The unbundling of Facebook and the evolution of mobile

Last week Facebook announced the new Paper app – an app that turns your Facebook news feed into your own personal newspaper. At the same time they announced Facebook Creative Labs and promised further small, single-purpose apps.

This is all part of a growing trend from Facebook to un-bundle their core mobile product/service into smaller, focussed single-purpose apps that solve specific problems. The first move here was Facebook Messenger, which was designed to compete head-on with the growing number of successful messaging apps that are growing incredibly in the marketplace (Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, Snapchat, etc).

When the giants of the desktop web era (Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and so on) moved to mobile, to begin with their service architectures stayed more or less intact. On the web, a single product has a single URL, a single brand and a single interface and structure. Facebook on the web is an entire product service that exists behind the URL.

It turns out on mobile, however, that there are different dynamics driving user behaviour and expectations. On mobile, how users interact with apps, and how they choose to create and consume content, is very different than it was on desktop.

The structure of apps and the multi-tasking abilities of modern smartphones makes changing apps really easy. It is nearly always easier and quicker to press the ‘home’ button on your smartphone and open another app than it is to navigate the menu structure within the app you’re already in to access a different function.

This dynamic is driving the un-bundling of Facebook’s offer. Others are following. Yahoo already has offered a variety of mobile products since Marissa Mayer joined as CEO. Others, such as LinkedIn, will surely follow. (LinkedIn experimented with an email application, which they have since pulled. I predict they will release a news reader, similar to Paper, some time soon).

On mobile, users prioritise simplicity and speed over flexibility and broad functionality. Apps have a single use-case or purpose, as opposed to web products, or pre-mobile software in general, which cater for maximal different use-cases and functionality.

This is all a further acknowledgement that the paradigms that drove software and user behaviour in the pre-mobile world don’t fit completely to mobile, and the platforms are still evolving and changing.

Benedict Evans has posited that we really don’t know what it even will mean in 5 years to say “I installed an app on my smartphone”. So very little is settled – which means big opportunities – and also big risk – for mobile players.

It’s ok to be second

Facebook was not the first social network. As early as the first dot com boom in the late 1990s companies like had launched with services similar in theme and purpose to what Facebook became. When Facebook launched in 2004 from a dorm room at Harvard there were already a number of competing products: Friendster and Orkut were already successful online social networks, and mySpace already had millions of users. In fact, MySpace continued to be the largest social network in the world until 2008 when Facebook finally overtook it.

The iPad was not the first tablet, nor was the iPod the first portable MP3 music player. Google wasn’t even the first web search engine.

What Facebook, the iPad and countless other products like them did was take something that had been done before, and did it better.

Facebook took the concept of online social networking, and added real meaning: your real identity, your real-life friends, and a completely new (and naturally addictive) way to share your life with your network. (It also managed to solve the hardware scaling problems that had hamstrung competition like Friendster).

The iPad took the long sought-after but elusive tablet computer and built a beautiful, functional and elegant device that refused to compromise. A device that rejected the assumption that a tablet was a normal PC with a touch-screen, and had the courage to create a whole new form factor.

The point is: it’s okay to be second. Or even third. New product opportunities often lie in re-thinking existing concepts or products: it’s about seeing what can be done better, and having the courage to take the next steps the others won’t.

Steve Jobs one famously quoted Picasso when he said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Classic product management wisdom from one of the fathers of industrial design

In 1955 Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, in his book “Designing for People” wrote the following :

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Clearly this sentiment is as relevant for designers today as it was 55 years ago when it was written. It’s also interesting how the description rings true for product managers. In fact, I couldn’t have come up with a better description of the modern-day product manager if I tried.

Product management is more than schedules, roadmaps and powerpoints. Product management is about identifying a need and building a solution. It’s about understanding people (users) and understanding “how things are made”.

Designing for People - Henry Dreyfuss - Many hats sketch“From the book Designing for People – Dreyfuss’s sketch of the multi-skilled designer.

User testing: an input to innovation, not a source of it

Benz “Velo” model (1894)

It’s hard to imagine a life without cars. Before the automobile was invented getting around was a costly and particularly time-consuming business. That quick drive to the hardware store that takes 15 minutes in the car might have taken several hours on horseback, or an entire day in a horse-drawn carriage. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how anyone was motivated to move anywhere at all. (In fact, most people didn’t… before the automobile, and particularly before rail, it wasn’t uncommon for people to spend their whole lives in the town they were born in.)

So if you could go back roughly 130 years and show someone the automobile, they would love it, right? If you asked someone the question, “is this product something you would buy and use?” the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”. Right?

Well… not really. When the first automobiles rolled onto the streets in the late 1800’s, they were met with skepticism and fear. People (and horses) were terrified by the noise, and people just couldn’t understand why anyone would need to go so far or why they would be in such a hurry. In other words, the automobile was an invention for a problem no-one had. Or, to be potentially more precise, a problem they didn’t yet know they had.

If you had shown concept drawings of the automobile to a focus group in 1885, or a working prototype to a user testing group, you might have walked away thinking that you’d be better off working on putting a clock radio* in your range of horse-drawn carriages.

The point is, you can’t expect users to know what they want. Innovation doesn’t come from asking a customer focus group “what products do you want that haven’t been invented yet?”

The iPad was a solution to a problem that no-one really had. Companies and products that innovate are successful because they can predict user behaviour before the users go anywhere near it. They are also good at convincing (selling) users that they have problems that their products can solve. No-one had a standing-motorised-transport-problem before the Segway was invented, but the company behind the gyroscopically controlled contraptions still managed to ship over 50,000 units by 2009.

We recently ran some early user testing on a product concept that we are working on. Based on the results, some members of our team were hugely disheartened: most of our test users, when asked if they could imagine them getting major value out of one of our concept’s major use cases, said “no”. Some thought we should go back to the drawing board. I think they missed the point…

User testing is one input to product design; one of many. Getting the input and responses of potential users early in the design process is crucial; however to make the results really meaningful you need to interpret them in relation to the test user’s context… and sometimes I think you just need to take the responses with a grain of salt. You also, I think, need to understand that innovation often comes from having the courage to challenge users on what they think they need and what problems they have.

* I’m of course aware that there were no clock radios in 1885. The first transistor radio wasn’t invented until 1954 by Sony in Japan. Call it poetic licence.