Howells.

Verbose content discovery: adding the human touch to aggregation

I’m a voracious consumer of written content. Nothing on the web makes me happier than filling my Instapaper bucket with shiny pebbles. It doesn’t matter that I might not end up reading them all, but I will try.

Finding the pebbles is a hard thing that has been made astonishingly easy—too easy, for reasons I’ll explore—with the recent rise in aggregators that span the automatic to light-touch. The services I use regularly to help navigate content are the following.

There are many more services that pop up with every other Techcrunch post, all attempting to snare morsels of rarefied attention in trying to solve the problem of delivering the most compelling content to you on an Internet that is unfathomably overcrowded with stuff.

Here I’ve deliberately ordered the services in terms of how transparent they are in sourcing the content that they feel is most relevant to you.

News.me replaced the excellent Summify for me, which disappeared once it was bought by Twitter, and which powers their new Discovery features. Taking your Twitter friends as its source, it attempts to digest all the most relevant links, and sends a daily email telling you what to read. Each link is suffixed by the faces of your Twitter friends who shared the piece of content.

By the same team behind News.me is the new Digg uses metrics that are far outside of your control to determine what to show. It doesn’t take into account who you follow on Twitter or who you are connected to on Facebook; it aggregates general consensus. This is an important distinction between it and the old Digg. In the old Digg, you invest time in trusting the community to vote up relevant articles, yet new Digg assumes you to trust the entire internet’s social community in determining what is good (which, as Twitter makes very transparent, is something you shouldn’t assume).

It now turns out that News.me is due to be superseded by Digg: personalised aggregation to be replaced by automation.

The part that is missing in these services is the why. The act of sharing a link in itself is stripped of nuance. Someone might have shared a link because it was the most extraordinarily wonderful piece of writing, as much as because it was the most despicable, bigoted piece of writing ever committed to a blog. Yet this nuance is lost, and it’s the nuance that I miss.

This loss was addressed in The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser: an excellent book if you like pop socio-/psych-/techn-ology books. This passage resonated with me:

David Gelernter, a Yale professor and early supercomputing visionary, believes that computers will only serve us well when they can incorporate dream logic. “One of the hardest, most fascinating problems of this cyber-century is how to add ‘drift’ to the net,” he writes, “so that your view sometimes wanders (as your mind wanders when you’re tired) into places you hadn’t planned to go. Touching the machine brings the original topic back. We need help overcoming rationality sometimes, and allowing our thoughts to wander and metamorphose as they do in sleep.”

In an era of computational aggregation, how do we re-introduce human touch?

An exciting new services that helps bring back verbosity and nuance is Reading.am. It offers you content that your friends are reading right now. It doesn’t matter whether the piece was good or bad, or whether it makes you appear cool or dull. While it demands that your friends use the bookmarklet to mark what they are reading, the output is a very comprehensive set of articles that are likely to interest you, since you’re interested in your friends.

I don’t use Reading.am it in the way it has been designed. I read all my content offline on Instapaper, and so I can’t share what I am reading easily. And while it has a commenting system baked-in, since I rarely read on screen I’m not compelled to enter into the conversation. I consume the content it outputs yet I’m very aware that the content behind it is being shared by just a handful of people I respect.

Reading.am is a step towards what I consider the future of curation and aggregation. No amount of natural language analysis or computation can analyse deeply personal taste, quality, nor provide context or meaningful links between content (at least not yet) and so, we need to build platforms and services that are high-touch. So—perhaps paradoxically—we will increasingly rely on editors to help us navigate the web.

I keep thinking about the ratio 100:9:1. (I can’t remember who coined it or referenced it, so if you know please let me know.) It refers to there being one creator of content, nine people who share/curate/edit, for the one hundred consumers. The internet has helped us build platforms for each segment of this model of consumption: readers have Twitter and countless other ways to consume, and of course creators have extraordinary tools at their disposal. Yet the same develops can be said for the nine editors: tech has made us jump to explore computerised, automated curation, without considering that a more valuable proposition might exist with the piece in the middle which gives people who are considered sharers of good content a democratic editorial platform.

I don’t know what this platform might look like yet, but I’m excited to explore it further to bridge the gap between noisy Twitter and the relative calm of a traditional editor. I’d assert that verbose human/high-touch content discovery is something we should strive towards to help us find fewer but shinier pebbles.

The free work dilemma

Like everyone else, this year I’ve had some fun projects, some challenging, and of course some disappointments. But it’s an interesting exercise to analyse the different types of projects against how they came about, who you worked with, and how financially fruitful they were.

