The numbers’ game


Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps a conspiracy. Perhaps there’s something in the west-coast water supply but the last week or so has seen a pretty sophisticated debate break out on the use of facts and intuition in design.

  • Douglas Bowman is leaving Google, having been heralded as one of the best things to happen to the search giant when he arrived in 2006. To make matters more interesting, Bowman has blogged about his reason for leaving – an excessive Google reliance on data-driven design (well, data-driven everything)
  • Google themselves are flogging a new product to help everyone else become as data obsessed as they are, bringing reasonably complex multi-variant testing to a car dealership near you. This is in a market which is rapidly waking up to the user of performance tuning and management
  • Everyone (and especially the Twitterati who might be expected to love it) hates the new Facebook design. Unlike v2 which was introduced in a vaguely consultative way, v3 has been foisted on all users rather suddenly, seems most to be ‘inspired’ by Twitter (which is frankly a very different beast), and jettisons many of the best features of the site. This has raised a debate about how much companies should listen to users in design.
  • Apparently Steve Ballmer has been off telling people that Microsoft has a challenger advantage in search over Google, who are too set in their ways and conservative
  • At the other end of the spectrum, Apple has released the frankly insane zero-button iPod shuffle. Bizarre: yes. Bold: certainly. Tasteful: perhaps.

So the question is: just how innovative can a business be by relying on data about current user behavior, rather than using creativity and instinct to come up with new things that people don’t even know they want yet. Bowman’s disquiet about Google is that the company would (for example) statistically evaluate the colour of borders or the size of buttons, making his role as head of visual design somewhat redundant but also making his aspirations – as someone who is looking to lead the market through visual design – impossible.

I think this says more about Bowman’s expectations (quote: ‘change the world a few million users at a time’) than anything that surprising about what Google does. The experiences Google are trying to enable are all about using great technology to build perfect mousetraps. The core ideas can be expressed in just a few words (“get the correct results from any search”). And I think it’s true that usability has always been much more important than visual design for the business. And, Google has always known that the user experience is as much governed by performance and quality as interface. With the exception of Chrome, all of their products have been almost deliberately ugle, liberating them to focus on function.

I’m sure too that there’s immense chortling at Google HQ about the idea that this focus on statistical research is stifling the multi-billion pound Google business, and equally that Microsoft is likely to fly right past them in terms of search. Google  is synonymous with search, it is the generic, and that has everything to do with what goes in and what comes out, and very little to do with how it goes in and how it comes out.

A similar reality is starting to exist in every other area of utility-orientated computing.

Facebook has done the opposite. Zuckerberg-centred design pervades with – I presume – the rest of the user experience team bowing not to statistics but to the great one and his views. Of course, time – and numbers – will be the judge, but it seems odd that Facebook has thrown out many of its best features and endorsed the micro-blogging format, just as that market become more competitive and challenging.

What Facebook appears to have lost, is its principles. Google’s area is straight-forward: ability to find, or ubiquitous access. Facebook’s used to be about enabling connections in groups. What are they now?

Whilst Microsoft’s ambitions for search seem unrealistic, there is a strong case to make that this unlikely candidate has the best overall approach to design.

Creating some of the most complex products in digital (Windows and Office), Microsoft has found a way to combine imagination, principles, many types of user research and engineering to produces fantastic products. I’ve posted the Jensen Harris Mix presentation before but it remains well worth a watch. An understanding of the core user behaviors gave rise to an overall framework for the application, which then used ethnography, user research and the amazingly detailed data from the customer experience programme to really find out what people do. Do we need a ‘save’ button if everyone uses CTRL-S? In fact we do because many actual users don’t use quick keys. Customization may seem like a neat solution to a complex problem, but we actually learn that only a tiny proportion of users ever turn it on.

Similarly, the Windows 7 team has done a great job (yes, an overdue one), of informing their design decisions through detailed understanding of customer behavior, but without just asking users to do the design for them. The team’s detailed analysis of problems (and again, understanding of the role of performance) is rigorous and inspiring.

