Google Plus a Second Look

I’ve been using Google+ for the last few days, nearly exclusively to get real feel for it over the other options that are so ingrained in my day-to-day. After a few days there are number of things that really stand out to me and other based on things I’ve been reading online.

The biggest stand out is Circles and how they affect your Stream (think News Feed in Facebook). I really like the idea behind Circles and the ability to publish content to the right people rather than one size fits all. I would also love for my organization of people into Circles it would also influence the content I receive. For example, if the “friends” circle is only for close, real-life friends, and “acquaintances” is for those people I’ve met but not necessarily close to, shouldn’t that also influence who shows up in my stream. In my case I added Robert Scoble to my “follow” Circle as he often has interesting things to say. When I say often, I mean he post multiple times a day. Now he overwhelms my global Stream. I know this is partly because he’s posting more than my other connections but I want to know what my friends are doing/saying way more than an acquaintance (or follow). Granted this is not everyone’s use case for G+, so I suggest that Circles and how they bias the content in your Stream be controllable.

The second big thing with Circles is the overlapping content and no quick way to see if you’ve already seen that content. My friend Arpit suggests a “read” option for posts similar to how it works in any email system or Google’s Reader…so they should be able to easily handle this from a technical side. This overlapping also rears its head when managing your circles. For this I think another friend‘s suggestion would be a huge help…displaying the Circles as Venn diagrams. Not for every view but it would be hugely helpful managing the groups.

My last thought on Circles is to connect them with Sparks (topics), Arpit touches on this with his “Smart Circles” idea in his post on ways to improve Circles. Currently Sparks is completely generic feeling with generic topics and stock art topic images. These should be join-able, like a public Circle based on around a topic. It’d be a perfect way to bring content I’m interested in into my Stream. For example, there’s one on recipes, as a foodie I’d like to join this and maybe post to it as well. Thus offing salacious recipes intermixed with my friends and family’s social updates.

One lacking with Google Plus’s Stream is the ability to +1 a comment. Though many feel this ability to “like” a comment on post is unnecessary within Facebook it’s actually something I felt myself looking for when reading stuff in G+. I don’t use it often on Facebook, but it comes in handy as a way to agree/acknowledge a statement without having to write “I agree”. Granted this may add little to a conversation on its own, but it does let the writer know their message was received/read and used as a way to filter responses on post with more comments than could be displayed in a reduced state.

Some of the other issues come from the newness of the service: lack of diversity of the membership (most conversations are about Google+, hello worlds and technology), updates being out of sync (Gmail is the most up to date, then site post refresh, then the Android app), and figuring out how it fits with the rest of my social outlets. Minor UI issues on the Android app which are both personal learning curve from previous experiences and potential misses on a V1 app. These things happen.

The issues above are minimal and far from deal breakers but when Google is up against Facebook and the habits of its 500 million users Google needs to over deliver again and again. Since they’ve already made some updates since Tuesday’s launch the future looks promising for Google Plus.

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Related articles:
- Some Ideas for Google Circles by Arpit Mathur
- Why yo daddy won’t use Google+ by Robert Scoble

Google gives social another try

Earlier this week Google launched their new social platform, Google+ and unlike their previous attempts (Wave and Buzz) this one isn’t a beta concept. Currently it’s only in limited release and invites are hard to come by, but beyond that, it’s anything but beta. Instead Google+ is a slick, well designed, full fledged attempt to compete with Facebook. Can they pull it off?

To improve their chances Google has created a clean and attractive UI for both the website and the Android app. Then they add features that people have been asking for from Facebook, like the ability to easily sort your friends into groups (called Circles with in G+); group messaging, think Beluga and GroupMe (called Huddles); group video chat, think iChat or Skype (called Hangouts); content recommendations (called Sparks), though I haven’t seen this is action yet; and this one is for the geeks, you can take your G+ data with you . Also with the Android app they also offer a “local” version of the news feed/stream which shows you the public posts from other G+ users nearby, they don’t even need to be in any one of your circles. Combined it’s a great feature boost, though I don’t doubt Facebook will follow suit with some of these.

