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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Human Nature, Technology and Online Communities

8:36 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
There are many things I have learned in my life. One of the most important amongst them is that, in general, people are good. I have argued with many, had strong disagreements, got pissed off with many and pissed many off myself. But that has mostly happened because the other person believed as strongly in his or her opinion as I did in mine. I have rarely met people that are genuinely bad. You would have noticed that too. In general, people are helpful and would like to do something outside their work that is good and can contribute towards the betterment of society. There are examples of this all around. People do social work, volunteer for things, attend and arrange meet-ups, and offer to help for any problem that you are stuck in. Even a small thing as picking up a toffee wrapper from the road and throwing it in the dustbin counts. This maps to the human nature of doing things outside our daily routine and trying to contribute to the society even in a small way if possible. We might not do such things all the time, but when we do, we do so because we feel good about ourselves after that. And if we get acknowledged for it, that's cherry on top. 


This human trait of giving back to the community has played a key role in the field of technology. The whole open source revolution has been driven by it. People taking out time from their regular jobs, trying to make a difference in the world in their own little ways. The proliferation of internet has added a nice spin to it and empowered the common [non-technical] people to use technology to contribute and make a difference. Wikipedia is probably the best example here. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people add or update articles on Wikipedia everyday. They do not get any monetary benefits out of it. They do so because they feel good about themselves in helping others learn. The fact that their written words will be read by millions all over the world is definitely a factor. For good or bad reasons Wikipedia is a non-profit venture and its founder does not seem interested in improving the user experience of website or building up on the huge community. 


On the other hand, StackOverflow, a Q&A site for techies, has done a tremendous job in building the community. It has added many features over a period of time that have incentivized and empowered the community to curate the content. One of the most useful feature in building this strong community has been the points system where programmers get points for answering questions. The more questions you answer and the more ratings you get from other techies, the more points you get. As you gather more points you gather more privileges and power on the site. StackOverflow has become so effective that programmers have now even started to quote their StackOverflow points on their CVs. Vimeo is another site that has developed a strong community. Vimeo is like YouTube but without the crappy and useless videos. The site has tried to instill a strong sense of community amongst its users. Vimeo users understand that the quality of content is important and that they need to upload only good quality videos on the site. This ideology has led Vimeo to become a preferred choice of artists for sharing videos. There are many similar online applications that have been successful in building strong communities. 

While we are seeing many community driven applications nowadays, there is nothing new about such internet applications. These have been around for years in the form of discussion groups. I think Yahoo Groups is probably the earliest and biggest example of this kind. We have certainly come a long way from the days of those ugly and clunky discussion groups. I believe there are three major factors behind this surge of online communities. 

  • Advancements in technology - Advancements in technology, especially on the client side, have tremendously helped increase the user participation. The current web is much more alive, less ugly and intimidating than its predecessor - thanks to the improvements in client side technologies like browsers, javascript, CSS and HTML. These technologies have helped make the user interaction much more fluid. Advancements in server side technologies have also helped companies in crunching all the data entered by users (such as profile information, status updates or messages) and use that to improve the product quality.
  • Increase in the importance of user experience - The world has finally acknowledged the importance and benefits of improving user experience, thanks largely to Steve Jobs. There is a tremendous amount of academic and professional effort put in understanding users and improving product designs. A lot of new online applications are coming up with simple and intuitive interfaces, to provide users with smooth and hassle-free experience. The advancements in technology have played a major role in improving the user experience. 
  • Elements of gamification - Many community-based online apps are using gaming concepts such as points and badges to incentivize users for contributing more. Quora, StackOverflow, Oink and FourSquare are some of the examples. Acknowledging people for their participation is a very important factor for forming online communities. These gaming concepts acknowledge participants for their contributions and tap into human psyche in order to make the community more active. 

