On designing in ambiguity

Bala Pillai, a friend of mine from Malaysia, sent me an interesting post that spurred a thought on the design work that I’ve been doing lately on Flock.
As an advocate for Asian economic development, he proposes that Asia is no longer “the producer of quantum inventions” because of “Good vs. Devil” religions that measure in quantities of right and wrong or black and white, which, he suggests, have lead to a certain intellectual inertness.

“…folks in Malaysia for example, don’t even realise that nearly anything significant we use, is conceived, designed or created overseas. And it is in conceiving, designing and creating that the most fun, the greatest bucks, the best jobs are. (And the shame of it is that Malays who are overall known for their creativity and imagination pay heavily for this.)”

In essense, because of this rigidity of thought, it is harder to achieve an objective perspective, especially about oneself or one’s work. Therefore, self-appraisals tend to favor those aspects which reenforce the ways in which your actions are consistent with your dominant beliefs. If this were not the case, the cognitive dissonance between objective fact and your subjective fiction would become overwhelming!
However, Bala makes an astute observation about the recent capitalist successes of the Chinese:

“If not for non-religious Chinese risk-taking and entrepreneurship in ambiguity, [Asia would] be in lots more worse shape then we are.”

What’s so curious about this is how embracing ambiguity encourages a certain kind of creative acuity that leads to intellectual dexterity to see around problems in novel ways. It dawned on me that some of the struggles I’ve had recently with design decisions in Flock have stemmed from my failure to use the ambiguity of the problems as opportunities to do something new or interesting. With limited time, I would float back to known or established solutions that didn’t always feel right but would seem to follow existing design paradigms sufficiently.

Consider, for example, Flock’s initial blog manager. I followed Thunderbird or Outlook’s models of having the accounts on the left, messages listed on the right and the composition area in what is normally reading area. This design was fundamentally weak because it relied on an existing solution grafted onto an entirely different problem. Once I accepted the ambiguity of the situation — exacerbated by the numerous solutions available for blogging — I realized that what we needed was something that didn’t encourage the management of your blog, but rather the act of composing and creating.
And with that, a solution emerged which will make it into the next iteration of our browser. One closing thought, again by way of Bala:

“Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great,” Flores says.

The World According to Flores exists in three realms. The first is the smallest — and the most self-limiting: What You Know You Know. It is a self-contained world, in which people are unwilling to risk their identity in order to take on new challenges. A richer realm is What You Don’t Know — the realm of uncertainty, which manifests itself as anxiety or boredom. Most things in life belong to this realm: what you don’t know about your future, your health, your family. People are always trying to merge this second area into the realm of What You Know You Know — in order to avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and boredom. But it is the third realm of Flores’s taxonomy to which people should aspire: What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know. To live in this realm is to notice opportunities that have the power to reinvent your company, opportunities that we’re normally too blind to see. In this third realm, you see without bias: You’re not weighed down with information. The language of this realm is the language of truth, which requires trust.

Fernando Flores, The Power of Words

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Geeky Things

I’ve had a couple things cross my radar recently that I’d like to see be improved somehow… either in Flock (or browsers in general), RSS aggregators or blogging tools.

Better Reading through Columnization

Web reading vs. TofuWhich do you prefer? I think it’s quite apparent that Tofu makes reading webpages and blog posts infinitely easier and more enjoyable. So where’s the Firefox extension? Huh huh? I guarentee you this will get into Flock eventually… if not my next RSS aggregator. Or both…?

Well, looks like the recent Firefox betas already have this. Now to just see some smart Tofu-like uses of this feature!

DOM state in history

With all the hoopla about AJAX-based interfaces, it’s about time that browsers get keen to the fact that the DOM state is part of your history. It’s not some scripty side-effect — no, when I use the back button, I expect the page to be in the same state that I left it. This should be the case whether I navigate off to some other page or close the window or tab. The only way to restore the state of a page back to its original state should occur if I clear my history or exit out of my browser (or somehow reset the DOM through some other intentional mechanism).

And this should exist in the browser because it’s the thing that’s storing my path history. So what does it mean when the browser adds DOM state to my history? For example, when I use Gmail and navigate off to some other page and then return, I would no longer lose the email I was reading or composing. In fact, I could even load up Gmail in a new tab or window and find myself in the same place where I left off. Which is exactly what I want.

So the effect would be in effect to maintain your session state across tabs, windows… no matter where you are or what you’re doing, the browser would be staying with you, never skipping a beat, making sure that every little action you took was recorded and there for you to return to until you decided to start afresh.

It’s time the browser got wise to the current state of web application design. If not to encourage the further development of fast webapps like Basecamp or Flickr, but to make the browser reflect user expectations about the purpose of the back button!


BlogbarsThe last thing on my list concerns a rather recent feature that Matt just launched on WordPress.com. It’s just like the Blogger toolbar, except that his bar applies to WordPress.com account holders instead of general visitors. It’s a good start, but I think it can be better. He’s open to ideas — as am I. How can this tool help you blog better?

Hmm, if only the browser could facilitate blogging somehow… heh.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

What of this silly little invite-only idea?

Google TalkI’ve received a couple invites from folks for Google Talk, Google’s new instant messaging service. The funny thing is that it requires a Gmail username and password to make use of the software, which, like other Google software, only runs on Windows. Now you’ll recall, too, that Gmail is an invite-only system. This would make for some rather troublesome exclusivity in the service if it weren’t for the fact that you can talk to your buddies on other IM services.

So here’s what’s interesting about this, and something I wonder about personally given Flock’s current “private beta”: what results are had by using such an invite-based system to grow your userbase and social network? What are the costs and benefits, and to whom? There are myriad reasons for busting out with a fully public beta but just as many for going private, which is, admittedly, different than exclusive (Flock is the former, Gmail the latter).

To limit your system to invited participants, you must certainly have something of both legitimate and substantial value to create demand… that actually incents invitees to sign up and login. But you also must not upset or invite the bitter ire of those who haven’t yet received invites.

And quite obviously, as we learned over the past week, once you’ve extended an invite, especially in the world of software where there is hardly such a thing as scarcity of resources, what you giveth, you nary can take away.

So what of all these invite-only (or formally invite-only) services where you have to know someone on the inside to get a golden ticket? Does it artificially increase desire? Does it help services grow organically and cut down on trolls and spam, creating more value for invitees? Does it create more investment from the user community and perhaps establish even minor connections between invitor and invitee? Or does it create a false hierarchy around an inner circle of well-connected geeks?

Who knows?

What I do know is that it’s a curious trend and happening rather profusely across the web. Good or bad? I can’t quite say — except that in the case of Flock, we’re using the invite system to start out slowly on purpose. We want to not only be able to scale up organically, but we also want to cultivate relationships with our brave early adopters so that we can build the best experience possible over time. And to that end — we want to make sure that when we do launch publicly, we’ve hammered out all the glaring issues — as well as minor ones — so that sum total Flock makes you more productive, more explorative, and more voraciously social on the web. So for now, Flock will remain available to few kindred souls with enough courage to shove through our bugs and dodge the sharp edges. In the meantime, do add yourself to our invite lottery so that your name will be there when the next round of invites go out!