Marco on The Surface

Marco on The Surface is a great subjective account of visiting a Microsoft store and trying to have a go on a Surface Tablet. This bit sums it all up:

The Surface is partially for Microsoft’s world of denial: the world in which this store contains no elephants and Microsoft invented the silver store with the glass front and the glowing logo and blue shirts and white lanyards and these table layouts and the modern tablet and its magnetic power cable. In that world, this is a groundbreaking new tablet that you can finally use at work and leave your big creaky plastic Dell laptop behind when you go to the conference room to have a conference call on the starfish phone with all of the wires and dysfunctional communication.

Kickstarting the Light Fantastic

I just backed a new Kickstarter project, Light by Moore’sCloud. What is it? Here:

The light that turns you on
Beautiful, intelligent, connected light.

Fifty-two LEDs in two million colors add up to infinite possibilities of pattern and animation. With a powerful computer and Wifi connectivity, there’s no end to the ways Moore’sCloud Light can work for you. It’s the light you’ll live your life by.

It’s a light that you can play with and connect to and come up with all sorts of ideas for. Don’t let the stills fool you into thinking it’s something as basic as Philips’s LivingColor lamps. It’s much more powerful than that. It makes more sense to watch the video:

Why am I backing it? Apart from the fact it looks like a fabulous idea, Mark Pesce is behind it. Mark was the inventor of VRML, wrote several excellent books, including The Playful World, which had a big influence on my PhD and he’s also a friend of mine. He’s no flake and I’m very certain they are going to deliver.

So far they have around $80k of their $700k goal, so go and back it and get one for yourself.

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems has already been blogged by John Gruber so you have already read it, so this is more for my own reference as anyone else’s.

In case you haven’t already seen it, Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon maps the entertainment ecosystems – Music, Movies, TV Shows, eBooks and App stores – of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon across the planet with some nice interaction HTML5 maps.

It makes for interesting reading/viewing. Note how absent Africa is from most of the maps apart from eBooks and Apps and North Africa is pretty much absent from all of them.

(And if you find that interesting, you’ll love Worldmapper – one of my favourite sites to explore data cartographically).

Dropbox’s Mental Models Are Broken

As Dropbox develops and expands, decisions they have made early on are tying them, and their users, in knots. The biggest problem they have is that they keep shifting their mental models of how their service works and it has broken Dropbox and exposed many Dropbox Teams users to real privacy problems.

It’s A Server, Oh No It Isn’t!

Most new Dropbox users, using it on a desktop machine, immediately think it is like a shared server. That’s the mental model many people have from either working in development teams or simply working in corporate environments or sharing files across a network. In that model, the server content is the master. Drag a file from the server to your own folders and a local copy is made. As many people found out the hard way, this is not how Dropbox works.

It’s A Shared Folder, Locally Stored and Synced. Or Is It?

Dropbox does not work like a server, but as a folder synced from the cloud version locally with your machine. Move something out of Dropbox, and it’s not synced anymore. Most people get this straight away, but tend to make the not-a-server mistake above when they first share folders with people.

The fact that changes you make on your local machine change files and folders on someone else’s local machine an odd mental model to get your head around. Once you have understood it, you understand the model that sharing happens at the folder level. You can invite people to join a folder and you can also kick them off the folder or they can leave of their own accord (and choose to keep their copy of the folder’s data).

To add to the complication, Dropbox users used to have a folder called Public, where they put files they wanted to share, but no longer. Now you can share links to individual files from any folder, so it’s redundant. And, of course, you can invite anyone to share any folder.

Weirdly, though, Dropbox have to break this mental model in order to keep some sanity in the world. Once shared, individual users can move or rename shared folders without it affecting the other people’s folders who are sharing it. This makes sense on one level, because if you decide to put our shared folder “OurProject” inside your own Projects folder and rename it to. “Project With Andy Folder” I don’t want to suddenly find it has moved and renamed on my machine.

