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.

Ways to think about Android Instant Apps, and what it means for developers

This week their annual developer event Google casually announced a huge new feature coming soon to Android: Instant Apps. Chris Maddern called it their “one more thing” moment. When finally released, perhaps later this year, it could be the one of the most fundamental changes to the way mobile apps work since the App Store. What it won’t be, however, is an instant solution to the majority of app developer’s main problem: app discovery.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Android Instant Apps, as they were presented during the keynote, will allow Android native apps to run immediately, without being installed, by essentially lazy-loading the relevant modules to the device at run-time. This will allow users to interact with your app and your content immediately, without needing to go through the hurdle of visiting the app store. Users can then (presumably) install the ‘full’ app if they want to.

It’s easy to see why this is a big deal. The mechanics of installing an app involve a lot of physical and psychological friction: do I really want this app on my phone? Do I trust it? Will I ever use it again? Do I have the time to wait for it to download and install? Do I even have the space for it? (Anyone with a 16GB iPhone can attest to this being a very real and very constant problem). Apps could lose anywhere between 20 to 80% of the traffic that hits their app store page, so anything that helps eliminate this friction will be a huge win for app developers.

Then it gets even more interesting with Android Pay. According to the keynote, Instant Apps will be able to integrate with Android Pay. If we assume this gives the app instant access not just to payment details, but identity and shipping details as well, you could easily imagine purchasing something you just discovered on the web in an Instant App with just a couple of taps.

Ways Instant Apps will help app developers

App linking will be smoother and involve less friction.
Both Android and iOS have allowed native app deep linking for a couple of OS versions now, allowing developers to link into deep content views within other apps. This generally works great if the user has the target app already installed on their device; but if they don’t, the experience isn’t so great: the user is generally redirected either to a mobile-optimised version of the target product, and usually presented with a mobile app upsell ad; or they are directed straight to the app store, where the user needs to first figure out what kind of app this is, do I care enough about it to install it, etc.

Flowchart showing how apps are installed from app links

The sloppy app-install experience from app links

Some companies have been trying to improve this process, such as Branch.io who have built tools to allow developers to use ‘deferred deep links’, so that when the user does install the app after tapping a deep link they will be directed straight to the piece of content they were looking for directly after the install. But there is still heaps that can go wrong: the user needs to tap ‘install’, wait for the installation to finish, then open the app… So although deferred deep links help, they are a band-aid on an essentially sloppy user experience.

Instant apps will solve this by skipping the whole store and to-install-or-not-to-install question. Because of this, I expect to see more developers engaging in app linking partnerships and leveraging such partnerships both to monetise their own users and also to grow by seeking partners to send incoming links. The NYC-based startup Button is building an exciting business around facilitating a network of deep-link-based affiliate partnerships, and through their SDK has also tried to solve parts of the app-install problem by bringing more content into the publishing app.

Allowing easy access to rich native experiences from real world locations
Lots of brands and stores have apps already, but they all suffer from the app install friction as described above. It might be really handy to be able to place your McDonalds order in advance from the McDonalds app, but if you’re only going to McDonalds this one time, will you bother downloading the app, signing up, adding your payment details, etc?

Instant Apps would allow businesses like McDonalds to allow customers to place their order, and pay for it, quickly and easily without needing to download anything. The example Google used in their keynote was paying for parking, without needing to install any app, and – more importantly – without even needing to know which app you need. Just ‘point your phone’ at the parking meter and via the NFC connection it can figure out what app you need, lazy-load in the needed module, connect to Android Pay and – boom! You’ve paid for your parking safely and securely. Or perhaps you’re in a new city and you want to buy a ticket for the subway, but you have no idea how the system works in that city (and we’ve all been there). Just point your phone at the ticket machine, and the appropriate experience to book and pay for your ticket pops up right on your phone.

Given the ease of linking into rich experiences that this allows, I could imagine other, non-commerce use cases. Imagine Yelp issues all of its businesses a QR code. Then when you’re sitting in a restaurant and you’ve had a great meal, you could scan the code and go directly into a Yelp-powered experience where you can leave a review – without needing the Yelp app ‘installed’ on your phone. (And if Instant Apps allow users to access users’ identity, you don’t even need to create an account on Yelp either).

