Maps: a little feature that makes a big difference

My San Francisco, with way too many yellow dots to be useful.

Google Maps has launched a new, smallish feature has been on my list of feature requests for a long time. It consists of giving users more options than a yellow star when saving a place. I love this feature because, as you will see on the right, I save a lot of places. The problem is that saving so many places renders this feature practically useless – who can see the forest for the trees?

Place saving options

Google decided that the new categories to mark special locations, other than a yellow star, are Want to Go and Favorites. Other than those three, users can add their own, custom titles for new categories, called lists.

What I liked:

  1. Different colors for different categories allow users to better identify spots on a map without clicking each one for more information.
  2. Custom lists can save different types of places such as Bakeries, Brunch Spots, Good Hikes, etc. This flexibility is welcome.
  3. There are also three other types of locations with special marks:
    • Events and appointments on the map along with their time and date, which disappear after the event is over.
    • Addresses of select contacts in gray.
    • Spots of interest including photo-worthy tourist stops (marked with a brown camera) and landmarks like museums and important buildings (marked with a brown castle/tower.)
    • Spots that I’ve searched before without saving, though I’m not sure what the criteria for these places are yet.
    • Stores are occasionally marked with a red shopping bag but like other spots, it’s not clear what the rules are for marking them.

All in all, it makes it much easier to see what’s nearby or what’s close to my planned route. That said, I do have a few minor suggestions.

  1. “Want to go” and “Favorites” are two sides of the same coin: the former is before you go, the latter, hopefully, after. Are users supposed to go back and switch the marks after a positive visit? Perhaps Maps can prompt this change after a user has visited the place?
  2. No matter how many extra categories a user defines, they will always be marked with turquoise on the map. This makes the customization useless after one category. Can we have more colors please?
  3. Google can read my appointments from Calendar and email but (understandably) cannot get them from other, non-Google sources such as Slack and Messenger. It would be great to have a way to “send” appointments to Maps.

Finally,  what I love about Maps is that even though it’s extremely efficient in its most basic use case, finding place A and B and getting from one to the other, it never stops adding features that improve the product in different ways for, perhaps, different groups of users. Also, Maps is bucking the trend to spin out features from multi-functional apps into their own standalone app which makes for more efficient interaction but another split moment to decide what app to open. 

Maps is an app I use every day, sometimes several times a day. I rely on it to get places. Any other feature needs to enhance that basic case but also not get in its way. The new place markers do that well.

Super Bowl 2017 advertising: social media is on the sidelines

My favorite Super Bowl moment: the Schuyler sisters, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, sing America the Beautiful before the game.

My favorite Super Bowl moment: the Schuyler sisters, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, sing America the Beautiful before the game.

Even when the actual football is as exciting as it was Sunday, I still watch the Super Bowl for the ads. It never fails to bring out the most interesting, creative, and funny spots, where most brands just want to stand out. This year a 30-second ad spot cost a bit over $5 million and over 113 million Americans watched the game. Last year 112.6 million people watched, easily making it the most watched show in the US for 2016. As a comparison, in second place for 2016 was the post-game show, which drew around 70 million viewers. In third place was the exciting 7th World Series game, which drew a bit over 40 million people. There is nothing like the Super Bowl for getting a lot of Americans watching the TV at the same time.   

To figure out what the advertising world thinks of the web and the second screen viewers are holding in their hands as they watch the game, I noted social media, hashtags, and URLs for all 109 ads shown from right after the national anthem and right up to the beginning of overtime. I noticed a few interesting trends:

  • Social media handles are (almost) nowhere to be found, with only 3 brands including them in the final end-slate. T-Mobile was the only brand that mentioned Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and they ran four different ads. Other than T-Mobile, Pistachios and Positive Coaching Alliance included Twitter handles. No one included Snapchat.
  • Hashtags are a bit more important but also down in popularity. I counted hashtags in 29 ads, about 27%. Danny Sullivan at MarketingLand says that according to his count, hashtag use is down from a high three years ago of 57% to 45% last year and 30% this year (a note below on why his count differs from mine). Some hashtags were specially created to match the Super Bowl ad, such Febreeze with #BathroomBreak, Airbnb’s #WeAccept, Tide’s #BradshawStain and all four of T-Mobile’s, but many were the “generic” brand hashtag, such as Skittle’s #TasteTheRainbow, Sprite’s #WannaSprite, and all those for movies and TV shows. Yet it is interesting to note that brands aren’t interested in driving the conversation to social media, especially Twitter, as much as they had in previous years.  
  • This isn’t to say that social media didn’t play a part. T-Mobile and Verizon started a weird Twitter war some time in the 4th quarter and there were “5.1 million tweets about #Gaga’s performance, and Lady Gaga was mentioned on Twitter 2.1 million times between 7:50 and 8:40 p.m. EST.” So don’t discount the second screen quite yet.
  • URLs were added to 33 ads, around 30%, slightly higher than hashtags.

