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17 Thoughts on Software, Humans and Facebook

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I’ve spent a great deal of my life writing software and the thing that’s always interested me the most are not clever algorithms, cutting edge tools, slick user interfaces, super-clever frameworks, professional icons, neat layouts and design and well worded documentation – it’s not the actual software itself. What’s interested me is the people who use that software and how they use it.

My goal when writing any piece of software that ends up in the hands of a human being has always been: “make it software they don’t even notice they’re using”. I’ve worked with plenty of developers who take an incredible amount of pride in what they do and spend hours tweaking the tiniest of details as though they were carving a masterpiece from a block of marble (some of them have been, effectively). Agonising over pixels. Button placement. Colours. Every tiny detail. But that doesn’t matter a jot if the software they’ve built gets in the way of the person using it.

Cameras are wonderful and as a photographer I love the technology behind them: their lenses, the use of filters and a host of other things I’ve written about before. But a camera isn’t the end result, a camera is a tool to take a photograph and the photograph is the end product. A photographer doesn’t want the camera to get in the way of taking a beautiful photo. If you need to take a quick snap you don’t want to spend ages clicking buttons and going through menus, you want to point and shoot. If you want a landscape photo with a digital SLR you want to take a meter reading, pick your shutter speed and aperture – concentrating on the details of the exposure – and take the photo. You don’t want anything slowing you down. You want to concentrate on what you’re doing – composing and taking the perfect photo.

John's Background SwitcherSoftware, for me, is exactly the same.

John’s Background Switcher is, by some margin, the most widely used piece of software I’ve built. I designed it to sit in the background, be easy to set up and then stay completely out of the way. Most people can install it, set it up without thinking about it – they know what they want to do and it helps them to do that. Next they leave it alone, giving it no thought again. It’s taken years for it to get to that stage and hundreds of users telling me what they loved and what they hated. I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about human psychology building JBS than I have about algorithms and elegant coding practises.

The best way to demonstrate how things have changed is via my uninstall feedback page. When you remove JBS you can opt to leave feedback as to why. It’s the single smartest thing I ever did as I learned very quickly why people who’d bothered to install it then later removed it. Early on they’d complain about finding it confusing, not being able to do X (even though JBS did actually let you do X, it’s just the person hadn’t worked out how) and a host of other minor things that made JBS “not good enough” in my eyes. When someone is confused or can’t figure out how to use any aspect of software I’ve written it’s not a failure of that person, it’s a failure of me not making it simple and obvious enough to use and I learned a great deal, gradually evolving JBS and my software design philosophy over time.

The difference is that nowadays I’d say 99% of people uninstalling JBS who leave me feedback start by saying that they “love” JBS and are removing it because they’re changing jobs, or their computer is misbehaving and they’re removing all software, or their son is going to college and they’re giving them their laptop so cleaning it up first or even their wife doesn’t like it. They tend not to say they can’t figure out how it works any more and given the cross-section of people using JBS (see the Facebook user demographics below) I must be doing something right:

JBS Facebook Demographics

People don’t usually email me telling me how great the user interface is or how good the photo choices are – they tell me how they hate their job but when they’ve had enough they minimise their windows and see montages of photos of a family holiday with their kids and that gets them through their day. It’s not about the software, it’s about what the people who use it want to do and for software to be something people can care about and even declare that they love, it’s not the software they emotionally connect to, it’s what that software lets them do without getting in their way.

Which brings me onto Facebook. Facebook is brilliant. No really, it is. It’s brilliant in the way it manages to replicate real-world social interactions.

Say you and a friend are sat at a table in a bar talking about your Star Wars figure collection (you’re obsessed with them). A mutual friend spots you, saunters over and sits with you, joining in the conversation and you catch up – you’ve not seen each other since Comic-Con. You  take out some polaroids you took of your new Jabba the Hutt figurine to show around and your friends all laugh at you as you flip through them. Next your ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend) appears and comes over with her hunk of a new boyfriend / girlfriend who is definitely not into Star Wars figures. You ignore them and they go away. Or maybe you and your friends have a go at their new partner (in a funny way) and they go away. Or maybe they join in the banter and sit down. A couple more friends turn up and you have a good old catch up, take some polaroids and share them around to remember your fun night of drinking and talk. You then go home and write up in your diary some of your experiences of the day, sticking some of those polaroids in place to remember for years to come or look at them and laugh the next time those friends are round at your house. Or maybe you’ll show them to another friend who couldn’t make it.