Preview an app without installing it
It will be interesting to see if Google build some of the Instant App mechanism into the Play store directly. This could allow you to quickly ‘preview’ an app before you make the decision to install it. Screenshots, descriptions and videos are great – but nothing beats actually using the app. What if you could preview a working version before you install?

Instant App-powered Trial Versions could become the next frontier of App Store Optimisation.

Or what if this enabled free, limited trials of paid apps? Before choosing to drop $9.99 on that newest distraction-free text editor, what if you could trial it? This could also be great for games: like Shareware for the app economy.

Will you even need a mobile-optimised website at all?
If you take all of this to the logical conclusion, you start to wonder if you need a mobile website at all. (Ok, at least an Android-optimised mobile website, for now).

These days plenty of businesses, such as Hotel Tonight, are mobile-only from day one; but for many others the web, and particularly the mobile web, remains an important discovery and conversion channel. For content-based businesses, it’s particularly important to have a mobile website to deal with the “app not installed” dilemma described above: when somebody discovers your content, either through SEO or a link from another service, you want to be able to show the user some content immediately. (Or you risk sending them directly to the app store and hoping they convert to downloading the app).

If Android Instant Apps can provide a real, native experience immediately, without downloading the app, why would you need to have a mobile website at all? You would shift your SEO focus to concentrating on Google/Firebase App Indexing, and shift your conversion funnel to the Instant App experience.

(There’s an interesting internal conflict for Google here. On one hand, Google is inviting developers to prioritise native app experiences – which when followed to the logical conclusion might very well result in less investment in the web. At the same time, Google’s control and monetisation is still heavily dependent on people searching and discovering stuff on with Google Search: one of their rationales to invest in their Accelerated Mobile Pages project.)

Where Instant Apps won’t necessarily help: App Discovery

Instant Apps could make the entire conversion experience for apps much more seamless, making it easier to access, consume and potentially test/trial apps.

But conversion is only half of the app distribution problem: the second half. The first half of the problem is app discovery, and this is where I don’t see Instant Apps helping that much – at least not directly.

Instant Apps will make it smoother to link between apps, and this could hopefully encourage a stronger ecosystem of app user/value exchange. This will help app discovery for sure. But the majority of apps are still discovered in the ‘traditional’ ways: word of mouth, content search, app store ‘browsing’, or performance/digital marketing.

Instant Apps by and large won’t let developers circumvent the traditional app discovery channels. You still need to get your app in front of a user. What it does is dramatically simplifies the conversion process, allowing more users to interact with your app and discover its value – once they have discovered it.

Things for developers to think about

What does Instant Apps mean for you? Some things to think about:

  • If you have a content or commerce-based business, start thinking about how to expand your reach through affiliate partnership building. Instant Apps will make consuming your content or service via a referred link in a partner app much easier and this can be a powerful source of acquisition.
  • Where else can you include links that could surface deep views of your service without needing an install? In marketing materials? Affiliate programs?
  • Start thinking about how to modularise your codebase now. For some apps it will be easy: Google says that some apps should be able to make the necessary changes within a day. But for other apps, depending on the architecture, it will be more complicated. Try signing up for early access to the program in the Android developer portal. But even if you don’t get in, start thinking now about how you will approach modularisation – is there a big architecture refactor you’ll need to invest in?

Messaging and Chat are the next big channel for Growth

Growth is about finding new channels.

Messaging in general as a channel is young and fresh – and there will be a goldrush very, very soon. Services like Slack and Facebook Messenger are following the lead set by the asian chat successes like Line and WeChat in turning chat into a platform that allows access to services over the top – services like payments, shopping, games and more.

You can now order an Uber by typing a command in Slack, or you can order a pizza within the WeChat app in China.

What happens when chat becomes our interface with the world?

Before the point-and-click windows-based GUI evolved, the earliest PCs running DOS or similar operating systems had a ‘chat-style’ interface – a command line.

Messaging could be the next Operating System, and the starting point could be, once again, the command line. The difference is this time the abstraction level is much, much higher. Instead of a command like cd /uber which would change your working directory to the one called ‘uber’, now a command like /uber ride can literally order you an Uber. What’s old is new again.