I’m surprised that the number of hashtags was significantly down and the number of handles was almost nonexistent. Sure, social media has mostly been a tacked-on afterthought on television ads, but for the advertising world to say that it has lost importance over the past few years when both Twitter and Facebook played a huge part in the 2016 elections is astounding.

Also, a note about the count. Danny Sullivan, who has been tracking social media and web mentions for a few years now, counted only 66 ads. He says that “we tried to count only ads that were nationally shown, as best we could, viewing from Los Angeles. Promos for shows on FOX or from the NFL were not included, nor were very short 15-second ads for “The Walking Dead” and Fiji Water.” I omitted promos for my local Fox affiliate but there were some ads that Mr Sullivan didn’t count that I’m pretty sure were national, such as Fitbit, Tide, and Samsung Gear VR. He also counted ads from the kickoff and I counted them from the anthem. By Mr Sullivan’s count, 30% of the ads had hashtags and 41% had URLs. He saw 5 Twitter mentions and 4 each of Facebook and Instagram (he counted every one of T-Mobile’s 4 spots as different mentions). These are still very low numbers.

Finally, the most intriguing and unexpected ad of the game might be a portent of things to come. The ad, for 84 Lumber, ran right before halftime and chronicled the journey of a mother and daughter from Mexico to US. The ad ended before the pair reached the US and called for viewers to continue watching online. The reason for the suspense: “Fox rejected the ad for being too overtly political” as the pair’s journey ended at a big wall. Unfortunately, 84 Lumber, a building supply company, certainly a non-traditional Super Bowl advertiser, wasn’t prepared for viewers to do exactly what they wanted them to do: watch the full ad on their website.

The onslaught of viewers just goes to show that even though they’re watching the big game, viewers are more than willing to look at content on their phones. It will be interesting how ads will look in two years. Will brands push the conversation to social media or will they create more opportunities to continue stories online?

Writing a tech blog in days of political uncertainty

No matter what your political beliefs, if you’re an American, the last two weeks since the inauguration have been, well, interesting. In fact, there is such a stream of breaking, urgent news that there doesn’t seem to be any calm downtime any more. As someone who usually writes about mobile and web consumer products, it’s hard to get excited about the new on demand app (this month: luxury car!) that a young, new startup released in the Silicon Valley bubble I call home.

Yet it’s impossible to ignore tech’s role in recent events. Twitter itself is a contradiction. On one hand Twitter brings all the news that’s happening now to your phone, 24/7. On a well-curated timeline there is always an interesting take on the news that you haven’t heard. On a good day, it’s a way to meet new people, gain new perspective, and learn something. Unfortunately, on a bad day, Twitter is a minefield of trolls, links to fake stories, and links to stories that are completely true but disconcerting. I’ve found that Nuzzel is a good filter for the more important news, while the number of notifications per day is customizable and makes the volume of news articles palatable. I have also found many sites, some new and some that have been around for years but are now focused on organizing marches and meetings, creating support communities, driving calls to Congress, getting signatures for petitions, and, maybe most important, donating money to causes and organizations.

Real time context and fact checking. Source: @RealDonaldContxt

Real time context and fact checking.
Source: @realDonaldContxt

Going back to Twitter. When history tells the story of this period, Twitter will be front and center. On one hand, the unfiltered Tweets of the president can cause a stock to tumble or an ally to question their relationship with the US. This has created calls for suspension, which Twitter so far has ignored. Yet Twitter has also created an outlet for the so-called rogue accounts for various Federal agencies and the Parks. It has also started accounts to fact-check the president’s tweets, and shows the tweet and context as one image. There have also been a slew of interesting products launched on Product Hunt, from Celebrating Immigrants to lists of who is matching donations to the ACLU.

