point, there’s no keyboard shortcut for viewing all panes. For a keyboard-centric users like me, this greatly reduces the effectiveness of the Panes model.

But honestly, I’m a lot more grumpy about the slow-blinking cursor.