Tech Life Decisions that feel too small to matter

A Signature Cadence

Early on in the movie Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe constructs one of my favorite getting-to-know-you and let’s-fall-in-love scenes. The lead, William Miller, and the love interest, Penny Lane, stare at each other while lying to each other about their ages:

Penny: “How old are you?”

William: “18.”

Penny: “Me, too. How old are we really?”

William: “17.”

Penny: “Me, too.”

William: “Actually, I’m 16.”

Penny: “Me, too. Isn’t it funny? The truth just sounds different.”

What does a lie sound like? How do we decide to trust? There’s a reason why you can figure out in an instant whether a mail is spam or not. It’s not a single, measurable thing, but a whole set of small, invisible variables with which you can instantly make a judgment — I do not trust this mail.

You have a complex set of analytical mental muscles that help you make critical snap emotional judgments. Whether it’s a mail, a website, or a person, your brain can instantly look at 12 imperceptible aspects of a thing to determine how you should feel.

Truth, love, or lies, human has a signature cadence.

I love Flickr

Really, I love it. My favorite part of designing a presentation is the three hours I get lost slice and dicing the deck and cruising Flickr looking for the perfect image. I always find a photo that changes the way I see my deck.

Flickr pulled my SLR out of my closet and onto my desk. Flickr gives me regular visual insights into friends that I’d never find in Twitter, instant messaging, or even over lunch. I feel as I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what Flickr can offer and you know what? Until recently, I thought Flickr loved me back. Up until a few months ago, this was the Flickr logo:

Flickr says it loves you

As far as I could tell, just about every single Flickr page contained this highlighted message, and what I saw in this simple message was that I wasn’t on a web site; I wasn’t using software. I was somewhere else.

Flickr is not a web site. Flickr is a tremendously large group of people constantly throwing their photos at each other and when Flickr said it loved you, it was reminding you that you weren’t at a website, you were part of a community.

You’re Not a Clock

Some time shortly after Web 1.0 was over, an engineer was programming and making a choice regarding wording. He needed to tell the user how long it had been since something had happened — elapsed time. There are well-formatted, structured ways to display this information, but most assume you’re a clock:

3 days, 2 hours, 12 minutes, 3 seconds.

There are a bunch of problems with this format. First, you waste a lot of space saying very little, but the larger issue is that it doesn’t effectively describe the passage of time. You don’t measure time — you feel it. This engineer understood that you’re a human being. He decided that communicating elapsed time should sound like telling you the time over coffee, “When did Michael update his status?”

Updated a moment ago

It’s small. You probably didn’t even see it. It’s not precise, but tells you exactly what you need to know. Moreover, it sounds like someone rather than something is saying it.

It sounds authentic.

Stop for a second and reread any paragraph in this article, but this time, I want you to listen to the voice you’ve constructed in your head. It sounds like you. This is why, when we meet, you’re going to be confused because I don’t sound like you. You do.

You trust this voice and the more a website or an application is designed to imitate that voice, the sooner a user will engage because they’ll make an emotional connection faster.

It’s a Little Thing

Do this. Take a moment to look on one of your favorite websites or weblogs and look for where they choose to sound like a friend you bumped into at the coffee shop. Once you start looking for it, it stands out. My favorite place to look is at the bottom of the page around the copyright:

Good luck will come

Which rules

Be nice

It’s a little thing. In the huge pile of work building a website, the words chosen to deliver small messages might seem important, but these small words define a personality and both personality and reputation are built on decisions that feel too small to matter.

Here are three ways JetBlue starts the conversation at their kiosks:

hi there

Here’s how Twitter used to tell you they saved your information:

we saved all that

And this is how Khoi reminds you to have a conversation, not a flame war:

we saved all that

This conversational tone has a purpose. By sounding like a human, these small wording decisions push the technology out of the way to reveal what we really care about: the people.

Mingalaba!