So, the mental model is that it is like a shared folder, locally synced, except for its name and location. Kind of like an alias/shortcut (except Dropbox doesn’t really handle aliae properly on non-desktop devices).

Okay, that’s rather idiosyncratic, but I can get my head around it until someone starts asking me where they should find a file we are both working on on their Dropbox. The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Where is that file we are working on?”
“It’s in the OurProject folder.”
“Where is that?”
“You know, the one I shared with you.”
“I think I put it inside another shared folder, but one that is not shared with you.”
“That’s okay, the OurProject folder is still shared with me. But now you have shared it with everyone else who has access to your shared folder you put your version of OurProject folder into.”
“I renamed it too. I already had an OurProject folder in that other folder.”
“Then I have no idea where it is on your machine, nor whether you are syncing to the same version that I am anymore.”
“Wait, there’s another folder in my Dropbox called OurProject(2). What’s the (2) for?”

So, folders are like shared, synced folders, but not really in these special use cases.

Shared Folders Are Twice As Big As You Think

Still with me? Good, but we haven’t even begun to talk about the oddity of shared storage quotas in which the files you put in the shared folder from your Dropbox also counts against mine. That means the 100MB file we are sharing takes 100MB off my storage quota and 100MB off of yours, effectively meaning that it counts as 200MB in total, but only if you are still stuck in that previous mental model of Dropbox being like a server.

If you have a Pro account and someone else has a free account, you can completely shaft the other person by dumping a load of files in a shared folder that eat up all their storage quota. Okay, lets live with that oddity for the moment – it kind of still makes sense in the Dropbox-is-a-shared-space-at-the-folder-level model.

Did I mention Dropbox’s tag line is “Simplify Your Life”?

Dropbox Pro gives Me More Space

Apart from all the extra space you get for referrals (a process that soon starts to get saturated as everyone else you know already has Dropbox), you can add extra storage quota by paying for it, like I did – $99 for a total of 100GB plus my referral quota.

Great! Now we’re really rocking along with this Dropbox thing as the centre of our digital lives and put almost all our files in it. I know how to share folders, my workmates share folders with me and all is good in the world of multi-device cloud-joy access. Work machine? No problem, Dropbox lets me access my home files too. Smartphone or tablet? Sorted. I can whip out my iPhone, download the PDF I made last night and mail it to you.

Most of all, I understand the model that, if I pay more, I get more space for me personally. That works, but we’re such Dropbox hipsters, we should sign up for Dropbox Teams and get a whopping 1TB of storage between us and save us from having to cobble together all our personal accounts.

Dropbox Teams Shares at the Account Level

This is where the mental model changes again, and breaks. One of our team signs up our organisation to Dropbox Teams. You can’t have two instances/accounts of Dropbox on a machine, by (foolhardy) design, unless you use a hack. Of course, none of us want to lose our private accounts and screw up all the dependencies we have on it for our cloud-syncing happiness, so we link our personal accounts to the Dropbox Teams account.

The first oddity is that, suddenly, sharing has now moved from the folder level as a mental model to the account level. The remaining pro-rata credit left on my Dropbox Pro account is credited back, not to me who paid for it, but to our Team Account. Huh? I’ve just paid my employer to use something I am required to use as an employee.

I mail support and get a perfectly nice mail apologising for the confusion, but explaining that they can’t credit my credit card back. Instead they can give me “Dropbox dollars” (didn’t know they had their own currency) on my account that I can use should I leave the team and want to re-upgrade my account to a Pro account. Okay, a kludge, but I can live with that because I had already committed that money to Dropbox in the first place.

But the mental model has changed again. I thought accounts were individual, because I can only have one on any given machine and if I want to share, I share at the folder level. Dropbox Teams changes that, by merging all our personal accounts together as users under one big Team account. Sharing in Dropbox Teams is at the account level.