Should data be at the heart of your design strategy? Yes, but it shouldn’t be the heart of your design strategy. The heart has to be the principles, and the team must believe that inspired thinking can change the game about sticking with those principles and achieving objectives. The fact that Google’s inspired thinking has almost all been in technology and architecture is besides the point. The fact that Facebook’s solution is wrong is not because they’ve ignored users, it’s because they’ve ignored users’ motivations.

In the money


Yesterday’s Mix Session ‘Web 2.0 and Beyond: What Is the Business Reality?’ would more accurately have been called ‘how are we going to make money out of this stuff?: no new information here’.

Panelists were Bryan Biniak of Jacked, Tim Kendall of Facebook, the ever charming Loic Le Meur, now of Seesmic, and brainiac Chris Saad of the data portability project. The host was Frank Arrigo of Microsoft (his write-up here).

All very promising, but unfortunately it was all over almost before it began as TechCrunch (see their article) asked the first question: ‘Are any of you planning on getting a business model anytime soon?’. A simple enough question you might think, but one that was met with… well… nothing. Loic Le Meur opined that not wanting to know where the revenues were coming from was the hall mark of an enlightened investor these days – palpably a ridiculous comment anywhere but in our current 1999-deja-vu-fest.

Tim Kendall suggested brands should get the audience first and think about money later. Well OK, but how much later? Given that Facebook now definitely has the audience. This is, bear in mind, coming from someone who’s job is to look after monetisation of Facebook.

Loic did add that the options are advertising, ‘pro-‘ versions, and creating a resalable platform. Of course the number one ‘monetisation’ strategy of .coms always has been and always will be to sell themselves to someone else.

Biniak was unique amongst those on stage for having a business that you could sort of see where the money might come from – creating a sort of TV ‘plus’ space for advertising, although that doesn’t take account of how much might have to be paid out to legitimise the content in the first place.

The main reason most people were at the event – I’m sure – was to hear if Facebook does indeed have a secret plan to make money, especially after the bizarrely revealed company’s earnings. Kendall warmed a little in the middle with a couple of interesting ideas, saying the site’s goal was for the ads not to feel like ads because they were so tailored. especially where friends preferences could be re-cycled to encourage word of mouth. There is, he tells us, great click through rates on their ‘social ads’, although he then suggested these rates were ‘almost double’ normal ads – so therefore twice virtually nothing.

I find a great deal of fault with this formula. Social ads might sell me an iPod or the latest marketing text book, but it will not sell me heamorraoid cream. And if I’m buying a car, I will ask my friends myself for recommendations – so how will Facebook get to charge for that? selling is simply NOT all about targetting, and – this is a well rehearsed argument – timeliness is the most important factor in relevance, and when I’m on Facebook, I don’t want to buy cornflakes or whatever someone is trying to sell me (this is why, of course, ad words are so valuable).

After a bit of prodding Kendall started talking turkey. While saying it wasn’t what was happening on Facebook (and a somewhat bizarre  dig at Microsoft which sells display advertising on the site), he suggested that 10c might not be an unreasonable CPM rate for what display was currently selling at on the site. Search by contrast is more like $60. If Facebook could get it up to $1 he argues, that would be a very big business.

The sheer vagueness of this claim seems to me to be quite outstanding. Even if that is is the end game, the sums don’t appear to add up, and in any case, and it is essentially a goal of increasing selling price 10 fold without any visible corresponding strategy.

Chris ended the session on an interesting note talking about ‘VRM’ – vendor relationship management, which is essentially the idea that consumers could get paid to get advertised to. Clearly the detail of getting that to work is incredibly difficult but it remains a lot more plausible than some of tonight’s more whimsical musings.

Spot the obvious mistake

What’s wrong with this picture?


Well apart from the fact that their advertising is clearly so laser-guided that they’re shoving the ‘your ad here’ ad up to their entire market, there’s only one item on the page you can’t ‘prioritize’ (dig or bury) yet it’s likely to be the only item on the page that people will want to remove. Why not collect this data at least – perhaps it could even be passed off as a piece of that much over-discussed and underdone ‘customer engagement’. ‘We tried to get brand X to engage with your customers and they interacted with it… by telling it bugger off!’.