So then why switch? Other then it’s new, clean, different, less noisy…at this point not much, as the critical mass hasn’t been reached but when it does it’ll be a force that Facebook will have to deal with. Which is good regardless of your participation with G+. Facebook needs a challenger, clearly MySpace wasn’t up to the task. Speaking of MySpace, think back to when it was the dominant social platform. Then Facebook was the new, clean, different, less noisy new kid on the block…so Google may still have a chance here. And just like MySpace felt back then, Facebook is feeling a backlash of interest from the fickle social masses that have OD’ed on the FB.

Overall, I have to say I’m impressed with Google+. It’s one of the most well thought out, planned and executed tools that Google has ever done. Only now has Google started to improve the design and UX of their search and email services. So I expect big things from Google here. Despite Goggle’s best efforts if the people don’t start using (or getting invites to) it, G+ will die from empty room syndrome and that would be a shame.

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Some related articles on Google+
- How to hack Google+ to send your friends invites (maybe) [TechCrunch]
- Andy Hertzfeld talks about not being the only designer behind Google+
- How To Recreate Google+ Circles in Facebook. by Ian Schafer
- Google+ code reveals intent to unleash Games and Questions to the social world [Engaget]

So Long And Thanks For All The (Swedish) Fish

I moved to Philadelphia twelve years ago, after spending two years in Northern California. Originally from Long Island I missed the higher energy, 24-hour culture that I grown accustomed to. At the same time I didn’t really want to deal with the hassles of living in NYC or LI. So when I was thinking of returning to the East Coast I was thinking either Boston or DC. Philadelphia wasn’t even a thought.

That was until I visited a few friends from college that lived there. They lived on a tree-lined street in Society Hill, a mostly residential section which was within walking distance of downtown. Even though there was so much to do within only a few blocks their apartment wasn’t the size of a closet nor did they have to make a deal with the devil to afford it. Another big plus was Philly was closer to my friends and family in New York then either of my original options. So when we made the big move back East, Philadelphia became my new home.

After twelve years I still love this town. I love walking its streets, its abundance of BYOB restaurants, and its lack of pretense, Philly just is. Over the years Philly has grown and keeps getting better. At the same time I’ve gotten the chance to go from being the first non-founding employee at an Internet start-up to leading the design for a Fortune 100 company’s premier online property. All the while getting to work with some brilliant people and some that I’m proud to still call friends. For all Philly has to offer, it is the people I’ve shared my time with there that made it such a great experience and so hard to leave.

I’ll miss my Thursday night outings to North Bowl where win or lose we always had a good time. The trips to Blue (the best option PA had to offer for boarding) despite the broken elbow. Late nights in Chinatown watching campy B-movies and killing zombies. An endless supply of Swedish fish. Nights full of Jager Bombs with razor fish. Watching Malachi and Sophie wrestle and run free along Forbidden Drive. Long discussions on fonts, code, technology and all their possibilities (outside of work). Dart the Halls. Annual bike races. The list goes on and on…

Thanks. Philly you’ll be missed.

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More of my photos from around Philly

Looking back at the Techcrunch Disrupt Hackathon


The idea behind the hackathon was to turn an idea into reality in 24 hours. Well at noon Arpit, Gabo and myself were still trying to figure out which one of our ideas we should work on. Luckily, when we checked in we came to a consensus. We settled on creating a commenting platform that would be site agnostic and simpler to find relevant content. The full concept includes integration with blogs and sites replacing their silo-ed system with one that helps spread the word and lowers the bar for participation. Obviously, the full package couldn’t be completed in 24 hours so we focused on building and testing the basic concept.


We got off to a rough start, plagued with technical glitches and an overloaded wifi. Since our project, called Yatr (pronounced yatter), was using a number of web based API’s the wifi’es were kinda important. As the night went on our table mates decided to call it quits, as did others. Despite the late hour and reduced numbers there was still a energetic vibe in the room. No doubt the cans of Red Bull and endless coffee had something to do with this.