It’s these uses of existing platforms and the creation of new sites and services that give me hope that the tech community is changing. It’s no longer just about creating platforms that “replace their moms” but, perhaps, really is about changing the world. It’s why I continue writing about this industry. Sure, there is the built-for-urban-dwellers-with-high-incomes apps, but there’s also new and interesting takes on how to make a difference.


The messy world of messaging and one way to fix it

Last week Wired wrote about an upcoming update to Google Voice, a service that allows users to set single phone number for all their phone lines that was thought to be on the way out. Wired had these unflattering words to say about Google’s messaging strategy: “It’s been a mess. The company’s moves are haphazard, confusing, and constantly self-defeating.”

Android currently has five different messaging apps: Voice, Hangouts, Messenger, Allo, and Duo. The only two I use regularly are Hangouts, for chats with my gmail contacts, and Voice, for text messaging, though I tried Allo but didn’t have time to recreate my social network there. I also use WhatsApp extensively for messaging and group chats for almost everyone not in the US, Facebook Messenger for friends for whom I don’t have a phone number or email, and Skype for some really ancient (in terms of the length of the relationship) contacts whom I haven’t reconnected with on a more recent service. That’s five messaging services.

Photographs of the Interior of the First National Bank, Philadelphia, PA, 1910 Source:

The Interior of the First National Bank, Philadelphia, PA, 1910. Note the three candelstick phones in the corner.

Vint Cerf, when talking about the early days of networking, said: “the principle goal, back in 1973, was to create a way for computers to communicate with each other… We certainly didn’t want to wind up with a situation parallel to the 1910s and 1920s, when a business had a dozen different telephones sitting on a desk – all using a different proprietary system and requiring a person to know which telephone service to use to reach someone else.

The latter is how messaging works today and we have the modern equivalent of five phones on our desk, different apps for different people in our social circle. Yet that’s not the right flow. The need to contact a friend shouldn’t even be preceded by the thought “what app is she on?” It should be about reaching out to people.

So what can Google do? First, revamp Contacts. What’s in Google Contacts now? Email, phone numbers, and yes, messaging, with pulldown options that include AIM, ICQ, Yahoo, and Skype, but not Facebook or WhatsApp, where handles are unnecessary. Then, the entry itself is static so that unlike where a tap on a phone number initiates a call, a tap on a Skype handle doesn’t launch a Skype call with that handle. This makes the messaging section not just incomplete and time-consuming to set up, but also pretty useless.

To improve Contacts the interaction between it and the messaging apps has to be bidirectional. First, the discovery of the presence of that contact on the app when the contact is added or the app is installed so that the contacts page is always up to date. Second, deeplink each app name and handle pair so that tapping it launches the “contact” action in the app. Third, list and prioritize contacting methods by the frequency and recency of use so that instead of showing email, phone one and phone two at the top of the contact page, list the most frequently used app, be it email, Facebook Messenger, or Hangouts. Implementing this will allow users to open up a contact and just click on one of the top two contact methods. They won’t have to remember who is using what app.

This might work even in today’s competitive landscape. Messaging apps can update Contacts with the right info as it’s created and Contacts has to add smart usage analysis and deeplink. If Google wants Contacts to be the starting point of any conversation, this is the kind of action it needs to have: contact by person, not by app. But please, Google, no more messaging apps for now, I think we’re set.

The state of fashion retail: stores strike back!

Much was made about the rise of online shopping this past holiday season. Amazon, specifically, had a great season but in general online sales increased by 11% over 2015, with mobile sales rising by 23% according to Adobe, who measures 80% of all online transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers.

Yet in a recent mall visit, even with all this growth in online shopping, it’s clear that retail isn’t dead or dying, at least not for fashion. Some stores are making significant changes to keep up with the ease of online shopping while trying to tackle online retailers where they’re weak. A few changes I’ve noticed: 

  • Selection and curation: I see these two as two sides of the same issue. On one hand online stores have an infinite selection. On the other hand, without significant and smart filtering (which most don’t have) the vast selection without any curation is overwhelming. For example, Nordstrom has over six thousand dresses and 9 different filters. That’s more than most but it can still take users too much time to find what they want (too much means that they’ll give up.) There is also the chance that they’ll filter out exactly the dress they want because of a wrong classification on the retailer’s side. I’ve seen this many times when filtering creates an unusually small amount of results. It turns out that the filter applied only brings up those items that have been tagged with that characteristic, which, it turns out, is not all the items that could have matched it.
A typical dress page on Norstrom comes with these comments on size:  Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large. The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.

