Thursday, June 05, 2008

The age of mega-participation in micro-doses

I was induced to write this post (after so very long, I know) by the expected yet amazing victory of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. Look back to 18 odd months ago, & he was the underdog who would have to face the challenge of the formidable Clinton machinery & clout. Fast-forward to today, & it has been one remarkable journey. One could speculate about what it is that spurred such fervor & devotion for this relatively unknown young candidate (a key factor does seem to have been the contrast Obama's message provided to the seemingly unending bad news on all fronts coupled with a brazen & unheeding Bush Administration, & more-of-the-same-old-guard Clinton aura).

What I'd rather do, though, is focus on the effectiveness of Obama's fund-raising, & try & understand why that happened. By all accounts, his campaign has raised a staggering $40-50 million each month for the first few months of 2008. It speaks, of course, to how effectively they tapped into the pocketbooks of the masses ( it's said that the highest individual contribution is $130); but as a keen observer of the transformations that the internet is making to the world & its institutions, I see this as at yet another example of how people will express themselves through whatever means available; here, ordinary people have made contributions of $5 or 10 or 20, & have so transformed & empowered a campaign, & in the process have empowered themselves: that they are able to make a difference, that they have will have a say in bringing about change & making things happen. I am not sure such an overwhelming wave of support would have been possible in the early stages of any elections in the absence of the internet.

And while it is true that the technology has made it easier to participate in this manner very easily, I suspect the forces that drive such participation have more to do with the psyche of people in this era of participation; we have just come to expect as very natural that anyone can write ( or upload pictures or videos) about the World Economic Forum or the events in Myanmar or the China earthquake. We have simply gotten quickly accustomed to seeing ourselves as producers/ creators/ builders as well as consumers.
So, just as we are seeing the micro-contributions of millions & millions of amateurs to the huge proliferation of news & content on the web ( a photo here, a video there, a comment there, a minor edit of wikipedia), I believe we are seeing the same phenomenon at play here in US politics: that the average Joe need not stand by idly feeling helpless while the forces determine how things will play out. The average Joe can quickly make a contribution of some money, any amount works; as they say, 'Mighty oaks from acorns grow', & the Obama success so far is one impressive oak! One look at the Obama website reveals that the visitor is greeted with the 'Make a contribution' page ( not much subtlety there, but it's possible their research has shown that that is the page supporters want to reach first). However, once past this splash screen, the website offers umpteen ways for people to participate: make calls, find Obama supporters near you, organize, plan events, volunteer your time, etc. They also appear to have a strong social network component: get together with groups in your city, for example. But then again, one would need to compare this website with websites of other campaigns: my feeling is content-wise, they will not be all that different. So definitely, campaigns have to be multi-pronged, multi-channel affairs, with the bulk of the connection happening through personal visits by candidates, & with the internet being one very powerful arm to ease some of the organizational challenges.

What's also very interesting to me is how much is read into the messaging & tone of a website (of course, colored by one's leanings & prejudices). After the recent turn of events with Hillary Clinton bowing out of the race, her website today displays a simple form for visitors to fill up to show their support for Hillary. When I first saw it this morning, it did strike me as a bit curious since this seemed to go contrary to the news that she had conceded to Obama. Later in the evening, I was watching CNN & heard that they have received a thousand comments on their blog about the Obama victory today, & the anchor then started to read a few of these comments; one struck me as very telling: a reader had written in about his/ her disgust at the Clinton site still seeking support & in this very in-your-face manner; it reinforced, to this person, the lack of grace & class that Hillary has displayed all through her campaign, & that even when she knew she was down & out, she was still resorting to meaningless tactics such as drumming up support.
This conveys to me how sophisticated we are becoming with the medium of the web: we are not tone-deaf at all when it comes to the web, but are reading so much more into the web fronts of the candidates. It was as if Hillary committed the faux pas of not making eye contact at the right time in a one-on-one conversation.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

More is less

I just watched this video The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less from a talk the speaker Barry Schwartz gave at Google. I have to admit this was a much better experience than the talk here at Google NY that I went to last month.

Anyways, so this video has really set my mind racing, it's actually one of those rare occasions when you can see a theory relating so directly with life. The speaker talks about why more & more choices are weighing people down with a heavy cognitive load in terms of deciding between all the options, why affluent societies are experiencing more unhappiness than ever before, why striving for the best next gadget or the best address in town is so self-defeating....

