Wednesday, November 3, 2010

People, Natural Improvisers

Today I want to elaborate on observation that I touched on earlier, that is, people are natural improvisers. When we are faced with something that we want but not provided for, we apply our creativity to improvise to create our own solution within the confines of what system allows.

I'll give you four such examples to illustrate my point. While going through my examples, hopefully I would have made convincing case for you to consider my conclusion: Product design should be continually improved when sufficient level of unintended workarounds are detected.

People creating a new use case usually means product is not addressing some aspects of user's need. Therefore the more pervasive these workarounds are, the greater risk is posed to the established player for a challenger to come in and address the unmet need in the market. It seems really obvious, but episodes of not listening to market can be observed often as below examples illustrate.

1. Smiley Face As Emotional Tone Setter

Arguably The First Emoticon Ever Used In Email,
And It's Not The Smiley Face
(Source: Wikipedia)
When first wave of emails were exchanged among academia back in early 1970, emails were pure ascii texts. Neither did email have any signature showing your photo, nor did it allow the sender to express the tone other than exclamation point or question mark. As email started to gain wider acceptance, people started realizing lack of tone or gesture made email messages lose the intended original nuance. Their solution? Ascii-only emoticon.

After happily smiling the side way for more than decades, only in later half of 1990's emails were getting smarter to interpret the side way smile to show upright smiley face. Nowadays, ascii smiley face, :-), has become part of our day-to-day vocabulary, and created many other expressive emotion icons.

2. Animated GIF As Video Clip

Admit It;
Animation Grabbed
Your Attention First
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
When World Wide Web opened its door to public with launch of Netscape browser, all contents were static. Page was created once and unless you edit HTML page to update the post, page stayed as is. Although putting pictures on the page made things interesting, it didn't take too long for people to realize that animated pictures (videos) grabs people's attention far better than static pictures.

Enter the animated GIFs. People start layering multiple GIF images to show simple animation. Under the cover animated GIF is nothing but sequence of GIF images and simple instruction for browser how to switch one image after another and how to repeat. People were creating crude motion pictures in claymation fashion until video file formats such as AVI, MPEG, etc. were popularized by Internet Explorers and Netscape browsers.

Today, we cannot think of World Wide Web without video. Collectively internet users generate about two billion plus views a day on all YouTube videos combined.

3. Document Sharing Via Email Attachment As Collaboration

As email became the de facto standard of electronic communications in early 2000's, people started to exchange documents as email attachments. Often people having to collaborate on a document had to pass edited copy to each other to create one final version. Instead of printing it out, annotating the document on printed copy, and then sending it back to the other person for edit (hard to believe now, but this was how business operated not too long ago), people found it lot easier to pass electronic copies around.

This gave rise to such industries as email archiving solutions creating clever ways to remove duplicate electronic copies when archiving for records, and detecting digital data leak from intranet.

Now people are starting to realize there is a better way to share document: Work on the same electronic copy using version control system. Facebook has launched shared document edit as part of new Facebook Group feature set. There are number of other vendors who focus on improving this shared document editing (called collaboration tools) such as Microsoft Sharepoint and Jive.

4. Multiple Social Media Accounts As Privacy Solution

Then there are examples of users being creative to meet their own needs, and vendors looking the other way for several reasons. One of them is multiple social media accounts and anonymous or fake accounts.

As I discussed Facebook has been ignoring users creating multiple accounts to get around their privacy policy. Recently Facebook started to show signs that they will react to flagrant violation of its terms of use policy by responding to shutting down some fake accounts. These accounts were created and used in obvious violation of non-commercial use clause in Facebook terms or use, and these accounts should have been disabled long ago.

But what Facebook fails to realize is the legitimate need for multiple accounts. One example is Facebook application developers. When developers of Facebook application wanting to test the new buggy code, it's natural to expect the developers to create test account to start testing the new Facebook application. Their motivation would be to avoid spamming their friends News Feed with recent activity showing repeated installing/uninstalling of application that should not be know to public.

That's not the only example. People want to separate their professional network from personal network. If you are throwing a bachelor's party for your college buddy, would you invite your boss and parents? It's only natural that people want clear separation of what informations are accessible from whom. Often user's easy solution is to create multiple accounts, one representing professional network, the other representing personal life.

It will be interesting to see how new Facebook Group will mitigate this unmet need for user privacy. It is not at all clear that people won't continue to create multiple accounts to solve the problem the simple way that users can understand. After all, users have choice to use LinkedIn or other social networks to create needed privacy separation.

Moral of these examples? Don't ignore user's need. People are natural improvisers, and will apply their creative minds when it comes to meeting own need.

To all product designers and architects out there: Listen to users and look for those workarounds that people are improvising with your product. You might learn a thing or two from users' ad-lib.

I Certainly Admire Practical Ingenuity Of Users;
Of Course, Not All Of Them Are Admirable...
(Source: The realm of the king of fantasy...)

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