A typical dress page on Nordstrom comes with these comments on size:
“Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large.
The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.”

Contrast this with a store, where the selection has already been somewhat cut down to fit the store’s size and items are displayed in style and age based departments to help shoppers find the group of items that most interests them quicker. Add a salesperson who knows the store’s product line and takes the time to understand what the shopper needs can cut that time down even more. The accessible, knowledgeable, in-store personal stylist hasn’t been really replicated by online stores and retailers are quickly picking up on that. Many that seek to help customers out almost right away, leading them to the products they’re interested in and keeping tab while the customer is in the fitting room, bringing more styles and more sizes.  Some overcome the store’s limited selection problem by offering to ship products that aren’t in stock at the store for free.

  • Fitting room at Bloomingdale's, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fitting room at Bloomingdale’s, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fit: Speaking of size, the topic of fit is the Achilles Heel of online clothing stores. Sizes given by stores are misleading, to say the least. The typical product page will have the item of clothing in 4-5 different views, with most of them showing the item as worn by a tall, size 4 model. If you’re one of the lucky people with the same body type as the model, then you can predict how an item will fit you. If not, you can resort to clicking to a size chart and measuring yourself, trying to figure out what to do if your hips match a medium but your waist matches a large. Ask any woman how hard it is to buy t-shirts online (women’s fit sizes vary greatly by brand, style, and fabric) and she will give you multiple examples of how it has gone wrong. In stores, fit can be determined right away, and some stores are even upping the ante by upgrading their fitting rooms with more space and better lighting. They’ve realized that this is an advantage they should exploit.

  • Immediacy: With Amazon trying to drop shipping times to less than a day, and in some special cases a few hours, it’s reasonable to believe that instant gratification is no longer a drawback to online shopping. Yet what works for Amazon, who are leading the fulfillment game, is not quite there yet for other online retailers, where shipping times are at least a few days. If a customer wants an item today, a store is the best option.
  • Hassle: In an ideal world, online shopping should be hassle-free. A click, a short checkout, and voila, the item is on your porch within a week. If only that were always the case. Shipments are delayed, delivered to wrong addresses, not delivered and sent back, or stolen. Then, if the item doesn’t fit,  or its color is wrong, or the hemline shorter than expected, it needs to be returned, either to a store or by arranging pickup or drop off, hopefully without additional charges. This is specifically relevant for clothes:  Americans return $260 billion in goods each year, and 80 percent of those are clothes or accessories, according to MarketWatch.
  • Personalization: Online wins this one simply because they know who the customer is from the moment they click to their site. Online retailers know the shopper’s size, color and style preferences, and all previous orders. Stores have to rely on good salespeople to get the job done. It’s interesting that I haven’t seen stores try to match the shopper with their customer database at any point before checkout, where they’ll either ask for a loyalty card, email address, or phone number. Why is this not determined beforehand, when the customer is looking around, or better yet, in the fitting room? If my Victoria’s Secret saleslady knew my previous purchases she could make recommendations of updated styles of my previous purchases in just my size. Personal shoppers at high-end stores do this, but that’s with a limited client list.
  • The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The experience: This is something I see more and more not just in fashion stores but also for outdoor gear and beauty. Some of the newer stores are putting a lot of effort into decor, scent, simulated environments, and even in-store cafes. The goal for retailers is to make the in-store experience fun and make the customer come in and linger, but it works only for high-end brands, not big-box retailers.

The bottom line is that brick and mortar stores, especially the high-end, are putting resources where they make a difference, investing in design and hiring better salespeople. Not all stores have realized this yet. On that same bra-shopping expedition, I stopped at 3 other stores before Victoria’s Secret where there was no salesperson in sight to help narrow down the selection and help with a fit. Yet the stores that do get it, that are getting it, are making shopping a better, faster experience than online.

Google’s accelerated mobile pages (AMP) – good or bad?

