Facebook Spaces: what it is now and what it could be

This week at Facebook’s F8 conference I had a chance to try out Facebook Spaces, their new virtual meeting place for groups. As a non-gamer and someone who has only tried VR in passive, sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show applications, I was curious to see what a “VR for everyone” product looked and felt like.

My avatar taking a selfie in a virtual bazaar in Facebook Spaces.

At F8, Facebook set up a two-station approach to trying out Spaces. The first one was one to set up a Spaces avatar and link it to my Facebook account. This was done via an Oculus Rift headset and Touch controllers. The setup was about as clunky as any other avatar setup with menus of everything from eye and hair color to hair style and glasses shape. Facebook did add a nice shortcut by asking me which of my Facebook photos of myself I’d like to use as a base, so that right off the bat my avatar started with brown hair, glasses, and more or less my skin tone. On to station two, the actual “space.”

Three participants trying out Spaces at F8.

For demo purposes, Facebook put together stations with two guests and a Facebook “host” to walk us through the features. Again we donned the Rift headgear and Touch controllers and once in the VR space, our host walked us through some places she had 360 VR videos of, which were stunning, and we were able to take selfies, scribble in the air, and talk to each other. It was fun and in some ways I can see it becoming some sort of place to meet.

That said, Spaces doesn’t compare favorably to its main “bringing people together” competitor, the video call. Video brings an instant immediacy and intimacy to communication that Spaces doesn’t match, not that it tries to. It’s also much easier to access. Spaces is supposed to be fun, a place for friends. Yet it’s exactly this coolness factor that has the danger of becoming boring and mundane after a few sessions.

Can it catch on? Video calls a decade ago required users to add a camera, microphone and speakers to their desktop and even many laptops did not have them built in. Today they are on our phones, part of almost every messaging app, so that a high quality video call is relatively accessible with a mid-market phone and good connectivity. That said, the total cost video call hardware was never as expensive as an Oculus Rift at close to $600. Spaces also has the disadvantage of being a more expensive platform and, hence, will be more exclusive, with less users able to participate. The question is will our fascination with VR hold on until the tech becomes cheaper and more intuitive to use.

Finally, I see a different potential application for Spaces: education. The VR immersion in different worldwide locations was beautiful. Imagine that in an application  with a teacher/guide taking students around the world, in space, inside the human body, to places they have never been. Then imagine that for people without mobility, going places that they couldn’t travel to in life. That’s where Spaces has the opportunity to do something amazing and become more than a cool game.

Toll Roads – adding another dimension to Google Maps

Yes, I’m going to talk about Google Maps again. I know, I’ve been writing a lot about travel apps, but they are one of the most popular mobile apps category and a road trip in new places always surfaces new needs.

Our road trip took place in the approximately 250 mile distance between New York City and Washington DC. Our way had multiple toll roads, bridges, tunnels, and pay-to-use express lanes. All were conveniently paid for by an in-car transponder, the EZPass which we had to load with funds every few days. Our tolls ranged from a high of $11.52 to cross the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge to $0.50 for a section of the New Jersey turnpike. That said, it’s not always obvious on the road how much a certain highway, express lane, bridge, or tunnel actually costs and I was quite surprised at the variation when the fees appeared on my EZPass bill. All our routes were decided on by Google Maps, where the goal is clearly to minimize travel time.

The system of toll roads in the mid-Atlantic states present a different challenge to route planning. It’s not just about the fastest way to get from point A to point B, but could also be about the cheapest way. The only way Maps deals with the cost issue is by allowing users to avoid highways, toll roads or ferries when planning a route, which unfortunately ends up being too crude as completely avoiding toll roads for a longer journey creates unnecessary and long detours. When the way between point A and B has multiple, crisscrossing freeways connecting it, where some are toll roads and others not, some have pay-to-use express lanes and some just regular HOV lanes, finding the best route shouldn’t be just a question of time. Also consider that that the toll highways and express lanes will almost always be less congested than a parallel highway, so perhaps the Maps algorithm prefers them right off the bat.

So, how can Maps help users with toll roads?

  • Google Map, three alternate routs from JFK Airport to Philadelphia, all with similar times, all on some toll roads. Labels currently include travel time and toll road icon.

    Step one: include cost per route. There are already tags on routes to denote travel time on the selected route and additional/less time on alternate routes, so users are already used to looking for that additional information. The tags currently have a “this road includes tolls” icon, but no cost breakdown.Also, it’s not always obvious on the road how much a certain road, bridge, or tunnel actually costs and I was quite surprised at the variation when the costs appeared on my EZPass bill. 

