On Medium’s new ‘applause’ feature

I really like Medium’s new ‘applause’ feature for ‘liking’ articles.

medium-applause

The idea is that the extent to which you like something is not binary… it’s not either “I like it” or “I don’t”. It’s a spectrum.

There are other ways they could have done it. They could have made it a star rating, a rating from 1-5, or 0-10 (like NPS). But all of these have a meaning that’s so closely associated with rating things (hotel rooms, websites, products and so on) that it would feel odd attaching it to Medium content, where the author is clearly visible. Replacing it with ‘clapping’ makes it a much more human interaction.

Clapping is something we humans do all the time to indicate how when we like something, and generally, how much we like it. The more we like something, the harder and louder we clap. The Applause-o-meter is a common method for gauging audience reaction to a contest between a few different people, with the candidate who receives the loudest applause winning the match.

That’s what I like about the clapping UI on Medium. It takes a very common behaviour on the internet (rating something) and gives it a very human and emotional touch. The more you like a piece on medium, the more you click to ‘clap’ for it. This also makes clapping a lot more meaningful than just going for the 5 star button… each click to clap is an additional investment – you need to decide once again on each click if it’s worth one more – so five ‘claps’ is worth much more than one-click to leave a 5-star review.

The downside?
Each click is an additional investment. In our time-drained world, each click is a little bit of friction. Will people leave as many ‘claps’ as they might want?

There’s also possibility for abuse, such as clicking a hundred times on one article to artificially bump up the total number of claps – but that’s something Medium can easily secure against with a bit of logic.

The danger of copying

It’s normal when building and optimising a product to take a look at how others have solved similar problems in the past. In fact, this is a critical part of the design and product research phase.

But be careful with assumptions like “Company XYZ does it this way, and they know their shit: they wouldn’t do it that way if it didn’t work, so we should do it that way too.”

I’ve heard PMs and designers say things like this all the time, and although it’s tempting to believe when you’re under time pressure to ship, it’s rarely the right decision just to blindly copy the competition or whatever reference model you’re looking at.

The thing is: from the outside looking in, you have no idea why they decided to solve the problem in the way they did. You don’t know the context of their users and their business.

And you don’t have the data. You don’t know if it’s even working.

Maybe that solution isn’t performing at all and the product team hates it, but they haven’t had the resources or time to improve it yet. You just don’t know.

Get inspiration from those who have solved similar problems before you. The product world is full of incredible people that ship innovative solutions every day, and it would be foolish not to learn from that. And yes, there’s no point re-inventing the wheel. But remember that not every wheel fits every vehicle. Implementation and context is everything.

So don’t copy blind. Don’t assume it will work for you directly. Learn from the best; then make your own decision. Then instrument with good analytics, measure and iterate.

User Experience is everybody’s job

I’ve met lots of product teams who will tell you: “User Experience is a design thing.” They hire ‘User Experience Designers’ to design the User Experience, and generally assume that they alone are responsible for the overall UX.

I believe that simply assuming the User Experience is a ‘Design Thing’ is a very dangerous mindset, for three very important reasons.

UX is in the middle between Product, Design and Technology

Within a product, the overall User Experience isn’t delivered only through design.

Certainly a big part of the UX is the visual design, the interaction design, the brand design, and so on. But an equal part of UX is the implementation of that design through technology. The danger in assuming that UX is a ‘Design Thing’ is that it quickly leads to people from other disciplines disconnecting from worrying about the User Experience at all. Every technology decision has an impact on the User Experience, which makes every engineer who is making any technology decisions – (which is every engineer) – equally responsible for ensuring a great UX.

Too often I see product tradeoffs being made where teams decide to sacrifice the user experience in favour of saving time, saving cost, avoiding that refactor or simplifying that internal process. These are all terrible reasons to sacrifice the User Experience. Additionally, sometimes the best User Experience improvements come exclusively through technology improvements. For example performance improvements, which can have a huge impact on UX, often come from deep and complicated engineering innovation.

Engineers: The User Experience is your job, too!

