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A Path Less Traveled By

April 30, 2013

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I came across two articles in the past couple days talking about Path, the “more intimate social network” and messaging app that made me think about the choices we make as creators and producers in business.

One trumpeted how Path was now signing up 1 MM users a week to reach 10 MM users. The other detailed how a good chunk of a user’s entire contact database got texted (and telephoned) during the 30 minutes that he had Path installed on his phone (or shortly thereafter).

Text messages in the wild
The gist of what happened to the (very embarrassed) user is that, apparently, as soon as he signed up, Path scanned his phone’s contact database and started messaging everybody to let them know that he had photos to share with them (which he didn’t). He knows he didn’t opt-in to this sharing. He’s pretty sure he opted out.

Regardless, at 6 AM his grandparents’ phone is ringing and reading out the (automated) text message from Path that he has photos he wants to share with them (apparently UK landlines will read text messages. Cool.). He spent the rest of the day in damage control (and also managed to write a very entertaining post).

We can’t be responsible for user error… Right?
I get that it’s very possible that it was “user error” to not opt-out of inviting all of his “friends” (which included, apparently his dad, his grandparents, his aunt, work colleagues, two plumbers, his dentist, an electrician, and his girlfriend’s grandparents).

Leaving aside the fact that a social network billed as being for “family and close friends” really has no business doing a random scan of a phone contact database and mass mailing the whole kit and kaboodle, what this highlights is what the typical user of software is up against.

Danger in the land of defaults
We accept hundreds of default selections all the time. Not doing so would be completely untenable. Who has read through a Terms of Use recently? A privacy policy? I for one sometimes feel like I can barely manage to make sure that I’m booking my plane flight for the right dates let alone read through the website TOS, the common carrier terms, the baggage restrictions, and the extra fees.

So is it our fault as users for not being careful? Yes.

But, on the other hand there is no doubt that Path knows exactly what it’s doing. Dave Morin, Path’s CEO, from the first article:

“Once we released Path 3.0, which had some improvements around helping people invite their friends, we’ve really started to grow in new and different markets.”

Well, um, yes. Go figure.

I’m a Web and app designer, having worked on or led product development for dozens of web and mobile apps. These are choices that we make very consciously.

When we lead a user through a registration flow, we debate how many fields the registration ought to have, how many screens, and whether the checkbox ought to be opt-in or opt-out. We prototype. We test. We re-order things. We test again. We release what works best and then iterate with real-time data. Absolutely no doubt Path knew that this was “working”.

It works…but for what?
And here is the critical question: how do we define what works best? What kind of (gulp) moral guidance do we use to make that determination?

Could it be that there’s a place to ask the question: what does “loving your neighbor as yourself” look like…in app design? (i.e., Would you want your plumber invited to your “intimate social network”?) What about in service pricing?

Absent questions like these, we end up completely powerless against the logic of “technique” which Jacques Ellul so perceptively characterized in his Technological Society. We work with what we can measure (daily active users, monthly active users, registrations per hour, revenue) and throw virtue to the wind as too ethereal, too ill-defined, and too irrelevant. We optimize what we can measure and we end up with choices that we believe are completely amoral.

Unfortunately, most creators and designers will take the more well-worn path.

Photo credit: Flickr creativelenna

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2 Comments
  1. meritandgrace permalink

    I think the last question you asked is the right one. It works…but for what?

    If we assume loving your neighbor is the dimension along which things should “work”, then it seems like it substitutes or at least subordinates a metric for a heuristic: “love your neighbor as you love yourself”.

    Instead of merely measuring which activities maximize daily active users, revenue, etc. and assuming such improvements are good, Dave Morin could have simply asked if automatically having all the contacts in his own address book blasted with notifications would be helpful to him and the problematic default would have been prevented right there.

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      Yes, that’s exactly right. I think the underlying problem is that there are certain things that we can measure and which we, understandably, optimize for. There are others that we can’t measure but which may be significantly more important.

      Not meaning to pick on Dave Morin, per se–Path’s got a lot of designers and developers and he’s probably not making these specific decisions–but the general idea holds that choices we make reflect values. And there’s a strong tendency to value what can be measured at the expense of the immeasurable but important.

      If, indeed, our work of creating and designing is to serve and to love our neighbor, then, yes, the metric should be subordinated to that question.

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