One segment of projects that stand out—for the wrong reasons—were the projects I did for free.

I rarely do work for free but sometimes interesting propositions come along for projects I’d like to do for people that I think will turn out into a good portfolio pieces, or would yield fantastic connections that will bear fruit.

It’s surprising when I look at the outcome of my recent free projects, which have yielded no new business, connections, or tangible benefits. This is in stark contrast to all the work that I have done for myself, be it entire websites or individual blog posts, all of which have all yielded interesting opportunities.

Opportunity cost is tricky to recognise and grasp especially given the fairly amorphous nature of what we do. But before you commit to any favours—however exciting they might seem—I would urge you to consider how else you could spend that same time investing in yourself or your business. You might find that the playful mashup you develop in the same time you planned for the freebie might hit the front page of Hacker News, or that the mock redesign of a website might hit the front page of Behance.

Better for everyone involved is to barter. If the person asking you to develop their site is an incredible designer, decide up-front how much work is required and then ask them to dedicate the same time or equivalent to design your new identity. Or if they are well connected in an industry you want to move into, ask to arrange meetings and introductions up-front. It helps balance the professional relationship and then you don’t have to call the work you did, “free”. (And to this point, make sure you enforce the agreement: I’ve been in situations where the other side of the bargain never materialised since they were too busy to reciprocate.)

Taking equity is an entirely different, more complex conversation that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss. But before you even consider this route you need to believe in the project, the other people behind it, the potential for profitability, and stick to it for the long-term. It’d take a lot for me to seriously entertain taking equity in most startup ideas I hear about.

When I started on my own I did a lot of work for free. After most of it, when the valuable contacts or follow-up work didn’t materialise I regret not spending that time on my own projects; honouring them with more care and attention that they deserved. Your own, carefully considered side-projects make for a much more interesting portfolio piece or talking-point than a quick unpaid job you probably had to rush. Investing your time in yourself before offering your services to other for free ultimately yields more dividends than freebies that risk disappointment.

My notes from Brooklyn Beta… two months late

The original title of this post was “It was Brooklyn last week” and had it closed for two months.

I don’t know why. Going to an event like Brooklyn Beta is tricky to capture in a written post, but there was plenty of insights to take away. So I thought I better return to my notes and capture them in bullet points.

There’s a lot missing, but here are the main take-outs I gleaned from what is undisputedly the best design and technology conference out there, expertly conjured by Chris and Cameron.

  • Ted Nelson—who I didn’t know before the event—was an extraordinary speaker, who simultaneously captivated and lost the audience with his alternative visions of the internet (all tinged with sadness that Tim Berners Lee got there first). Check out Computers for Cynics.
  • Squarespace’s new developer platform looks very interesting.
  • Maciej Ceglowski of Pinbord was by far the most funny, insightful speakers of any tech conference, who delivered these laughably sensible tidbits of advice against a backdrop of VC obsession: “Don’t get in the way when people want to give you money”, “Success feels not much different from failure. But you are not allowed to stop.”, “Barely succeed. Not everybody and everything has to grow super big and scale like crazy”.
  • Cory Brooker: what a legend, and it was exciting to see a potential future President speak at a tech conference. Main take-out, “It’s cheaper to invest in education than to pay for ignorance.”
  • Each year, Chris Shifflet gets up on stage and imparts ridiculously good advice that seems to come from the heart and not from a self-help book. I’ll leave it to his own blog post to explain what he said.
  • Arguably the greatest start-up promo video ever created, for WeBe.at, by OK Focus
  • Lachlan Hardy really loves taking photos. And that’s his way to meet as many people as possible at an event: take great portraits and you’ll end up knowing everybody.
  • This tweet from Whitney Hess amused me, and is basically true. The dress code at Brooklyn Beta is compelling.
  • The words of Seth Godin (possibly the most effortless, charismatic speaker I’ve seen) imparted some sage advice: “Everyone should write a blog because it makes it harder to be a hypocrite. You have to decide what you believe.”, and on social media, “Whisper to the people who want to listen to you, don’t yell at the masses who are trying to avoid you.”
  • Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp was a new initiative started this year, and the participants got a few moments to present their app. The standout apps for me were Farmstand, which helps promote and connect farmers markets and the people that shop at them, and Maker’s Row, which connects makers with factories that can help turn their designs into reality.
  • The king of infographics, Hyperakt, made a beautiful one of the people that constituted the event. My mother even made an appearance in it, on being asked what it is I do: “It’s all a big mystery to me.”
  • Ben Pieratt gave an astonishing heart-felt talk about his experience on being CEO of Svpply: a startup that he founded, and then resigned from 3 years later. The turmoil of running of startup (especially as a designer-founder) are never discussed so for us gathered audience it was refreshing to hear a warts-and-all account.
  • Scott Belsky talked about Behance, and proffered a few words to aspiring founders. Having recently sold his company to Adobe for Good Money, we should listen: “When everyone tells you you’re crazy, you’re either crazy or you’re onto something.”