User Experience is also about solving the right problems for the user, and solving them with the right priority.

The user will judge the user experience to the extent that it solves their problem. A perfectly executed product that doesn’t solve a problem for the user won’t lead to a great User Experience.

This is where Product Managers should feel in command of the User Experience: in making sure the problems you’re solving are urgent and pervasive within your market segment, and that the solutions you are delivering are differentiated and defensible. Make no mistake: this has the biggest impact on your User Experience – and the resulting product success – than anything else, so it makes sense that you should focus here.

Product Managers: The User Experience is your job, too!

The overall User Experience goes beyond just the app/website/service/widget that you’re building.

When we’re working as Product Managers on digital products, we’re all so concentrated on our app, website, widget or whatever, that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your app is just one piece of the whole User Experience.

The overall UX starts the moment the user first hears about your product, and goes all the way to support, fulfilment, billing, etc. In other words, the User Experience spans the entire customer lifecycle.

We hire people with titles like ‘User Experience Designer’, but then put them to work designing user flows within single apps or products. To me, there is a difference between Interaction Design and User Experience design.

Interaction Design is concerned with the design of discreet experiences – interactions – within customer experiences. How does the user interact with this feature/product/widget?
User Experience Design takes a holistic view of the entire end-to-end user journey – from their first contact with the product via a marketing message, the app store or even a word-of-mouth recommendation, all the way to customer support, billing, delivery, etc.

But it’s not only the job of the User Experience Designer to think end-to-end. Everybody working on the product should have the entire end-to-end flow in mind, to understand the unique context of each user, why they are there, what problems they have and what they are hoping to achieve.

Marketeers, Support Engineers, PR folks, Delivery technicians, Logistics technicians, etc: The User Experience is your job, too!

Why this matters

Users have more ability to discover and switch to new services than ever before. Traditional lock-in effects like platform dependencies and data ownership are eroding thanks to open platforms and data portability, and there are great alternatives in every product vertical. The thing that keeps people using your product or service is the quality of the user experience, from end to end.

Companies that become great and enjoy great customer loyalty do so by developing a culture of unwavering customer focus. Sure, many companies say they are customer focussed, but actually being customer focussed is more than just a mission statement – it’s a deeply embedded culture that everyone lives and breathes from the CEO down.

A couple of examples:

  • Facebook prioritises the customer experience over everything. Facebook understands that their business model depends on gaining more and more users who each spend more and more time using Facebook. Their business is cultivating user attention. Everything else in the business comes second to user engagement.
  • Amazon is another company which was founded and grew on the fundamental premise of making the experience great for the customer. When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com in the mid 90s, he knew that the key to scaling massive consumer adoption extremely quickly was an unwavering focus on a great customer experience, and he considered the customer the most important thing in the business. He built this customer-first attitude into the company’s DNA from day one, and every innovation they have delivered – from 1-Click ordering, to personal recommendations, to the Kindle eReader to the voice-controlled Echo – has been about making a great customer experience and making it easier to shop and interact with your content.

A few ways to make sure you’re thinking end-to-end about UX

  • Do you share a common set of User Personas across all departments, including tech, QA, product, design, marketing, comms and support? Having a common set of personas ensures that everyone has the same user in mind when designing their solutions.
  • Does your QA team test the entire acquisition and on-boarding funnel? It’s important, but insufficient, to focus your QA efforts on the app/website/etc. You need test coverage of the whole end-to-end experience. If you don’t QA your marketing or your support functions, you should consider doing so. For example, you can test your support team with the ‘secret shopper’ approach.
  • Consider a ‘Stop the line’ policy for the User Experience. It’s a familiar concept to your engineers – certain situations within the build environment, such as test coverage dipping below a certain level, or open bugs exceeding a certain threshold, will trigger a ‘stop the line’ where no new check-ins can occur until the situation is resolved. What if you did the same for User Experience? What if you gave everybody in the product team – from Product Management and Design, to Engineering, QA, Marketing, Comms, Support, etc – the permission to Stop the line? To put a pause on building anything new until the UX issue is resolved? What impact would that have on your customer focus?