Yeah, they’re faking us out. Yeah, it’s a script that is randomly saying “Hi” in every language possible, but look at the design intent. You are being benignly deceived into believe that you aren’t interacting with a computer, you’re staring through a window at other people.

And that’s where your head should be. Not worrying about how it might work, but who you might find on the other side.

I Think Flickr Still Loves Me

I see a lot of guilt inside the term “Web 2.0”. It’s an overused catchall term used to describe a bevy of new technologies and trends, but what I hear is guilt. When someone uses the term, I hear, “Yeah, so we’re not going to fuck-up and flame-out like those Web 1.0 dweebs. We’re Web 2.0.”

My negative reaction is unfortunate because inside of this guilty morass are some brilliant developments. I enjoy watching the ever-blurring line between a web page and an application. I like seeing the web becoming a cloudy platform.

Mostly, I like the authentic tone that came with Web 2.0.

Who knows who removed the authenticity from the Flickr logo. It’s sad, but it served its purpose. Flickr’s old logo was a quiet efficient invitation to join a community and sound like yourself.

30 Responses

  1. Brilliant.

  2. Authenticity has gotten pretty good on today’s web. As one who appreciates and revels in all things genuine, I like the personal tone the web is being built on. It’s definitely something designers need to be aware of once Photoshop is closed and they move on to slapping content onto their fresh products. Great article and examples as usual, rands. Thanks!

  3. If you liked the humanizing aspect of “a moment ago” you should love this clock:

    http://www.insightoutsight.co.uk/viewproject.php?cid=2&pid=3

    It’s a clock that tells you “It’s nearly twelve” or “It’s a quarter past two”.

  4. One way to look at the greeting script in Flickr is that it’s a fake out. Another way to look at it is that the Flickr team spent real development time putting in a feature that served no purpose but to give their application a little bit of the personality of the people who developed it.

    I don’t see that as deception. Code is written by people, and the people behind the code thought that spending time on a friendly, memorable, novel way of greeting you was important.

    The other day Flickr greeted me in lolcat. Which means they must still be maintaining it.

  5. The Flickr “loves you” logo’s story is short, sweet, and lovely: http://flickr.com/groups/central/discuss/72157600293814159/72157600294179897/

    Their APIs also speak lolcat, to some degree: http://api.flickr.com/services/feeds/photos_public.gne?id=47652717@N00&lang=en-us&format=lol

    Clever, cute, delightful, and completely devoid of any _business_ purpose whatsoever. It just makes you feel like there are actual people behind the site who are enjoying the process of putting it together.

  6. Flickr hate me, and I hate them. While I was still on that website called flickr (that is before they deleted my account, with 3000 photos, plus comments, plus comments I left on friends photos, plus “flickr-mail”) it made me sick to see “flickr loves you” when in fact they didn’t gave a rats ass about me…

  7. Kartik D 8 years ago

    You sure ‘made me look’! 🙂

  8. You are being benignly deceived into believe that you aren’t interacting with a computer, you’re staring through a window at other people.

    I think the philosophy of such apps is exactly the opposite. You’re not being deceived—there really are people on the other side of the window. For decades programmers tried their best to hide behind the curtains, desperate to avoid the perception that software was written by humans. Even release notes are written in the passive voice; try finding any pronouns other than “it”.

    The new style of app simply looks at technology as a mechanism for programmers to interact with users. The fact that I wrote a script to say “be nice” or “thanks” doesn’t make them any less my words. We’ve finally gotten to the point where even programmers can shift their focus from the tool they’re using to what they’re really trying to do: connect with their users. How and why we got there now is a whole ‘nother blog posting, but I think the end result is more honest, not less.

  9. Rob Drimmie 8 years ago

    Flickr is an interesting study of authenticity crumbling over time.

    I am generally not opposed to Yahoo! but the difference between a smallish company and a biggish company is significant. The acquisition itself damaged Flickr’s personality, and the forced switch to Yahoo! authentication was an even bigger excision. The recent handling of George’s layoff does Flickr’s persona no favours.