Technology when combined with good aspects of human nature can help improve the quality of life in simple and effective ways. Fields of education and entertainment have benefited a lot from this synthesis, and yet we have probably only scratched the surface of possibilities. Technology's ability to build communities and bring people together has got a new boost in recent times and things are only going to get better from here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Power Of The Crowd

11:17 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Revolutions have been part of the human history for centuries. Pretty much all of us have read about some of these in our school - French Revolution, Russian Revolution and Indian independence movement to name a few. There is one thing common in all of these revolutions and it is that these were brought by the crowd, not any government or organization. It was the collective power of the common man that changed the destiny of many empires. 

We have been witnessing similar examples of the power of the crowd in recent days. The Arab Spring and anti-SOPA/PIPA protests are two of the most prominent examples of this. There is however one major difference between these recent revolutions and the ones that happened decades/centuries ago. And that is the speed at which the revolution spread, all thanks to Internet. The anti-SOPA sentiments nowadays and blackouts on the internet yesterday are very appreciative. But what is more impressive is the speed and scale at which it happened without a single person leading the charge. The power of the crowd has again shown its impact. 

Technology, and Internet in particular, has helped connect people together and spread the word in a matter of minutes if not seconds. While we take a lot of this for granted, it is worth stopping for sometime and appreciating how the world around us has changed. While the examples given above are unfortunate and thankfully very occasional in nature, Internet has amplified the power of crowd in many positive and peaceful ways as well. News now travels faster thanks for social networks, you can get detailed information on any topic quickly thanks to Wikipedia and watch videos on almost any topic thanks to Youtube. 

In the world of technology and business, this act of tapping the power of the crowd is called CrowdsourcingThe human nature of sharing and giving back to the society, combined with the scale and speed of the Internet has the potential to make this world a better place to live in. I believe that as the society matures and Internet adoption increases we will see more miracles of crowdsourcing for social or commercial good (or hopefully both).

Friday, January 13, 2012

Service Integration: Partnering In The Software World

8:30 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Partnerships are important for growth in business. One of the universally common things about all of the successful companies is that they have partnered at the right time with the right party. You cannot pull it off on your own all the time. And this is not necessarily because of your incapability to pull it off, but because you do not have to. You play on your strengths and focus on the things that are important to your business, and for the areas that you are not good at or the ones that are not core to your business, you find a partner. There is nothing new about this concept. Businesses have been forging partnerships for centuries. 

Software, however, is disrupting this age old corporate practice, like it has in many other areas. In order for companies to partner, traditionally, someone from one of the parties had to approach the other party, and setup discussions and meetings. And then after weeks, months or probably even years of discussions and negotiations the partnership would be agreed and actioned upon. This is still the dominant method for partnering between companies, but in the world of software, things can be done at the press of a button, literally. Many software companies expose their data or functionality as software interfaces (APIs) or tools which can be accessed by anyone on the internet. The web is allowing companies to open up and connect more. This means that even a small startup can use the data/functionality provided by a global leader such as Google, and ride the shoulders of the giants. 

The advantage of this openness cannot be overstated. It allows anyone to integrate their services with anyone else who has exposed theirs'. Say you are launching a new consumer internet startup that requires features such as user management, uploading photos and videos, sharing content and location tracking. You can build this functionality from scratch within your product, or piggyback on successful products of existing companies. It obviously depends on that startup as to how they want to execute their vision and position themselves in the market, but it is always good to know that you have options. For example, in this case, the startup can use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn for user account management; Facebook, Picasa or Flickr for managing photos; Youtube or Vimeo for videos; social networks for sharing; Foursquare or Gowalla for location based services. 