  • Step two: offer more route options. Currently Maps offers two or three but that doesn’t seem like it would be enough to offer users the combination of time and cost that make sense to them. Citymapper, for example, offered 17 different subway and bus combinations to get from Bryant Park to Hamilton Grange in New York under groupings that include 5 routes under the Suggested header, 4 under the Bus Only header, 4 under Subway Only, and 3 under Rain Safe. All include travel time and cost. So while it is easy to just pick the top suggested route and get going when in a rush, it’s also easy to take a quick glance at all options when there are additional concerns.
  • Step 3: be smarter. The overarching directive to find the fastest route doesn’t consider possible compromises when a user is willing to, say, spend 5 more minutes on the road but avoid a $10 charge. Because that tradeoff can be individual, Maps will need to offer a list routes, not just two or three “best” ones. It also needs to start learning from user behaviour to start prioritizing the routes that are a better fit. These are exactly the on-the-fly tradeoffs in cost and time that machine learning can do best: solving problems that are “easy for machines and hard for humans

The interesting question is why hasn’t Maps done this up to know? Is it a product blindness due to lack of exposure? Up until about a year ago, the San Francisco Bay Area had tolls only on the bridges and recently added pay to use express lanes, so I wouldn’t have thought to add cost to routes because not taking a bridge in the Bay Area is a significant detour. Or maybe cost just isn’t an issue for most users who just care about time? Though even without adding route options and balancing speed and cost, Maps should at least provide the expected tolls. Just that would help tourists immensely (and I bet a few locals, too!)

What’s your favorite app?

It seems like an innocent question, right? One that you could answer after a second or two of thought? After all, you use your phone every hour, every day. Surely you know what your favorite app is, right?

I gave that question some thought this week as a product management exercise. As exercises go, it provoked more questions than answers. Picking a favorite app is not so simple because there several factors that don’t always align. Here are those I considered:

  1. How often do you use it? There are apps that I use every day, several times a day such as Google Maps. I couldn’t live without it and need it, especially on my phone but it’s not my favorite app.
  2. Is it a way to access another service? I use the Twitter, Facebook and Slack apps every day to see what’s going on with my friends and catch up with current events. Yet those are benefits of the service, not the app. Lyft might be a necessary app on your phone, but it’s not about the app, it’s about the service.
  3. Does it provide access to utilities? Our phones allow us to answer email, manage our calendar, and call and text our contacts. Yet these, too, are a service and don’t often become favorite apps. We need them on our phones because need to access them when we are away from a computer.
  4. Does it enable access to content? Media apps allow easier access to their sometimes paywalled content than a mobile browser. Some are better than others and do a great job aggregating and presenting their content, but the app is still defined by that content.

The Nazareth Iris photographed in the wild by my mom and shared on WhatsApp

So what’s left? Maybe it’s time to channel Marie Kondo and ask what apps spark joy? Alternatively, what apps make our lives easier and, in doing that, cause delight in unexpected ways, be it because of efficiency or the information or service they provide. Finally, do we really use them or are they a sort of a critic’s choice: fancy, well designed, but don’t provide a clear benefit. So after a lot of thinking, these are my favorite apps:

  1. Citymapper, the public transportation app. Citymapper provides a service that other apps do, such as Google Maps and Moovit. It tells you how to get from point A to point B using public transportation, but it does so in a way that outshines the competition. Citymapper has become indispensable on trips as a source of information, but, perhaps more importantly, it completely changed my behavior while on a trip. Instead of begrudgingly taking out a map and trying to figure out stops, or, more likely, switching between a map app to find stations and a public transport app to find train routes, or hailing a taxi just to get there, I now embrace subways, metros and undergrounds. It’s easy to find a station, to find the right train and platform at the station, and to get out at the best exit at the destination. Unlike Google Maps, which offers one or two different transportation options, Citymapper offers 8 or 10 (in New York, at least) along with weather-safe routes, walking, biking and ridesharing options.
  2. WhatsApp, Facebook’s messaging app. Similarly to Citymapper, WhatsApp provides a service many, many other apps do: a platform for sharing content with your social circle. Like Citymapper, it manages to outshine the competition in one, unexpected way: it got many of friends, who had never shared anything on any other social platform before, share photos and text and participate in conversations.  I credit this newfound sharing capability to WhatsApp’s instinctive UI, which makes it extremely easy to post content, coupled with the security of posting to a closed and known group. There is no unintended sharing to larger groups on WhatsApp or a chance of the content being reshared and I think it is this limitation that has prompted my social circle to share more often.

So what’s your favorite app?

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: OfficeMuseum.com

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

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.