And not like this either:


Your ad here


Some times these ‘new media’ don’t seem quite so far from those old ones do they?

An interesting news feed item turned up this morning in my Facebook news feed (below). I wonder quite how targeted this advertising is:

advertise here

Also it would seem to suggest that there’s a bit of spare inventory at the moment.

Sense and sociability

 How hyped can you go (iphone launch pic)?

There’s an absolutely cracking article on Mashable about the various social network’s monetisation strategy. The author points out that it takes an awful lot of personalisation to make up for hitting people with messages at the wrong time (and that entertainment doesn’t translate to word of mouth).

It’s a very reasonable criticism, and it’s always worth re-iterating why adWords is so powerful and lucrative in the face of alleged competitors.

However, I think all of this does potentially mask what is actually going on here by looking it at within the framework of disruptive advertising media.

In any market you need to have a buyer as  well as a seller. That’s why what facebook is selling is more or less ‘advertising shaped’ opportunities; so advertisers – set in their ways as they are – stand a chance of being able to buy them.

But I think there’s something much more interesting happening too. and it’s not just what happened when loads of brands stuck up crass MySpace pages. There is an opportunity for brands to define the role they play as social objects. Clearly, that should be alot more sophisticated than the lamentable early attempts I mentioned the other day.

From there it will simply not be about how loud the brand shouts, but it’s ability to get at least some of its customers really hyped up.

Does it really ad up?


Another fantastically cynical piece from Andrew Orlowski: I’m a walking billboard… bitch in response to the somewhat hyperbolic claims of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg that he’s reinvented advertising for the next 100 years.

In fact, there are three things that Facebook is doing:

  1. Letting brands have pages. Fair enough, we’ve seen this work well enough on MySpace and at least it’s all above board and we’re not going go get loads of made-up identities (‘flogs’). The reasoning is that users can then tell the world about their favorite bands, brands and celebrities. Nice idea but not quite sure how the marketers of engine oil and socks join that party. And let us not forget the sad fate of Burberry. Do brands really want everyone’s endorsement!? Plus, as Orlwoski points out, a lot of the early conversations are between a brands’ most enthusiastic (read: mentally ill or paid) customers and the brands’ corporate lawyers. For example, take a look at Coca-cola’s 500 fans(!!) who’ve signed up for this nonsense (graphic at top of post). 90% fake, 100% uninteresting. I’ll bet you my rotten teeth that that page doesn’t last till Christmas.
  2. Social ads: this is targeting. And the scenario is simple. Let’s say I want to sell 10,000 copies of Nik Kershaw’s Greatest Hits. Now I can target my ads to just those people who say they like Nik Kershaw, or those who’ve joined a related group, or those that grew up in the 80s, or those who wet the bed etc.
    Apparently, ‘Facebook Social Ads allow your businesses to become part of people’s daily conversations’, perhaps as in ‘I wish Blockbuster would stop putting these f*cking ads in my Facebook newsfeed’.
  3. A new thing called ‘beacons’. This is interesting stuff and something a lot of us have been talking about for a while. It allows actions outside of FB get into the news feed there. For Facebook it’s more content, for its users, it’s even more news (and intermittent variable reinforcement!), for brands it’s a chance to make non-social actions social. ‘Tom has just bought a dodgy Nik Kershaw album’, ‘John has just signed up to Amazon prime’. It’ll be interesting to see how this one gets used.

At the moment, predicting the next three years of advertising seems hard enough. Certainly an element of it will be like this. But not all of it will be. A lot of these sorts of initiatives seem to overlook the fundamental changes brand owners must learn to live with, rather than just how they get their message out.

Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and have a conversation with  my favorite snack foods on Facebook.

Setting the standard


Is it just me, or is there something a little bit desperate in Google’s response to Facebook, Open Social? Amongst all this cooked-up debate about whether Facebook will join the Open Social platform, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the attraction of the platform.

If no one invented another application for Facebook (another annoying Spam-ridden app like Vampires or Fun Wall), would it whither and die? Hardly. Whereas, there would have to be something pretty special written for Orkut, Friendster or MySpace and the rest to get me to go back to them.