When the sun started rising my eyes wanted to do the opposite. Thankfully a quick walk outside helped me get my energy back. At that time we were wiring up the designs to the back-end and dealing with some minor bugs. So we were feeling good about making the 9:30 deadline. By the time 9:30 hit I was busy working on the presentation and making sure I could explain our work within 60 seconds. An hour later we piled in to the auditorium (of sorts) where each of the teams sharing with the world what they’ve been working on for the previous 24 hours.

The first one out of the gate was Docracy, a online way to validate legal documents. Very cool idea and definitely set the bar for both concepts and delivery. Not surprisingly they were also one of the winners for the day. Sixty nine teams later it was my turn to present. Almost no one likes presenting to a crowd let alone trying to do so while compressing 24 hours into 1 minute. Since I had been practicing for a while I felt ready. Still 60 seconds is both forever and over in an instant.

Yatr didn’t win, but it’s not just about winning. Instead, we walked out with a working product and a architecture to take it to the next level. We also got a chance to see what other people feel strongly enough about that they would spend 24 hours working on a solution for. There was some really great projects beyond the few that got called out on TechCrunch and exhausted or not staying for all the presentations were just as rewarding as making Yatr into a working product.

UPDATE: If you would like to know more about Yatr, see how it works and why we did it check out Arpit’s post Yatr: Our hack for the Techcrunch NYC Hackathon.

5 Reasons Why Gesture isn’t happening

Movies like Minority Report, make controlling your computer with little more then the swipe of your hand look easy. With the release of the Xbox Kinect the dream of this power coming to the masses has finally come true…well not exactly.

The Kinect has become the fastest adopted technology to date and that people are using their Kinect’s for everything from gaming to self-guided robots. A quick glance at YouTube is all you need to see tons of videos showing off all the Kinect can do. So why isn’t this the launching point into being able to control our computers with a wave of our hands?

In the real world, body based gestures is anything but simple and smooth. Though there are many people successfully experimenting with the Kinect, many of these experiments don’t translate into real world feasibility. I know this first hand as I too have enjoyed hacking the Kinect, as well as working with physical gesture based UI on more legitimate terms. In both cases it’s clear, regardless of technical limitations you won’t be controlling much beyond your Xbox with gestures. Below are the five biggest reasons why gestures won’t be breaking out of the box anytime soon.

  1. Accuracy: To be blunt, the Kinect is ridiculously underpowered. The resolution of the two cameras combined is under one megapixel (read: garbage). Which means the images used to create the 3D environment are blotchy and inaccurate (see photo above). To make matters worse, even still objects are hard to define as their edges dance about from frame to frame. The actual (circa 1994) video/webcam being used is nearly useless in low light (read: your living room) and it’s poor quality doesn’t provide enough useful information to work as a supplement to the 3D data.
  2. The Lazy Factor: Face it, people are lazy. No one wants to jump up and down, flail their arms just to control their TV or computer. Lazy or not, it’s actually physically tiring to hold your arm outright and use it like a pointing device. Even in filming Minority they had to keep taking breaks because of this. Still doubtful? Hold your arm out straight forward for a minute or two. Part of the beauty of the mouse, trackpad and small touch screens is the limited amount of movement needed to control everything on the screen.
  3. No Sensory Feedback: Think of how simple it is to use a standard remote for one’s TV, or dial a standard phone. You know where the buttons are, you can feel the difference between each button and you feel the button depress beneath your finger. None of these exist between you and the air, so it’s all a guessing game and muscle memory. Touch screens have a similar problem but to a much smaller degree since one can look to see where their fingers are and the device can provide some sort of feedback to signify it received your input. Some touchscreen devices employ some sort of haptic feedback to give their users a sign that their touch has triggered an action.
  4. Children: They love touch screen devices as it’s primal to touch things and even there UI’s need to account for their high energy actions and their potential. To the Kinect cameras a moving child is a bundle of potential gestures or they can just block the camera from seeing yours. Either way a little child is a potential plethora of problems. Older children bring their own issues, their curiosity and interest to explore new things is a plus. While their potential for shorter attention spans and limited patience are in conflict with the limited abilities of today devices.
  5. Is this thing on?: On the technical side, there’s a lot of guessing involve with figuring out when the user is gesturing to control the device or just waving hi to a friend. Most of the videos showing off the cool things you can do with the Kinect are short and in a controlled environment so this issue doesn’t become obvious to the viewer, but rest assured the folks in the video know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Kinect also offers voice support, which brings it’s own set of complications. On their own gesture and voice have a long way to go before they permeate market enough to matter. Both of these technologies are great as an secondary or companion input tools instead of being the primary option. Regardless of effectiveness, they offer a new and fun way to interact with the technologies around us.