There is a big possibility chat will be the next user interface. Chat – or personal assistants – or more likely a combination of both – will replace the apps grid as the next major UI paradigm. The chat window is always open. Yes, you use it to talk to your colleagues or friends – but it is already replacing email, and will piece-by-pice replace everything else around it. It’s so much easier to order an uber by typing “/uber ride” into the chat window that’s already open, than pulling your phone out, unlocking it, opening an app, etc.

(As a fun thought experiment: What comes next? What does the next part of the cycle look like? What does a GUI for chat look like?)

Amazon Kindle and the Perfect Product Vision

In the recent fantastic piece on The Verge covering interviews with the top brass behind the Amazon Kindle, the ultimate product vision behind the Kindle series of eReaders is articulated beautifully. From the article:

For Amazon, paper is more than a material for making prototypes. It’s the inspiration for the Kindle of the future: a weightless object that lasts more or less forever and is readable in any light. “Paper is the gold standard,” Green says. “We’re striving to hit that. And we’re taking legitimate steps year over year to get there.”

The beauty of this is its simplicity. Amazon are striving to create electronic paper. “Paper is the gold standard. We’re striving to hit that.”

There is nothing here about the joy of reading, or empowering people through instant delivery of information, or making money. The beauty of this is that all of those things flow naturally from the core premise: to make better, electronic paper.

This is what the Kindle team says about itself. It’s clear, it’s inspiring – and it’s impossible to misunderstand.

Compare that with this:

“Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”

That mouthful appeared on a slide at Twitter’s first analyst day. Inspiring? Do you even understand what the hell its trying to say? It could mean anything and everything – and that’s the problem.

Imagine your first day on the job at Amazon in the Kindle division. You ask, “So what is our mission? What are we trying to do?” In answer, someone might hand you a piece of paper, and tell you: “We want to make that.”

A good product vision is inspiring and motivating; an irresistible imagined future that pulls you towards it like gravity. But a good vision is also impossible to misunderstand. Everybody should share the same view, and be pulled in the same direction.

Location-Based Services in 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of location-based services lately. The first thing that occurs to me: nobody talks about location-based services anymore. There are just ‘services’.

It occurs to me that Location, in and of itself, is not an ‘experience’, per se. It is an enabler of experiences. Allow me to explain.

There are two critical aspects that make up a location-based service:

  1. The ability to accurately detect the real-world location of the user (or, more specifically, the user’s device) and communicate this back to a service in real-time.
  2. The ability to accurately place this, and other, locations of interest on a map.

Take a classic “location-based service” such as Foursquare, where users ‘check-in’ to venues, stores or other locations with the app on their smartphone when they visit the store physically. The location of the user is the enabler that allows the check-in to take place, and the rendering of a map of the area is the enabler that allows the check-in to be viewed and consumed later.

Location itself isn’t the point or motivator for the experience. It’s just what makes the experience possible.

Hence the term “location-based service” has fallen a bit out of favour. Location is no longer an exciting differentiator among mobile experiences, and the location is very rarely the real point of the ‘service’. The point is always something else: find out how good a hotel is (TripAdvisor), review a restaurant (Yelp), find a new place for lunch (Foursquare), find deals nearby (Groupon, iBeacon), etc.

So the thing to remember about Location: it’s not an experience. Location is an enabler of experiences.

Your customers are not lucky to have you

You’re lucky to have them.

Without your customers you have no sales, no revenue and no business.

When the line at the post office stretches out of the door and into the street, I think: “How can I avoid doing my business here next time?”

When my cable goes down and it takes 30 minutes to contact tech support, I think: “What other cable providers are there?”

When an app I paid for (with my money, or with my time, and it’s irrelevant which) is slow or hard to use, when it crashes, when it doesn’t work, I think: “Is there another app that will do what I need to do?”

Your customers always have another option. Particularly for products that create needs or activate latent needs (as do many of the apps and services that exist in the modern consumer space), not fulfilling the need is a perfectly reasonable option for most people.

Beware the hubris of thinking that your customers are lucky to have you.

Kevin Spacey’s groundbreaking wake-up-call on the television industry

Just last week I posted about how the TV and film industries can battle piracy by embracing the internet as an on-demand content delivery mechanism. I compared it to the Spotify model and suggested that if you just make television available to people anytime and anywhere they want it, on any device at a fair price, then people will pay for it. Make it easier to consume it legally than illegally, and people will “do the right thing”.