Where are all these developers who want to develop for Facebook but don’t have the time because they’re too busy developing for MySpace and Linked in?

Bear in mind that Facebook’s Event application was put together by Zuckerberg himself in one night. Photos reportedly took one week and now outguns all other online photo applications put together.

It is not a shortage of development time but a lack of good ideas which is holding applications back. And more to that point, the apps that make Facebook great, are the ones which really do extend the social graph. It’s not a coincidence that 87% of app installs come from just 2% of the apps. The other 98% are just noise.

What I want to know is why the people at Google can’t just make Orkut not shit? Or take the position they already have with documents, email, search history and everything they know about everybody and find a genuinely new way to bring people together. Competing with Facebook on its terms seems an unlikely way to win.


Just found this excellent post from Lauren Cooney which asks whether Google might have ‘complex’ motives of its own. Just how linked is OpenSocial linked to Google IDs? Just how much of that social graph juice will find its way back onto Google’s servers. Perhaps not so much doing evil, but certainly keeping an eye on the future revenue streams.

Facebook goes anti-social

Mark Zuckerberg

Today’s Facebook porn revolves around a story that the social network is set to launch a new adserving platform (called ‘SocialAds’) which will take the data from inside their walled garden and use it to serve more relevant ads to people in other locations. Valleywag has it here. Venture beat loose complete control of their horses here, going on to claim this could make the (let us not forget) website, worth $100bn (that’s the GDP of New Zealand).

Venture beat themselves exposes some of the problem with the argument with their stunning example of targeting only those 20-25 year olds who express an interest in beer with a beer ad.

Well, let’s for a second forget that all 20-25 year olds are interested in beer (give or take) and ask a subtly different question: are you likely to sell your brand of beer to someone who’s already such an big ‘fan’ that he talks about beer on his Facebook profile. The reality of how people shop for things is of course, considerably more complicated. When in a bar in a group – for example – most people buy what the first person to order ordered. Second biggest driver is… what the barman recommends. Some banner I ignored on CNN six days ago is not likely to really have an impact.

Any other obvious flaws in the argument that Facebook can take over the world using just the knowledge that I’m a man and watch too much West Wing? Well, if that data is so valuable, why are they getting 10 cents per 100 impressions currently on their own site? Surely it would make AdSense to roll it out their first.

The upside? Perhaps when Mr Zuckerberg is the richest man in the world, he’ll be able to afford some proper shoes.

Platform 9 3/4

 Hugh MacLeod cartoon

How do you know you’re an important part of the 2.0 firmament? The answer is that people have conferences about you and you don’t even go along. Tongiht’s BiMA ‘debate’ about facebookwas just that, and Zuckerburg couldn’t even be on hand by satelite conference to accept the praise. However the event was very well chaired (by Paul Walsh), organised and hosted (oddly enough by BT), with some amazing pannelists.

The initial discussion was wide ranging and interest. The debate bit which followed it was fun, although it decended into a sort of bizarre sixth-form debating contest – not suprising when the topics were things like ‘This house believes the opening of the F8 platform was a mistake’.

As Hugh MacLeod pointed out of the network itself, the whole thing was all very polite. I only made a couple of notes (funnily enough on the back of business cards), so these were the things that stood out for me:

The incredible JP Rangaswami asked the audience to put their hands up if they were on Facebook, getting something close to a 100% positive reaction from the few hundred people in the room. ‘Now put your hand down if you’re NOT on MySpace’. There were only three hands left in the air. The point he was making is that – even though they’re in the same general area, Facebook is not necessarily canabilising MySpace users, the fact that MySpace is calcifying and Facebook growing like crazy is clearly related but is not directly connected or proportional.

Another from JPR. When asked whether corporates should ban Facebook because people are using it during working time, he simply pointed out that he also, for example, uses the toilet and drinks coffee during work time. In a society of knowledge workers (he continued) it’s not about when you clock in and out but about how much you create – and if going on facebook is part of that then so be it (interesting information for his ex-exployees Dresdner Kleinworth, who have banned Facebook, without the full backlash we saw at Allen Overy).

