“Path is pretty in the same designy way as our modern museums…These museums are very exciting when they open. You show up and marvel along with all of the other fans of architecture. Maybe you return for one of those nights where they stay open late and there is a band and drinking. “A great space,” you think. Maybe one day you’ll be rich and rent out the atrium for a private party. The art doesn’t get talked about so much at these museums. The museum itself is the “social object,” as it were. Eventually the particulars around which the museum was designed fall out of fashion. A fresh crop of architects finds it to be too flashy, or too dull, or to have been guided by faulty principles. There is congestion where there should be flow. Certain rooms are simply exhausting. Maybe it is even an eyesore. This is good for the museum. Now they can really fuck up the place…Path is a monument to Path. It is no place to scribble in. I wish it longevity so that it might find shabbiness.”—
This is the best thing I’ve read about Path, and it perfectly articulates something I’ve thought not only about Path, but also a lot of other exemplars of the fussy, post-Apple wave of “high design” in tech products. Khoi Vinh has written about the same phenomenon, arguing that the obsessive design polish we in the industry have come to fetishize can lead to products without the “breathing room” to feel truly lived in by users.
TechCrunch published an article yesterday about the challenges of personalization and why no one has been able to innovate beyond what Amazon did 10 years ago. Leena Rao makes a good effort in trying to understand the challenges, mentioning the need for intent-based data, making sense of social, and privacy concerns. All are true. But the framework with which she’s approaching the problem is wrong.
The right way to look at this is by splitting the world of products into two: products that age and products that don’t.
Books retain value over time. A book you wanted to read last year is something you’d still consider buying today (hence, the existence of airport bookstores). Same goes for movies, which is why Netflix beat Blockbuster.
Fashion items (shoes, clothing, accessories) do not. Softlines (the retail term for fashion items) are extremely seasonal; items go out of style within months and unsold ones end up on the discount rack.
You’ll notice that successful personalization tech is tightly focused around items in the first category. Books, music, video, kitchen appliances, gardening equipment, (to a lesser extent) electronics - all things that Amazon’s recommendation algorithms are good at. (I would know, I was the product manager for that team). That’s because these products have a long enough shelf life to reach a critical mass of purchase data. You need dense datasets to do personalization right.
Where does personalization suck? The second category. To make it even more difficult, items in this category tend to be ones that you can look at and within half a second decide if you like it or not. They are visual, tactile, sensual. They are also highly individual - a watch that I love is also something you might hate, even if we share the same taste in movies. Hell, I might even love one watch but hate another that almost looks exactly the same. People shop in this category by gut feel and emotion, not by attempting to maximize a list of requirements and system specs. The result is a very sparse dataset with items going out of style too fast for the algorithms to become useful. What you end up with is least common denominator recs (like white socks and undershirts) that completely lack joy and delight.
The solution, like Leena points at, is social, although she gets it slightly wrong. I’ll follow up this post with my thoughts on how social can really make personalization work.
“The word that best describes this subtle blend of chance and agency is “serendipity”. It was coined by Horace Walpole, man of letters and aristocratic dilettante. Writing to a friend in 1754, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had just made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…now do you understand Serendipity?” These days, we tend to associate serendipity with luck, and we neglect the sagacity. But some conditions are more conducive to accidental discovery than others.”—Ian Leslie on what we lose when we lose serendipity online. For a related must-read, see Eli Pariser on the filter bubble. (via curiositycounts)
I assume that you no longer want to go out with me. (If you do want to go out with me, then you should let me know.) I suggest that you make a sincere apology to me for giving me mixed signals. I feel led on by you.
Things that happened during our date include, but are not limited to, the following:
- You played with your hair a lot. A woman playing with her hair is a common sign of flirtation. You can even do a Google search on it. When a woman plays with her hair, she is preening. I’ve never had a date where a woman played with her hair as much as you did. In addition, it didn’t look like you were playing with your hair out of nervousness.
Email from a guy to a woman, after she didn’t call him back. (via DailyMail.co.uk)