Netflix steps up the competition with Cable (rumor)

According to Deadline Hollywood (via engadget) Netflix is in bidding war with channels like HBO & AMC for a new series from David Fincher staring Kevin Spacey called House of Cards.

Needless to say this would be a huge coup for Netflix. In the growing competition between the online video service this would clearly set them apart from Hulu+ and Amazon Prime‘s video offerings. It also makes them a clearer threat to the current cable business model. Even if this rumor fails to become a reality, the seed has been planted and the game has changed.

Only time will tell if this is Netflix’s first step in becoming a premium content provider? And if so, will the masses change their habits and think about “tuning” to Netflix to catch up on their latest show.

UPDATE: This is a rumor no more, Hollywood Reporter writes Netflix Outbids HBO for David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s ‘House of Cards’

3rd Party Developers Feeling Twitter’s Growing Pains

My buddy Arpit and I were discussing Twitter’s suggestion that 3rd party developers stop creating new Twitter clients (more at Ars Technica) and he wrote a blog titled Thoughts on an open Twitter replacement: Concentrate on what’s done poorly. Below is my response to both his posting and Twitter’s actions.

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Not to defend Twitter’s recent actions, but this is just the next step in the evolution of Twitter from a social service to a becoming a destination. As Twitter’s popularity has grown, they need to change to support their new users. They are no longer targeting the early adopters and the techies that helped Twitter grow during it’s early years. There was hints of this last year during the launch of the “new” Twitter and earlier when they bought/rebranded the most popular 3rd party app as official.

No doubt Twitter is looking at how users experience Facebook through the official sites and apps. There are alternative Facebook clients but no one is using them, so if Facebook killed access to these clients there may be some rumblings from a few developers but overall no one else would care. Based off the numbers provided by Twitter in September this may already be true for Twitter as well. The thinking then was that users of these alternative clients were the power users and creating the lion’s share of the content seen on Twitter so it makes sense that Twitter is still in support of 3rd party apps for adding content.

Overall Twitter can be improved and the third party apps have help fill these voids. I like some of the idea posted and it’d be great for either Twitter or other service to bring these to the forefront. At the end of the day most users may not be directly effected by this latest change, at least not immediately. In the long-term this will change how and what Twitter is and how it gets used. In the short-term this seems to be about Twitter trying to take control of their service and finally make some money off it, which they have every right to do. I don’t agree with their tactics and it does make me wonder: if the 3rd party apps were such a small percentage of the users, what does Twitter gain by cutting them out of the equation?

UPDATE: Seems like I just found a partial answer to my own question. Mashable is reporting that “Only 58% of tweets come from official Twitter clients

Leveraging Frameworks

Looking back at the last year or so, one theme kept surfacing in all the projects I worked on – the need for a user experience framework. Many of these projects focused around Xfinity.com, part of Comcast’s branding initiative that launched last year during the Olympics. Overall, the projects focused on how to introduce new Comcast subscribers to the XFINITY service and the benefits that come with it, while providing more initiated customers deep access to the wealth of content available online. One project was to design a future version of the site, which would grow alongside individual customers and present an experience tailored to them. This project focused on optimizing both the experience of customers as well as Comcast’s understanding of its customers’ needs.