I was ambivalent about Google AMP until yesterday. Up till then my opinion of it was based on my experience as a reader. I liked the super-fast loading pages, the consistent, clean formating, and the banning of third-party scripts (which occasionally could increase a page load time by seconds.) There was advertising, but there wasn’t any obnoxious pop-up, hard-to-close ads. I didn’t like the difficulty of sharing posts. Every time I wanted to share and Tweet an AMP page, I had to work hard to find the actual, non-Google, link to the page.

Then yesterday I received an interesting comment on this blog:

Is google hijacking your website ? (Shows it, but from their server, not yours)

And how did u prefill my email ? This is getting really weird. I’m notifying, consumer protection agencies.

My blog post on AMP. No easy way to share or continue to read other blog posts.

My blog post on AMP. No easy way to share or continue to read other blog posts.

The commenter added a link to a screenshot of the post as he saw it and sure enough, it was hosted on Google France and as far as I could tell was an AMP page. I can only interpret their anger at a prefilled email as perhaps being logged in on Google, Chrome, or WordPress in some manner. Yet this comment speaks to an interesting dilemma: the optimization vs the ownership of content and the perception of that ownership. In order to get that fast, clean page, Google strips away much of the branding and formatting that made it unique.

It also leads to less attachment to a news source, not just because the pages lack much branding, but also because AMP pages make it very difficult to continue browsing the source site. The AMP pages are, to users, part of Google. They’re similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles, another attempt to create fast loading content but keep it in Facebook’s garden.

To publishers, especially mainstream media, already fighting for attention in a crowded space, competing against new, upstart content sites, and trying to establish credibility with new and old readers, this is another hurdle. By only showing a single, disconnected article, it reduces brand recognition and erodes trust, plus it doesn’t allow publishers to build up a fan base. The only advantage Google AMP has over Facebook for publishers is that it might be easier to optimize for SEO, whereas Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is harder to anticipate. Yet neither will help them in the long run. It’s another benefit for smaller, lesser-known publishers and in today’s media landscape, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The language of privacy – will it change?

Today I stumbled across a British privacy report that re-wrote Instagram’s Privacy Policy for teens in non-legalese English. While not commonly a product issue, Terms of Service and Privacy Statements can have an impact on users, especially when they run afoul of them. Jenny Afia, the lawyer who rewrote the terms, believes everyone, but especially teens, should be paying attention. Says Afia: “once people become more aware of what they are giving up, they will demand better terms.” She adds that users “don’t know what is being done, so no one is saying can it be done differently.”

I love the clear and explicit language that Ms Afia has used in her rewritten TOS and I wish all services and apps used it. Here are just two comparisons that I thought were interesting.

First, on what kind of information Instagram collects, from Instagram’s privacy policy: “We collect the following types of information… Information you provide us directly:

  • Your username, password and email address when you register for an Instagram account.
  • Profile information that you provide for your user profile (e.g., first and last name, picture, phone number). This information allows us to help you or others be “found” on Instagram.
  • User Content (e.g., photos, comments, and other materials) that you post to the Service.
  • Communications between you and Instagram. For example, we may send you Service-related emails (e.g., account verification, changes/updates to features of the Service, technical and security notices). Note that you may not opt out of Service-related e-mails.”

Contrast that with Ms Afia’s, who summarizes five bullets into this paragraph: “This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

Second, on advertising. From Ms Afia: “We might send you adverts connected to your interests which we are monitoring. You cannot stop us doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advert.” Contrast with Instagram’s “we may use the information that we receive to… provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing” under the “how we use your information” section. Also: “this information would allow third-party ad networks to, among other things, deliver targeted advertisements that they believe will be of most interest to you” under the “sharing of your information” section. It’s not just that Ms Afia’s is clearer and more direct, it’s hard even finding the passages in Instagram’s terms of service that speak of advertising, how it works, and the data it is based on.

Instagram on a cold day.

Instagram on a cold day.

Not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to the relation between legalese and actual liability, but I do wish that privacy policies were as straightforward, understandable, and as short as Ms Afia has done. Users tend to blindly agree to all terms when signing up for a service but Pew Research shows that the attitude of acceptance may be changing: Some 74% say it is “very important” to them that they be in control of who can get information about them, and 65% say it is “very important” to them to control what information is collected about them. Yet “half of those surveyed said they felt confident they understood how their information would be used, 47% said they were not, and many of these people felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies.”

It will be interesting to see if, driven by these changing sentiments, companies change their stance on privacy policies and terms of service statements and start making them more user-friendly.