Kevin Spacey, star and co-producer of the Netflix hit House of Cards delivered the keynote address to the Edinburgh International Television Festival recently and warned that a failure to do just that will sooner or later be the downfall of the television industry as we know it.

With House of Cards and Netflix, he argues:

We have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson the music industry hasn’t learned.
Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price – and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it.
Well… some will still steal it, but I think we can take a bite out of piracy.

See the highlights of his address here:

Why I’m addicted to Rando, a different kind of photo sharing app

The web is awash with photo sharing services designed to broadcast your photos to as many people as possible. Even before the ubiquitous Instagram services like Flickr and Facebook were flooding you with photos from your friends of their holidays, their achievements, their pets, or whatever… photos that were liked, re-shared, posted, re-posted, pinned, re-pinned, tumbled, re-tumbled, tweeted, re-tweeted…

Among all the noise, the beautiful simplicity of sharing a moment with another human being – the supposed core mission of Instagram – was lost underneath the “social” deluge.

Enter Rando: a very different way to share a moment with someone.

Rando works like this: You take a photo and send it to the service. That photo will be sent (sort-of) immediately to another random Rando user, somewhere in the world. In return, you receive a so-called ‘Rando’ back from another user somewhere in the world. You have to send one to get one. Randos are always sent to exactly one person only, and they are always anonymous. You will never know who sent you the Rando, or who received yours. All you know is from what city it came.

You cannot select a photo from your gallery to send – you must take a photo with the camera right then and there. Most interestingly, all you can do with the randos you receive is look at them. You can’t share them, like them, reply to them or ‘re-rando’ them. They’re yours to keep – but only to look at.

When I heard about it, I thought two things:

  1. This app will take about 20 minutes to become all about porn
  2. It’s a bit pointless, isn’t it?

After sending a few Randos however I found I was becoming strangely addicted. I realised it’s really beautiful in a way.

When you receive a rando, you know that it was a photo that was taken moments ago (because you cannot choose from your gallery). This gives the moment that is captured a sense of immediacy – what you’re looking at just happened. And because you’re sharing with exactly one person, and that person is waiting for your rando, it makes the exchange more like a gift, thoughtfully prepared and delivered with a touch of altruistic love.

Compare this interaction with sharing your moment on Instagram or Facebook (ie blasting your whole network of friends and colleagues or indeed the whole internet with your ‘special moment’/interruption). Instead you’re sharing it with one special person who is literally waiting for your photo – your moment – to come in.

I found myself wanting to share special things with random people on Rando. This morning I happened by a strange Superman statue with its head blasted off. Cool, I thought. But instead of spamming my network with it, I felt immediately compelled to share this special find with someone on Rando. And the best part is that when I do, I get a rando back.

I’ve received randos from Russia, South Korea, Brazil, Venezuela, England, Scotland, Finland, Holland and even a random tiny island somewhere in the pacific. Looking at my growing rando collection I see incredible diversity of culture, architecture and people. It makes you realise that things and sights that for you are totally mundane and ordinary are for people in other parts of the world new and fascinating.

Rando is a beautiful idea that finally makes sharing pictures ‘social’ in the sense that you actually create a meaningful connection with another human being. It fights against the trend of making every object likable, sharable and distributable to as many people as possible, and instead lets you gift a moment to another human in a way that adds human meaning.

It’s available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, and comes from the UK based design studio ustwo.

Is it Google’s plan to index the world’s information, or to curate it?

I just heard (via @montymunford) that Google will start ranking mobile websites lower in search results when they use a “download our app” popup on the page. Read about it here.

One of Google’s justifications is that the experience of seeing a pop-up banner may be ‘disruptive’ to the user experience.

Is it Google’s job to play User Experience police to the whole internet?

It’s one thing to deprioritise sites with poor or duplicate content. But to de-rank sites based on user interaction decisions of the developers? Isn’t that taking it a bit too far?

Some argue that it’s a good thing… that it helps us find better content. Maybe that’s true… but where would it end? What if Google started de-ranking sites because the navigation was unclear? Or because there was no ‘about’ page?

It’s a slippery slope.

Google already controls access to a huge proportion of the internet. They are the gatekeepers… the ones who decide what we get to see, and what not. To me, consolidating all of this power in one gate puts the freedom and openness of the internet at risk.