That’s weird, but the main thing is, my personal data already in my Dropbox remains personal and I join Team folder shares as necessary (after we had to unshare and reshare them when we went from personal accounts to Teams), right? Wrong.

Dropbox Is The Stasi

Then, a few days ago, Dropbox Teams casually send out an email notifying Teams users that Dropbox are updating their privacy policy to reflect the fact that Teams administrators may have access to all a Teams user’s folders.

Wait a minute! You mean whoever happens to admin our Teams account can now see all my personal documents, many of which I would be very unhappy for my employer’s employer to be able to snoop on? Yes, despite Dropbox’s Help Center still promising this is not the case.

So now the mental model has moved from a private cloud space that I selectively invite people to share parts of to a totally exposed space that has mixed up the privacy of work and personal life that I had kept separate deliberately. Wow. Now we’re in Stasi territory.

At this point, many panicked emails are being sent around asking who the admin of our Teams account is. The administrative assistant of our research group (the Dropbox Team I am part of) is a lovely person and I’m sure she is to be trusted and has little desire to snoop through my personal files. But I don’t know who else might have access, nor do I have any control over who gets hold of or hacks that admin account’s credentials. This is the new Teams part of the privacy policy:

6. Dropbox for Teams Users
If you have a Dropbox for Teams account, your Administrator may be able to:
* access information in and about your Teams account;
* disclose, restrict, or access information that you have provided or that is made available to you when using the Teams account; and
* control how your Teams account may be accessed or deleted. Please refer to your Team’s policies if you have questions about your Administrator’s rights.

The first point enables the snooping, but the second point means that, potentially, a Teams admin could lock you out of your own, personal files. The last point means that an admin could simply delete your account, which would mean you would be locked out of Dropbox and lose all your files. I make sure I keep my Dropbox password private for a reason. Why should I suddenly give it to someone else?

There is a lot of dissatisfaction out there about the decision and Dropbox has done a poor job of opening up channels of communication for Dropbox Teams. Remember, companies or teams are spending anything from $750 to several thousand on a Teams account. The best they have is the comments of a thread about verification where they reveal the privacy policy change almost in passing. Most people are understandably angered by the situation, while a few can’t see the problem.

Those dissatisfied point out, as I do, that it doesn’t have to be highly sensitive information stored in personal Dropbox (or even other Teams) folders, but just things an admin person should ideally not see. For Dropbox to be useful, you need to be able to store some context-sensitive information on it, otherwise you’re always having to juggle files. You might want to be able write, say, a draft resignation letter on your iPad on the train and then decide against it, safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to be seen by your employer, yet. There are countless other situations that don’t warrant encryption-level security, but leave an uncomfortable feeling knowing someone could view the files. It’s like trusting corporate I.T. guys not to snoop your email. They shouldn’t and probably don’t, but you don’t know. (I take care to always insist on administering my own machine, but many can’t or don’t.)

Those that don’t see the problem – including Dropbox, it seems – have two arguments. The first is, “what are you don’t having personal files on an account/machine your employer is paying for anyway?” The answer is, of course, because the whole point of using Dropbox in the first place is to not have the hassle of files left behind on the wrong machine, especially if you have a work and a home machine. All of my colleagues and most people I know have a laptop in order not to have two computers.

The reality is that our work and personal lives are mingled. Dropbox used to help us keep them together, but separate. As Frank Jorgensen points out in that comment thread “its called ‘dropbox for teams’, not ‘dropbox for companies'”. There are plenty of situations where people might decide to work together with a Teams account and it’s not a clear case of corporate versus private life.

The other argument is to use two different accounts, one for work, one for personal. But again, the whole point of Dropbox is to have all your stuff in one place and you can’t have two accounts on one machine.

Dropbox Is Broken

The upshot is that you have to choose one to be either accessed via another user account on the machine or use the Dropbox web interface to manage the second account. This completely breaks Dropbox for many people who use a lot of Dropbox synced services an apps like 1Password, nvALT, If This Then That, or local scripts to automate things in the Dropbox, like archiving Tweets or automatically pulling in photos from a device to a Dropbox gallery.