Hugh MacLeod was thoroughly brilliant with a couple of particularly interesting points I noted down.

 He described how the original facebook was a small scale homely enterprise for Zuckerberg – although one to which 75% of the Harvard campus (where it was invented) adopted within a couple of weeks.

MacLeod also spoke about the benefits of his mother’s real-life walled garden (in response to a question about whether facebook was falling to the traps that ended up the undoing of AOL). He pointed out that, in gardening terms, walled gardens created protection from winds and pests, and that online they can do the same, and can be fine so long as they don’t do anything else to be destructive.

One of the debate team said she thought it was important that people practice their ‘social networking skills’ (a theme repeated by Paul Walsh, when talking about the ability to privatize facebook). Isn’t this a nice idea? In the olden days, schoold taught ‘social skills’, perhaps now they’ll teach ‘social networking skills’. “Today’s lesson children is about protecting your privacy in Bebo!”.

Finally, a floor debate erupted around whether you should accept a ‘friend’ invite from your boss. The general consensus was that it was a bit of shame that most people didn’t like their bosses enough to agree to this, but that otherwise it shouldn’t be a problem.

The debate turned to what you would say to your boss when they came up to ask why you had ignored / declined them. Some clever bugger in the audience knew the answer: ‘Because you’re my boss’. All of this technology and the English are still terrible at telling difficult truths!

"No, but I think my secretary does"


This quote comes from a business bigwig, asked whether he uses Facebook.

“No, but I think my secretary does”

I think she probably does too.

The context is this somewhat reactionary piece in the FT asking how businesses should cope with staff wasting hours on social networking sites when they’re supposed to be working. There’s been a lot in the press about this recently with claims that companies need to take action.

We hear that organizations including Transport for London and British Gas have now banned access to the site.

Dresdner Kleinwort are particularly snotty about it, saying: ‘We only provide access to the internet for the purpose of conducting company business.’

What else have they banned? SMS during work hours? personal email? daydreaming? Conversations at the water cooler?

It’s not as if we’re talking about McDonalds here. On their own site, Dresdner Kleinwort proudly boasts: “We’ve proven that we can deliver outstanding solutions for our clients by creating a culture where the best people have the freedom to think differently and to question convention.” … just so long as they don’t have the freedom to use computers to talk to people.

Is it really beyond the realms of imagination that their employees will benefit from communicating with other human beings (inside and outside the organization) during their working days? And since when did we get to such a position of mistrust between companies and the staff that work in them?

Back to the the article. At one point the journalist compares using social networks during work hours to throwing impromptu parties in the office, before returning to the real world with a quote from Gartner consultant, Anthony Bradley ‘if you have to know what employees are doing every hour of the day, you are a bad manager’ .

The article comes in the same week that the TUC, of all people, has put out much saner guidelines for employers about how to deal with the phenomenon. The report is called, “Facing up to Facebook’ (PDF). TUC counsel that allowing reasonable levels of use is perfectly valid, as well as discussing how companies should view and monitor the content which is being posted online.

Employees have a right to a personal life, and provided they do not breach reasonable conduct guidelines, employers should respect this. They wouldn’t follow an employee down the pub to check on what they said to their friends about their day at work. Just because they can now do something akin to this online, certainly doesn’t mean they should.

Thank heavens for a voice of reason.

Aside from this bizarre Dickensian belief that you increase productivity by reducing access to distractions, much of this talk blithely ignores that humans are social animals, who accomplish a great deal more in groups than individually. Faced with the realization that people love Facebook, companies should think laterally about how they can benefit from this, rather than simply trying to turn the clocks back to the good old days of chaining staff to their desks mentally and physically.

This was best phrased by Julian in a joint presentation we did about social networks when he quoted this blog post that 20% of Goldman Sachs employees are now on Facebook.

It’s been a long nine months since I left investment banking, and much may have changed since then, it is a volatile industry. But when I left it, people like Goldmans were not known to employ large numbers of unintelligent time-wasters.