Ultimately, the User Experience is the culmination of every touchpoint you have with your customers. This experience can, and should, be designed from end to end. But it’s not just the ‘job’ of Design to get it right.

UX is everybody’s job.

The evolution of the design discipline

I’m not a designer by trade (which means I have never been to design school or worked as a designer professionally), but I spend a lot of time designing things – websites, apps, experiences, presentations, flyers, posters and so on. The tools and resources needed to design beautiful things are more accessible than they have ever been before.

But what does this mean for designers? I mean, for people who call themselves designers; who are designers by profession?

I don’t think the design discipline is at risk of disappearing; of being absorbed by the greater masses. It is, however, becoming increasingly democratised and accessible. The lines between amateur and professional are blurred. That doesn’t force the designer into another profession – but it does force the designer to articulate his value in ways that differentiate him from the crowd.

Try this for a parallel: take a look at journalism. Journalism was also once a ‘closed system’, now it is hugely open and accessible. Journalism once required a degree in arts, journalism or literature, and your career started in the pit of some local rag newspaper writing articles by the thousands on local fairs, traffic jams and pub brawls. Now anyone has the ability to write something that reaches a million people instantly – and you don’t even need to be able to write a grammatically correct sentence to do it.

Modern forms of democratised media are changing traditional print journalism in big and irreversible ways – a situation nobody denies but nobody has a solution for. Partly because, I think, there is no ‘solution’. This isn’t a problem to be solved – it’s evolution.

What enabled this disruption? The internet, of course. But abstract it a different way and you see it was enabled by ubiquitous access to tools; tools that facilitate both creation and distribution.

Do should journalists start worrying about their jobs? Will they be replaced by citizen journalists and bloggers and twitterers? Maybe… it’s clearly happening faster than they think. Sure, a random blogger sitting in their bedroom cannot replace the TIME journalist who goes behind the lines in Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. But when a witness to a disaster or tragedy can upload a video to YouTube in seconds (think the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria), the role of that TIME journalist changes.

There’s another example that you might not have thought of: software engineering. Back in “my day”, you needed a computer engineering degree to write software (I know, I have one). Code was complicated and inaccessible. Now, anyone can write an app or build a website in minutes. There are frameworks and programs that let you build an app with a WYSIWYG interface and publish it directly to the store. There are code camps for designers and even code camps for CEOs.

So as a software engineer, does this make your profession less valuable? Maybe, maybe not. Right now there’s enough complexity in the growing infrastructure to keep plenty of software engineers busy (someone needs to build the frameworks and WYSIWYG editors, right?). But what it certainly means is that the lines between amateur and professional are becoming blurred. And why? Tools: tools that facilitate creation and distribution.

We can debate for hours whether using a WYSIWYG application framework to publish an app makes you a ‘software engineer’ or not. But in the end, does it matter? If the goal was to publish a well-crafted, functioning app, who cares if you’re a ‘software engineer’ or not?

So too with design. Like with software and journalism, the tools for the production of design, the availability of resources and materials and means for distribution have made design an accessible discipline. The lines between amateur and professional have blurred.

If I was an automobile designer, I wouldn’t be too worried that the average joe would put my job at risk. Yet. But what about the future? Imagine a time when you can design and build your own car with special software and a 3D printer? What role does the automobile designer have then? Would there still be automobile designers?

Professions evolve. You had to be a computer scientist to operate the first computers, now there’s one in your pocket. I also hear there used to be a profession called “Typesetter”. Where are they now?

My point is not that design is at risk of becoming extinct… on the contrary. Design is growing, evolving – it’s reaching the masses.

So where does that leave designers? I’d say: learn the lesson the journalists struggled to learn: lamenting the state of things and reminiscing on the days when only a ‘designer’ could design won’t stop help you any more than it helped the Typesetters. Embrace the evolution – see it as an opportunity to influence how millions (billions?) of people design, create and enjoy the world around them.