If you opt for the Teams account to be the web-based account then most of the usefulness of Dropbox is made redundant. We moved off of Basecamp precisely because of the tedium of getting an email with an icon of a file that was actually a link to a website that you had to log onto in order to download the file. You might as well use Facebook as a document repository if you want that kind of hassle or any other awful Microsoft Sitepoint crap.

The whole thing is compounded by the fact that I can’t disassociate my (previously personal and personally paid for) Dropbox account from my Dropbox Teams account. The Stasiesque approach of Dropbox Teams means that I have surrendered all control to The Team. The Teams administrator will, presumably, have to kick me off the team and I hope I get my personal account back, but Dropbox support haven’t confirmed whether this is the case yet, but it’s not looking good [Update – 7.11.2012: Dropbox support did disassociate my account, but they have to do it. If the Team Admin removes your account from the team, you will be locked out of your Dropbox account]. I’ll have to make another work account and then rejoin the team 1. Whether all those files need to be re-up- or downloaded remains to be seen.

It’s A Service, Not A Product

One of the worst situations you can have with an interface is to present users with a mental model of how the system works that is different from how it actually works. If you’ve ever used a stove where you’ve had to turn on all the knobs that are arranged in a row at the front in order to work out which one operates the burner you want out of the four that are arranged in a square on the stove, you have experienced such a mismatch.

Worse, though, is to keep changing the mental model, which is why Apple’s half-baked and then half-reversed changes to the venerable Save As… command caused such consternation. It takes people a while to learn a mental model and, when they make it part of their daily workflow or life, it’s a big deal to change it. It’s like turning on the tap for a glass of water and suddenly discovering that gas is coming out of it instead.

With a cloud service or any other API (Twitter, I’m looking at you), to keep changing it, for the worse, due to ill thought-through decisions either from product management, engineering or, worse, marketing, is a death knell for services that you are encouraging users to make central to their digital lives and workflows. Dropbox is a service, not a product, and services are about ongoing relationships, not sell and forget. Relationships require trust and you don’t get to destroy trust more than once. And Dropbox have already demonstrated they don’t rate privacy very highly at all.

If Dropbox see the need for Teams admins to access a team member’s files, to sort out a sharing issue, for example, then they need to do it in a way that recognises you are essentially allowing someone access to your machine, just like any other remote access situations. It should be off by default and require explicit permission from the team member to allow access, which they can then revoke at any time.

My mental model of Dropbox as a company is now of a design and engineering team who have painted themselves into a corner and can’t be trusted not to screw things up trying to get out of it.

  1. I opted for the two-accounts-on-one-machine hack, which is an unsatisfactory kludge, but works. For now. It’s not something you would want to rely on as a solution for a larger company or team. 

On Users, Customers, Interactors, Participants and Roles

Jack Dorsey’s post about reconsidering the word users and preferring the word customers has been doing the rounds of various popular tech blogs. John Gruber, naturally makes the case for Apple “always [having] human interface guidelines, not user interface guidelines”. Marco Arment goes into more detail with the linguistic problems this creates:

My challenge in this linguistic battle, though, is that not every Instapaper account is a customer, traditionally, in that not all of them give Instapaper money directly. People who buy the app are customers. People who subscribe for $1 per month are subscribers. (People who do both are awesome.) But is there a non-insulting term for everyone else who uses the service subsidized by the customers, subscribers, and Deck advertisers?

And Instapaper’s lucky enough to have directly paying customers. What about “free” or mostly-free services that are predominantly funded by ads — the most popular, growth-inducing, and profitable business model on the web by far? “Users” are deeply entrenched in our entire industry’s culture. We can’t move past that attitude without moving past that business model, too.

I discussed the “user” issue in my PhD about interactivity and playfulness in detail. The word is a hangover from the history of computers as calculators, from engineers and HCI folk (despite the H for human in that acronym) primarily seeing computers and applications as tools to be used to complete a task.

