SXSW Notes: Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps

Loose notes from the SXSW 2006 session: Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps

High-powered session with folks from Flickr, Six Apart, Odeo, Measure Map. Focused on the iterative process and release cycle for web apps that thousands of people depend on. How much can you change and how quickly, without alienating users. How much iteration is driven by user feedback vs. internal goals?


George Oates Producer, Ludicorp (Flickr)
Mena Trott Partner, Six Apart
Evan Williams CEO, Odeo, Inc.
Jeffrey Veen, Measure Map
Eric Rodenbeck Dir, Stamen Design

Clusters of behavior / erasure of boundary between human and algorithmic “editorial” content

Rodenbeck

Very slick data visualization for moveon.org: Interactive town hall allowed 50,000 people to be online simultaneously, locate people around you on the map. Poll data represented visually immediately.

Mapper: Maps flickr photographs – guy driving around the country, posting and tagging images, which show up geographically on map in real time. Mapper and flicker don’t know about Route 66, but using folksonomy, you get it mapped photographically in real time anyway.

cabspotting (for coming museum exhibit – “hidden dynamics of ebbs and flows of data in the bay area): Live taxi routes, data visualization of the IRC backchannel (beautiful – can I get a screenshot of this?) All of this can be animated, with speed displayed as redness.

Trott

On iteration in product design. Iteration based on multiple products. Working on “Comment” which is in private beta. All are built on top of foundations of existing produts. Goal at Six Apart is to get the next 100 million people blogging. What it takes to get there are APIs. SA has four products, but they only want one billing system. Not glamorous, but crucial.

SA acquired Splash, for mobile blogging. People want to photoblog, want to know when they’ve gotten a comment, want to be able to post comments… all from phone.

Oates

Flickr is a big, weird, messy place. “Think like your user” : This doesn’t work! You need to talk to them, have a conversation. Flickr is not going to post manifesto of what Flickr is and how it works, because users make up the rules as they use the system. Not telling people what thye should be doing, but how to do cool things.

Nice screens of new Flickr UI with dark backgrounds rather than light – makes a huge difference.

Photo organizer module – very messy right now. Usability should go up when organizer is more organized.

Williams (evhead)

Odeo – A lot of Flash in the UI, but only where necessary. e.g. site login dialog is Flash based (but not clear why this is necessary other than to look sweet). But very necessary with the recording UI, which looks great.

Feature: Send me a voice message rather than an email (could this module be embedded in any web site?)

There are limitations on how sophisticated you can get with an audio recorder in a web browser.

Veen

Taking design learning and feeding it back into the implementation community (MeasureMap folks working for Six Apart). Getting people who don’t care about web analytics to start caring about it.

Measuring: How are people participating in personal blogging efforts? They’re not showing things like page views, but more relevant things like visitors. Great dynamic interface – things moving all over the place.

MeasureMap: Started first with design, then talked about how to build it. Worked very fast, with multiple releases / week, rather than a long buildup and a major launch. This is a recurrent trend at SXSW.

“The way to maximize user experience is unquestionably through iteration” -VentureWeb

“We’ve probably had more releases already than Word did in its first decade.” -Sam Schillace, Writely

Six Apart getting pressure to do more iteration-based releases.

Trott: When SA was really small, they could read each other’s minds, but development got more difficult as company grew. Now SA is 125 people (30 in Japan, 10 in Europe). Movable Type iterates slowly – huge number of business customers. But LiveJournal iterates quickly — they’ll push code onto production server at 2am after drinking… so there’s a weird mix of habits/cultures.

Odeo has adopted a “scrum” methodology: Work in iterations of 30 days, then cut it down to two weeks. Engineers thought this was an eternity – they had been releasing several times a day! What’s changed is that changes are grouped and become a “blob” of changes as an entity.

In all cases, very tight integration with user feedback.

“Weblogs fix the inefficiences traditional publishers are paid to overome.. and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.” – Shirky

All of these applications have in common : There is almost no distinction between the producers and the consumers.

Very few bloggers will want to start a blog without already having been part of a community (commenting on another blog, e.g.)

S.A. is in the megaphone business.

LiveJournal always had the concept of being able to blog to a small, selected group, whereas MT has never distinguished between public/private blogging.

Odeo: A lot of people love to get the voice messages, but are terrified of putting their own voice out there. So their default is that audio posts are private. Things are put on an unguessable URL – you can blog it or send it to friends, but it will never be discovered accidentally.

Veen: Editorial control is coming from algorithms now. Think of the front page of Digg as your newspaper, or a Technorati or delicious or Flickr tag cloud.

Veen shows his Flickr acct, which already includes a shot of the current panel from his vantage point. Then adds a couple of tags for SXSW and the audience is immediately browsing SXSW photos from the rest of the audience.

Flickr: What is the “interesting” keyword? It’s alchemy – someone you don’t know leaving a comment on your photo, or marking it as a favorite, etc. New “Explore” page – algorithmically selected, and it’s an editorial experience, but it’s not editorial. There’s no distinction in the UI between when a human or an algorithm has decided to feature an image.

Trott: Decision not to put emoticons in Movable Type has had a huge impact on public perception of it as a professional tool rather than a community tool – opposite of LiveJournal.

“User-generated content means design becomes just a container.” Rodenbeck disagrees with the word “just” – no such thing as “just” a container – the container is immeasurably critical.

Google maps API mashed up with public crimed data: chicagocrime.org – a remarkable example of citizen/participant journalism.

Veen: I do not like to pull the rug out from under users – much prefer iteration, since it gives users graduated experience.

Oates: Rapid iteration without a long-term strategy can be like a wild horse running out of control. You need to know in advance where you’re going to end up.

Trott: Diff. b/w MT and TP: On TP, they get a call at the office if a spam comment gets through. They don’t care if you make something more Ajaxy – they care that it works properly.

Veen: The product page on Amazon is probably the most tested interface in the history of the web. And I think it’s a mess. It’s effective, but they can’t make it better without discarding the whole thing and starting over. Too many iterations and it becomes chaos.

Question: How do you build ethical standards into your apps, since you’re working on top of other people’s content? Trott: Export is a big part of that – user always has a way out. [I’m not sure this is what the questioner meant by the question.] FeedBurner has an FAQ on “how to quit, how to get out, etc.” Whereas MS Outlook is explicitly designed to never let you leave.

Question: If you design based on feedback, what do you do with the vocal crazies who never shut up with demands for change? Changing a color because 19 users don’t like your green is not design!

How do you balance user requests with the things users don’t yet know they want? If you only answered to users you would never be innovating.

Flickr was originally a game, which happened to have a feature where you could post a photo to a page. Now the game is gone! The ultimate iteratation is total transformation.

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