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?”
Penny: “Me, too. How old are we really?”
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:
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?”
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:
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:
Here’s how Twitter used to tell you they saved your information:
And this is how Khoi reminds you to have a conversation, not a flame war:
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.
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.