But aside from the philosophical overtones of less consumption & simple living which will never lose their appeal for me, there's a lot of food for thought here:

  • as digital designers, there is a whole lot we can do for users here: not just by creating simpler, meaningful products rather than falling into the trap of feature-bloat, but also by practising a concept this speaker cites, namely libertarian paternalism. In simpler terms, it means that we as application designers can make choices for users that are in their best interest, at the same time giving them the choice to reverse it. The theory ( & practice too) goes that people are likely to stay with the decision you have made anyway, but would have been confounded had they been given a choice. Is this true for you, or would you rather have every choice offered to you so that you can actively choose one?
  • Professor Schwartz also talks about the concept of the agent playing a very important role in shielding the customer/ client from the burden of choice; the agent picks a single or small number of choices from the vast array available. This brings to mind the great job the small pop-and-mom grocery stores in India do for their customers: unlike walking through aisles full of similar products as one does in a typical American supermarket, I can just call up my kirana store asking for the best deals in say cooking oils or in laundry detergent; he quickly offers 2 or 3 of the best choices I have, & the job is done. When you couple that with totally personalised service (delivering the stuff to my doorstep, no matter what the value of the total order; always greeting me as bhabhiji, a very sweet Hindi word that means sister-in-law), it is not hard to see why these kirana stores will survive & thrive in India, despite all the fears of big business houses joining hands with American retail giants to take over the Indian retail market.
  • The recent explosive growth of India & China is seeing unprecedented waves of consumerism engulfing these places. In fact, to paraphrase Kaushik Basu's recent article on the BBC website, on a trip to China & then India, he is astounded by the huge consumption trip these two countries ( at least the urban areas) are on. He jokes that it would appear in comparison that to get away from the vast-scale consumerism, one would need to go west, to Europe & America!
    I myself have sensed this on my recent trips to India: a craving for the best brands, the latest gadgets, the flashiest car & home. Weddings & even birthdays warrant conspicuous displays of wealth. The sprouting of the umpteenth shopping mall still has people all agog with excitement. Restaurants are always full, even the expensive ones ( By the way, most of them are, expensive that is. The boom is digging deep into the average Indian's pocket, just as medical tourism has resulted in locals paying three to four times what they earlier paid for basic services such as blood tests & xrays.
Let me what you think about all this!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Defining who/what you are, & more importantly, what you are not

FoundIt has evolved, a little at a time, but based on my own fascination with helping to get to information when we need it. The problems now are problems of plenty: there is too much information even on our own computers, & a lot of what we do everyday may be easily avoided, if only we remembered that we had done this before, & have the stuff somewhere.

So the current FoundIt you see now is one that has grown organically out of our understanding & experiences with managing information,as well as what some early user surveys revealed. But this version is still an underpainting. Those of you not familiar with this term, an underpainting comprises the initial broad strokes that a painter puts on the canvas, to essentially map out masses & tones on the canvas, oftentimes using a single color such as sepia or a yellow ochre. This is a great means to break down all the decisions that go into a painting into manageable, distinguishable ones. Once the artist is happy with what he sees in the underpainting, she can start to put in more detail & volume & color.

So with FoundIt, the underpainting is in place. The way we hope to develop FoundIt is organically, based on your experiences & what you'd like to see the application do. I see the latest issue of Time magazine has 'You' as Person of the Year, because well, you control the information age. This isn't really as ridiculous as it sounds at first. There has been a huge shakedown of a lot of institutions in the last year or two: big media, publishing, social software that makes ordinary people capable of contributing to & being heard in a way never seen before. And as a designer, I do believe that the best applications need to be made from the inside out, growing & developing based on actual needs & experiences. So FoundIt will continue its goal of an application that brings your key information to the forefront, just in time, every time.

And equally we have to be clear about what we will not be. In the recent weeks that we have been promoting FoundIt with various groups/ people, blogs, we have heard back from a Venture Capitalist or two that they are interested only in funding social software. That's interesting but oddly, we had gotten in touch with them because they are avid bloggers & not because we were looking for VC money. But it certainly got me thinking that if one did need a lot of money to get up & running, one would spend not only a lot of time & energy in other activities such as writing business plans & making ridiculous 5 year forecasts, but that one would also be under immense pressure to alter the complexion & nature of the product. We are more than willing to shape this & other products based on user feedback; but to have a financier twist you out of shape simply because everyone in their tribe is looking to birth the next YouTube or MySpace is absurd. At least to me. And thankfully for us, we do not need millions of dollars to bring our ideas to fruition.

And so we will continue down the path of organic, evolutionary growth.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Download FoundIt now!

We are now offering FoundIt beta free to download. Some links of interest:

What is FoundIt [Download available from the right column of this same page]

Product Tour

This is just the beginning. We aim to explore exciting ideas in interface design for information retrieval, as also bringing meaningful information to you the user. So try FoundIt, & send us your feedback.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

FoundIt beta is ready for release!!!

We are very excited to be releasing FoundIt(beta) for you to try out. FoundIt is a web-based application that gives you a bird's eye-view of all the files & documents on your computer. In addition it allows you to tag & chunk content for easier retrieval & re-use.

So check out the FoundIt page & sign up to try FoundIt.