In the real world this sort of social experience is effortless but prior to Facebook trying to replicate that situation “virtually” was always a compromise. Facebook eloquently lets you do all of the above (except the drinking) with the fact that you have a wall. You can look at the wall, the walls of your friends or a stream of posts on walls of you and your friends all at onces. This is what I find brilliant. The wall is you sat at a table. You add memories to it by uploading pictures, making posts, other people commenting and so on. If you want to know what your friends have been up to lately, or maybe just the friends from your previous company have been up to, then you can find out on Facebook arguably faster than you could do in the real world (assuming they use Facebook).

I know, Facebook didn’t invent the wall, MySpace was using a similar approach and I’m sure plenty of other sites were. It’s just that Facebook refined the idea, concentrated on what it is us humans want to do – interact with each other in a variety of human ways like we do in the real world – and created software that gets out of the way and lets you get on with it. I barely even think about Facebook when I use it and never have – instead I’m thinking about the people I’m interacting with and what I want to do in terms of interacting with them. The friends who’ll see a video of bull frog playing ant crusher I came across. Perusing photos of my brother and what he’s up to. New baby announcements. Videos of friends cats. It’s a great way to stay in touch with people I’d rarely see otherwise.

However there’s a problem. It may be a little too good. I’ve spent the past year or so posting frequently to Facebook. I’d post photos, talk about what I’ve been up to, things going through my head, things I’ve read and pretty much all the things I’d normally do with people in the real world. I’d also take an active part in what my friends were up to, commenting freely. Whenever I’d meet friends for real they’d point out that I was always the most prolific poster and would cut me off telling a story saying they already knew it. So it was working. There was no two ways about it, my friends would stay in touch with me whether they liked it or not (well, unless they unsubscribed).

But did I feel as close to those people through Facebook as in the real world? I’d have to say “no”. It’s all a bit too superficial.

It’s like being a movie star at one of those Hollywood parties where everybody air kisses saying “darling, you look fabulous!” but nobody has a meaningful conversation about anything. Facebook enables a lot more communication and it’s easy to get sucked into that constant craving to see what’s new and if someone’s replied to your post or vice versa. Like that Hollywood party set. But what it doesn’t do is replace sitting around a table just talking to each other. It’s no substitute for the real world and if anything I feel I’ve drifted further away from my real friends as a result. It’s not a substitute for sitting around a table in a bar just talking. More communication doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Facebook is brilliant. You can interact with people without even thinking about it and it can feel like it’s just the same as the real thing. It’s my ideal software – focussing on the human and allowing them to use it effortlessly to interact with other people. But it’s still missing a more meaningful way to stay in touch. I remember when my brother lived in San Francisco and thanks to Skype it made the world seem a lot smaller. In fact I probably spoke to him more then than when he was living in Edinburgh!

Google+ has a feature called “hangouts” that lets you have group video chats. I never really saw the point of it until I saw this ad:

Hangouts are actually very cool, particularly on a phone which is the place I use social software like Facebook 99.9% of the time. Facebook does have video calling, but that’s one to one and you can’t have group conversations which sort of defeats the whole point of it. If Facebook had a slick way to turn a multi-person written conversation or chat into a video conversation that was as effortless as using the rest of its user interface then they’d have an absolute killer feature. Yeah I know Google+ has hangouts and I should switch to Google+ but Facebook has already crossed the generation divide (in that both the parents and children of my friends use it) and I just don’t have room in my life for another social network!

I never normally do New Year Resolutions but this year I’ve decided to spend a lot less time “interacting” on Facebook and a lot more time “interacting” with friends in the real world instead. It may mean less communication and not knowing what everybody is up to at any given time. But it’ll be less communication with a lot more meaning. Unless of course Facebook follows my advice! ;)

P.S. There aren’t 17 thoughts here, I just like the number 17. And making you keep count!

Posted by

Scotsman, footballer, software developer, bounty hunter, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

2 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. John,

    I enjoy your background switcher and use it on my desktop with 2 monitors. It would be nice if I could change each monitor on a different schedule or use different input for each monitor.

    Thx for making it available.

    I have an facebook acct and use it mostly to keep in touch with a few people that do not live near us. However it does seem that for some people Facebook is their default method of communicating. One of them even used it to send out invites to the latest weeding and the kids birthdays.

    Joe

    Reply

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