    I am still a pro member, and I still love Flickr (especially when compared to alternatives) but it is not the same kind of affection it once was.

  10. leftside 8 years ago

    For a similar thing, check out FuzzyClock for OS X. It revolutionized how I feel as I work on my computer.

  11. One of the things I love most about Flickr is how the UI just gets out of the way and lets you connect with other people through their photos. I want to see what friends are up to and what’s going on in the area around me, and that’s easy. I really do feel like Flickr loves me, despite the Yahoo! issues right now.

    Something I picked up during a conference a few years back and haven’t been able to let go of is that we as web designers and copy writers need to use clear, friendly English on our sites and apps. Get to the point, stop using big words to sound professional. Connect with people using language they can relate to.

    You see this more on personal websites, including mine (thanks for the nod by the way), but it shouldn’t stop there. Flickr shows us how a widely used web application can benefit from that same language connection. Hopefully they’re starting a trend.

  12. I really like this insight, all tho there is one small thing that I think I do differently than most people.

    When I read other people’s blog posts, I generally use a different voice in my head. I have no idea if it’s ever anywhere near accurate. But I do construct a voice that feels like it’d be saying the things being said. No idea how I constructed the ability, but I think it allows me to naturally interact with the post. It feels better, for some reason or another.

  13. Great article! At TeamSnap (our web app) we have embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly. Whether it’s our Terms of Service acceptance, Privacy Policy, spoof testimonials or About Us page, we always strive to make the mundane things more friendly and fun.

    In this day and age, companies seem to spend enormous amounts of energy keeping their customers at arm’s length, or even worse, treating them with utter contempt.

    There’s no reason that companies, both big and small, can’t be friendly. And our belief is that this kind of “personality infusion” is not only fun for everybody, but can even give you a business advantage over the stodgy competition.

  14. I think a great example is Huffduffer’s conversational signup form: http://huffduffer.com/signup …it’s a departure from the norm, yet it works.

  15. Jean Lalonde 8 years ago

    I must unfortunately say that I am in pretty much complete dissension with this entry. Human, one to one, friendly dialog is a good indicator of a healthy degree of civility fron both sides, but when a software interface starts using expressions commonly associated with human behavior, I start thinking about Eddie, the computer aboard the Heart of Gold, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Hello there! Why, aren’t we all looking super nice today!” Whoever wrote this piece of code probably has no idea who I am, and should concentrate his or her energy on producing the most elegant tool possible, instead of trying to be buddy-buddy with me, a total stranger.

    I guess I feel in a similar matter when a stranger approaches me with over-friendly banter. There’s a difference between politeness and friendliness. When there is not connection whatsoever between two individuals, I believe it’s inappropriate.

    When a website starts acting too friendly, my guard goes up, and I start wondering “What the heck do they want from me.” I mostly consider it devious behavior, possibly deceitful.

    Flickr doesn’t “love” me. Yahoo, their owner, is a public company with a business plan, with a responsibility towards their shareholders.

  16. Chris 8 years ago

    “Stop for a second and reread any paragraph in this article, but this time, I want you to listen to the voice you’ve constructed in your head. It sounds like you.”

    Funnily enough my personal ‘head Rands’ sounds like a Californian. But then your words would sound *really* weird spoken in my particular dialect of English:

    “Stop fre a second an raeread any parograph in this ortacle, but this tiyum, ah want yee te listen tae the voice you’ve constructaed in ya heid. It soonds leik ye. This is whai, when wi meet, yer gannae be confused cos ah dain’t soond leik yee. Yee dee.”

    A well observed article btw. A classic obvious-in-hindsight revelation for me.

  17. wow,

    that was a great read. thanks.

    it really brings to mind some time spent living outside of coastal california. i used to remark to east coast friends that i missed the false greetings and pretend glee of shop workers and waiters and such. my east coast friends had a hard time with this, saying, “why, can’t you see is sugary sweet and false?”