The road to Robocop: how connected devices and sensors are the bionic enhancements that are evolving us

Robocop Statue

Detroit City is about to erect a gigantic statue of their three-time hero Robocop – the part man, part machine crime-enforcing cyborg. As fantastic as the story is, every day there is more and more science in the fiction.

Peter Weller’s character had to die before being packed into the giant metal suit and coming back to life as the bionic-enhanced supercop; but in the real world, it turns out we are all actually becoming more bionicly enhanced every day.

Take the well-known artificial cardiac pacemaker, a device which is implanted into the body that uses electrical impulses to regulate the beating of the human heart.

Part man, part machine?

The first experiments concerning artificially regulating the heart were conducted in 1899, and the first working prototype was assembled by some Aussies in 1926. Since then this man-made bionic improvement has helped save the lives of thousands of people.

Luke Skywalker bionic hand

Or take the humble hearing aid, which has improved or returned hearing to millions of people since the first one was invented in the 17th century. Then there are bionic limbs, helping people like Oscar Pistorius do what they do. Medical scientists are actually getting closer and closer to having real Luke Skywalker-type bionic limbs.

Although these bionic technologies have been around for a long time, until now they have focussed primarily on restoring or correcting defects (hearing loss, amputations, etc). Now, the internet and the variety of connected devices we carry with us every day are opening up a new world of bionic enhancements, accessible to everyone.

We already use our smartphones to replace our memories. Who knows anyone’s telephone number off the top of their head anymore? To-do applications like Wunderlist and note-taking applications like Evernote are becoming our long-term memory, and turn-by-turn navigation has not only replaced the paper street directory but most of our sense of spatial recollection as well (unless you’re a London cabbie).

With our smartphones constantly on the internet, the answer to any question is just a few taps away. Who was the last King of the Tudor dynasty? When did the Boer War end? Google or Wikipedia are with you – on the couch, on the bus, or in an exam.

Is this a form of bionic memory enhancement?

While our smartphones, tablets and PCs, and our always-on connection to the cloud, replace our memories and more and more become our primary interface to interact with the world, new forms of wearable technology will enhance us and our bodies even further.

Sports-sensors like the FitBit or the Nike+ Sports Watch track our movements and give us feedback on performance. They can even be programmed to tell you when you haven’t walked far enough or drunk enough water today.

Star Trek Tricorder

A $10 million X-Prize is fuelling a race to make the famous ‘Tricorder’ from Star Trek, a hand-held scanner that can detect any known human illness, a reality. The leading entries focus on using complex sensors to generate gigabytes of data about the body in a scan to be used to diagnose illnesses like cancer, or detect a heart attack before it strikes.

Is using sensor data to monitor your body a form of bionic enhancement?

The watch-phone, or ‘smart watch’, like Samsumg’s planned device or Apple’s rumoured ‘iWatch’, embeds our smartphone and, by extension, the whole power of the internet, closer to us (in us?) than ever before. Now we can communicate with each other wirelessly, just by telling our wristwatch to call somebody, and without having to get out our phone or hold it to our ear. It’s almost as good as telepathy.

Luke Skywalker bionic hand

Augmented reality headsets like Google Glass give us the power to retrieve information from the web at a glance, and layer it over our field of vision in a constant heads-up display. Smart contextual algorithms will decide what to show us at any time. We can be notified of our upcoming appointments or upcoming changes in the weather, or the in-built camera could even identify the person we are talking to and start to lay over important information about them in your field of view.

Building on visual heads-up displays like Glass are technologies like Augmented Reality Audio (ARA). Using binaural headphones ARA headsets can blend additional audio sources with what you’re hearing in the actual world, and do so based on our location, the time of day or even how you’re holding or moving your head. These headsets also have microphones built in that can not only create noise cancellation, but potentially give the wearer vampire-like super-hearing, or even allow you to select a single audio source from the environment (a barking dog, for example) and just blend it out.

An ARA headset can not only help improve our abilities, but can actually start to change our perception of the environment around us. This is not only a true augmentation of reality, but a significant enhancement of ourselves.

We’re entering an age now where our bodies and our perception of reality will become continually enhanced by the devices and sensors that we wear or that we are connected to. I hope that we are able to retain our humanity and our humility as we continue to defy Darwin and evolve ourselves into the future.