Clearly these projects needed something more involved then simple wireframes, design guidelines and some magic in Fireworks/Photoshop and HTML…they needed systematic frameworks to support both the design process and the business needs. Besides coming up with concepts and designs that fueled these projects it was my job to create said frameworks.

The embedded Seven Steps to Creating a Framework is the distilled process I employed to conquer the challenges presented to me over this past year. I believe it is universal enough to guide you through creating UX frameworks of your own.

View Seven Steps to Creating a Framework on SlideShare

Please comment if you have questions or comments on this framework to creating a UX framework.

Email isn’t dead afterall

Email is dead or so they said, well it seems like Facebook has another idea. A few weeks ago Facebook announced their plan for merging all your communication to be found in one place, and including a @facebook address as a way to be reached. Though they’re suggesting it’s not email and calling it a conversation hub, since they’re removing the subject line as part of the message. Regardless of what they want to call it makes a good case that email is in fact not dead, just due for an upgrade.

Despite it’s failure, Google Wave had some solid ideas on bringing email inline with modern technology. The good parts of Wave will resurface in Gmail and other services. For example earlier this week Posterous launched Groups which has number of the things I liked about Wave with simpler and prettier UI. Been testing is over the last few days and thought there are still a few odd UI issues, the overall UI is simple enough for non-geeks to use and that’s key for mass adoption. In the sample at left (from Posterous) you can see the basic layout and support for photos/video etc. Not as pretty as some of the standard Posterous themes but I’m sure that will come with time. The big question is whether the masses start adopting it, especially with competitors like Facebook Groups; though they are different offerings, Facebook already has the masses using their services everyday.

AOL is also giving email another try with their recently launched Project Phoenix. I love the paper cut-out animation they used to announce the project (see below) and for the users of Aol Mail this will be a welcome addition. They’ve simplified the UI, added the ability to import your other email services and now lets you send text messages. Another plus is I didn’t notice any ads cluttering up the interface. I assume they’ll be there sooner or later and if not, this is an even bigger plus for the consumer. I also like their “quick bar” access to multiple communication tools. Despite these improvements I’m not sure it’s enough to attract new users, though it may help keep their current customer base.

Personally, I still use email for some things, but for many things email’s formality and permanence isn’t needed. If I just want to share a link, or something else temporal email is overkill. At the same time having an archive for things is still needed at times. It’s good to see some progress in allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. Only time will tell how this will shake out but for now these are a step in the right direction.

This time it’s personal

Web 2.0 was about making the web social (and glassy buttons), now let’s make it personal, relevant and about the user.

There’s so much content it’s hard to filter out the noise and get to the stuff you want. This is true be it from Twitter, your Facebook news feed or what to watch on TV. The growth of smartphones only exacerbates the need for a personalized experience. Our phones have become an extension of ourselves, though their smaller form factor requires us to only put the important stuff on them. The way we use our phones also dictates a need for faster access to the important things. Besides streamlining the features and the design, the mass of content needs to be streamlined as well. Quicker access to the things that matter to you is the core concept behind Microsoft’s current ad campaign for WindowPhone7.

The mobile space isn’t the only place where this streamlining is welcomed, take Netflix for example. They’ve grown from a simple DVD-by-mail service to one of the biggest online streaming services. There’s a reason people love Netflix. It’s not about the number of movies they have but rather they showcase the videos that you may actually want to watch. When first signing up to the service you’re asked to rate a few movies so it can begin to make recommendations. Netflix even had a ongoing contest looking for anyone that could significantly improve (their already lauded) recommendation algorithms. In Sept. 2009, they had a winner but the real winner was Netflix and their customers.


Personalization doesn’t always need to be complicated, even the smallest touches of personalization will do wonders for the user experience. The latest browsers have removed their default homepages in lieu of quick views of sites that you visit most. Above is the message Safari displays when you launch it for the first time. Like Netflix, it’s aim is to show you content that’s relevant to you based on your actions. Below is a basic recommendation system I created to demonstrate how user actions can be used to bias content towards more items of a similar nature (in this case color).