    “yeah,” i said, “but it’s better. even when you know.”

    isaiah

  18. Fred Blasdel 8 years ago

    I like the authentic tone that came with Web 2.0.

    It’s certainly more authentic than the late-90s IPO gold-rush douchebaggery, removing the piles of unearned pre-product VC money helps a lot with that.

    I don’t think the ‘human’ tone helps at all, it just reads as smarmy, condescending affectation.

  19. There are still wonderful people who work on Flickr, but I think removing “Loves You” is the most appropriate thing to do if they wanted to maintain an authentic tone.

  20. Fred Blasdel 8 years ago

    I, for once, am in full agreement with Anil Dash about a matter regarding a web community.

  21. Well, yes and no.

    I appreciate interfaces that are designed to be used by actual people; they show me that the engineer and/or designer asked the question “how do I make my tool get out of the way?” rather than “how do I accomplish Task X?”

    What really annoys me, though, is when the folksy friendly interface gets in my way far more aggressively than the old machine-like interfaces did. In those cases, the lack of a precise way to tell the machine what I want to do winds up wasting my time and frustrating me (this is paraphrased, but this exact thing has happened to me countless times):

    “[recording] Welcome to [telephone company]. How can I help you today?”

    “I’d like to inquire about international roaming.”

    “OK, you said you’d like to sign up for new service. Is that correct?”

    “No.”

    “Sorry. Please tell me what you’d like to do.”

    “International roaming.”

    “OK, you said you’d like to pay your bill. Is that correct?”

    “No.”

    Sometimes, it seems like the old ways of doing things were a whole lot better.

  22. I like most of what you said here, but I personally can’t stand fuzzy clocks with no mechanism to recover the loss of precision.

    Sometimes I do actually want to know more about when it was, exactly. For instance, when I’m comparing things it would be nice if I could get actual timestamps instead of a bunch of things that say “about three hours ago”.

    So… I think I’m all for this thing right up to the point where I actually lose data because of it. If you replace my data with a more nice and simple way to say that, I’m even okay with that, so long as there’s a way I can get the original data if I need it.

  23. As usual, well said, Rands. Couldn’t put it much better. The experience is what I’m after, and experiencing some sites/apps feels much more like an in-person experience than others.

  24. Gino Zahnd 8 years ago

    I know who removed the “authenticity” from the Flickr logo. Rands, nothing authentic was removed.

    The Flickr logo was Flickr (beta), and then Flickr (gamma), before it was Flickr (loves you). They all served their purpose, ran their course, and it was time to move on. That’s authentic.

    It’s surprising to me that so many commenters are just being exposed to Flickr’s style and design approach. It’s ancient web history at this point. But at least people are taking it to heart, learning from it, and hopefully making other things better because of it.

    Long live Flickr.

  25. Great Article – a very interesting read…

    In my experience quite often people spend a lot of time and money on both the design and development of web applications, and then simply piece together the content. This approach will never lead to the conversation experience you’ve summarised nicely here.

  26. I am glad that someone else admit that Flickr is both immense and addicting.

    I think the real-life quality really separates the people who think about business from the people who do business

    However if accuracy is so unauthentic then maybe Web 2.0 isn’t the best title – sounds too exact to me…

  27. is something wrong with me that i don’t hear my own voice when i read other peoples work?

  28. I love all these personal examples of interface design. I had no idea Flickr stopped loving me before reading this. 🙂

    I think more websites and applications need to lighten up like this. Business jargon makes them sound like a robot and totally turns me off.

    Rands, you’re pretty good at just saying it like is. F-bombs and all. 🙂

  29. One place I noticed that could use obvious rewording is on linkedin, when you sign up for a new account, and confirm a registered email address, the text reads:

    “Thanks for the confirmation EMAILADDRESS@LALALA.LAND

    It’d be far improved if it was worded thusly:

    “Thanks for confirming EMAILADDRESS@LALALA.LAND“, or something to that effect, as the first implies that the user is known by their email address (which is dumb, people are known by their name/web identity for the most part)