By integrating your service with others, you are helping yourself in three major ways. 
  • First, you are saving the effort and money required for building that feature from scratch for your own application. While you can definitely add a feature in your product to host videos, do you really want to do it if it is not part of your core offering. You might be able to afford that later on, but doing it in the initial phases is probably not the best option to go with. 
  • Second, you are increasing the scope of your product. Say you are providing a product that allows people to find interesting locations for spending their weekends, but it does not allow them to book flights. Not to worry. Instead of building that functionality yourself, you can partner with an existing market player to use its service for booking flights. By doing this, you are now providing your users with a better and more integrated service. 
  • And third, you are saving your users' time. One thing you never want to do, especially in the startup phase, is test your users' patience. So, if they already have uploaded their photos and videos on Facebook, provide them with the ability to extract that media from their Facebook account instead of reloading those on to your site. If blogs are one of the key features of your product and your users are already running theirs, provide them the ability to extract blogs from their current site instead of copying and pasting them. 
So service integration can help you save money and effort, improve the user experience for your product and bring in more users.

Having said all that, service integration for the sake of it, does not make sense either. As important as service integration is, integrating for the right features is even more important. Integration should only improve the user experience, not take it backwards. 


[Photo from dialtel.com]

Friday, January 06, 2012

Life Is All About Experiences!

9:58 AM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Life is full of experiences - walk in the park with your friends, visit to an art gallery, weekend in the countryside or a shopping day out. These experiences can be an hour long, a day, a week or even a month (lucky you!). They can be free or very expensive. Some of them are good and others we won't really miss. It is these experiences, small or big, that make our life worth living. 


Given the importance of experiences in our lives, the importance of a service that helps people with saving, sharing and discovering experiences cannot be overstated. Social networks, especially Facebook, are big on this and currently are the primary service used by people to save, share and discover experiences. The problem, however, with using social networks for this purpose is that such services work on experiences in a very unstructured and broken manner. They break the experience into individual entities (status updates or photos or videos) instead of working on them as a collage. This diminishes the beauty and story of these experiences. Facebook Timeline is a step by the social networking giant towards putting together these individual shared entities as a stream of activities and experiences, connecting them. However, it still does not do justice to the story behind these experiences. 

There is another set of applications, apart from social networks, that are working on experiences. Services such as SideTour, Vayable, MyGuidie and Virgin Experience Days help people and companies to sell and discover experiences. The problem I find with this set is that they focus on the commercial side of experiences. And in addition to that, they do not allow people to save and share their own. Finally, as with the social networks, these do not do justice to the story behind the experiences as well. 

So lets see, what features should a good experiences service have - 
  • Allow people to create storyboards or collages for each experience - A good experiences service will consider them as a whole instead of looking at individual items. An experience includes many things - the place(s) you went to, the amount of time and money you spent, the moments you spent, the photos and videos you took and the things you did. You should be able to put these things together so that it becomes a collage/storyboard, tells a story and captures those moments as closely as possible. On the other hand, some experiences might not be a collage/storyboard but a point in time (such as playing Wii with your partner). The key in all this is that the user should be able to digitize his or her experience with minimum effort and should always end up with a beautiful outcome. 
  • Allow people to share these experiences - Once you have created these collages, you should be able to save them only for your own eyes or even share them, which can be done either online and offline. For online, the people you want to share it with should be able to view these experiences on the internet. For offline, you should be able to print these out and share them as an album.
  • Allow people to discover experiences for their own - The experiences that you save should help others discover more. While you might choose to not make your experience public, the information on location, money, time and rating can be aggregated across many experiences and presented to people who can then have better information that can help them choose an experience. This will help them live a better experience. 

While this new service can help people share and discover their experiences, it does not have to compete with the social networks. In fact, it can use these networks as the underlying infrastructure for sharing and discovering. While people are the focus of social networks, experiences will be the focus of this new service. This difference in underlying structure of social networks and experience service can help both types of applications to compliment each other. 

Life is all about experiences. For now these experiences stay in our thoughts or cameras or laptops or online photos. The need to consolidate these experiences has always been there. While we have had solutions to work around these needs, we are still missing a service to put it all together and showcase it in a beautiful and coherent manner.


[Photo from createyourlifestory.com]