This falls apart in many situations. An interactive artwork, for example, does not really have users in the sense of the tool-goal dyadic. I prefer the term interactors because they are people — actors — who are interacting with something and sometimes each other. It also gives a sense of the action-reaction feedback loop, the kind of “conversation” an interactor has with an interface. I like it because conversations are two-way things – dialogues. Users suggest something much more isolated — a monologue at best.

I don’t think customers is the best alternative. At least not always. When we’re talking about paid services, there are usually customers, but, as Marco points out, there are a whole load of other participants in the service ecology who are neither users or customers. The example we often use in our book on service design is that of a nurse. A nurse is both a service provider (to patients and doctors) and a service user (of internal hospital services, health insurance databases, etc.).

This tendency towards words like user and customer also stems from us still thinking in product and industrial terms about things that are services. Square is a service, with an innovative product as a key part of it. Dropbox is a service, not a product, even though Dropbox has product managers (more on Dropbox’s problems at a later date). In Chapter 2 Understanding People and Relationships of our book, we discuss this difference:

“Use” and “consume” are product mindset words and we need to use different language for services. People don’t “use” a health care professional or a lawyer, and they don’t consume a train journey or a stay at a hotel. Instead, people enter into a relationship with professionals and service providers, and their interactions are an act of co-producing the service experience. Thus, we need to think in terms of designing for relationships and experiences that evolve and change over time, rather than just in terms of short moments of consumption or usage.

This is at the heart, I think, of what Square’s Director, Howard Schultz, was asking Jack Dorsey about. Dorsey’s summary is encouraging and correct:

First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.

Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.

But it’s not just about different words, or even being more customer-focused, although that is essential. The change is also about completing changing the industrial mindset we’ve got so used to in our culture that we hardly see it anymore. This goes for healthcare, education, politics, finance, energy, mobility and all the other lifelong services that we expect to always be there. It’s vitally important to remember there are people making them part of their lives and depending on them, as well as people behind the scenes at all levels working hard to make them happen. This is about building ongoing relationships not simply moments of selling and forgetting.

So, what do we call these people? As you’re so sharp, you will have noticed I called them participants above, but I still think interactor sounds better and has better connotations. But really they are people playing roles. Shakespeare nailed it in the famous monologue from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. is a pretty swish new online service to easily make infographics. You can enter or upload data and use or edit the templates to create some quite beautifully designed infographics from your data. Now there is no excuse for those awful charts in Powerpoint (or Keynote for that matter).


LeapMotion is a USB device now available for pre-order that “creates a 3D interaction space of 8 cubic feet to precisely interact with and control software on your laptop or desktop computer.” According to the website

The Leap senses your individual hand and finger movements independently, as well as items like a pen. In fact, it’s 200x more sensitive than existing touch-free products and technologies. It’s the difference between sensing an arm swiping through the air and being able to create a precise digital signature with a fingertip or pen.

The video embedded above shows it off pretty nicely. The device itself is about the size of the power brick that comes with the Mac Minis or the AppleTV (or used to). It’s, not coincidentally, similarly designed, so it’s not going to look like some ugly chunk of plastic and LEDs on your desk. This is, I think, not to be underestimated if you are asking people to invest in a new kind of interface that will, indeed, sit on their desk to be stared at all day. People are pretty pernickety about what goes on their desk.

When I say invest in, I’m really talking about time. The device itself is pretty cheap at $69.99. I can see this being a bonanza for people making interactive installations and performative interfaces (which is why I came across it, thanks to Joel Gethin Lewis).

It looks like LeapMotion is responsive and accurate, but there is still the question of holding your hands in front of you all day. With a desktop version, I foresee an elbows-resting-on-the-table-while-wiggling-the-hands mode of usage. Perhaps it’s time to invest in an elbow rest Kickstarter project.