Embracing the design and UX amateur

Seth Godin published two excellent blog posts over the holidays: How to make a website: a tactical guide for marketers, which was promptly followed up by True professionals don’t fear amateurs.

The latter produced whining and pitchfork-cries from many designers in the community, though as hard as I tried I failed to uncover any coherent argument as to the problem Godin’s posts posed.

In the first post, Godin recommends to his audience an approach to designing a website that wouldn’t look out of place in any design studio’s own working practices. First, research elements of other sites that they feel work well. Second, create the site entirely on Keynote. Third, don’t do any coding at all. Leave this until last when you should give your developers your prototype to be developed.

Most critics of this approach simply furious that Godin recommends not using a professional to do the job of UX and design, and that it was a job that could only be done by a seasoned professional. In other words, hand-wringing job protection, and fear of the amateur which his diligently knocked into place with his follow-up post, responding to critics on Twitter:

If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.

These posts on the reactions made me think more about how our industry can be incredibly self-serving and fearful of advice like this, and how suddenly there are distinct barriers to entry to the industry.

Firstly, consider Seth Godin’s audience. Principally they will not be C-level executives running million-dollar organisations. Nor will they be ambitious start-up leaders brandishing millions of dollars in VC. They are people who are working hard to make their fledging organisations work, who like to cherry pick Godin’s excellent tidbits of inspiration and advice from his vast trove of experience.

These are the people I would advise specifically not to hire an web designer or UX specialist. With limited cash at their disposal, there are myriad of ways that a few dollars can go a long to make a site: using an inexpensive service like Squarespace or Shopify, or a free blogging engine like Tumblr with an off-the-shelf theme can easily deliver an effective commercial site to help launch their businesses.

An amateur site might as easily be brilliant as it is terrible. Luck Scheybeler suggested it was analogous to visiting a charming market stall over a cold Bond Street boutique. Further, David Cole suggested that in fact, “not everything needs A+ UX. Some categories are served fine by okay work”. It’s easy to forget this: we (me included) usually fall into the trap of insisting that every site should be a paragon of UX and artistic merit when in fact, okay is simply okay.

And honestly—as a side note—in my career I’ve seen better, more considered sites created by eager start-up founders in Keynote and Powerpoint than self-proclaimed UX and web design experts.

Many, though, focussed their frustrations at the last paragraph:

Hand the Keynote doc to your developers and go away until it’s finished.

Of course I agree with the critics that the best results comes from collaboration between designers, developers, strategists and UX professionals. You can’t simply hand something off without a feedback loop.

But the criticism here reminded me that the sites I have made of which I am least proud (and I’ll never share them - sorry) were those whose in which I had no involvement with the UX or design. Instead I was handed a bundle of Photoshop documents that had to be recreated in CSS to the pixel, and I wasn’t able to critique or suggest any amendments. The goal was the recreate the design precisely without technical consideration, and thus create a site that was devoid of any vestige good UX.

If you were one of those people who were disgusted by the idea of just “handing off” to developers, reflect and think very carefully about how you work with your own team. You could be doing the same thing, yet consider yourself the professional in the scenario, not the amateur with the Keynote deck.

Ultimately I get dismayed by the arrogance of suggesting that only professional designers can be charged with creating a website. I would encourage any true “hustler” trying to create business to have a go at designing their site if only to understand the process. Sure—the result might suck—but that is okay: it can be changed later once their target market or audience responds. Or it might be fantastic, in which case let’s just embrace that the amateur with a Keynote file has taught us a thing or two.

We should embrace the democratisation that the design and UX community has to offer inherent in its very nature, and should encourage everybody with a vested interest to experiment with whatever tools they have. Only then might we even be able to fix the problem of the woeful lack of talent in our industry.

Update: throughout this post I seem to equate using Keynote with amateurism, which absolutely isn’t the case. It’s an excellent tool for rapid prototyping and has been championed by none other than Edenspiekermann.