Sunday, October 31, 2010

Top 10 Websites - What Do They Allow Us to Do?

Yesterday, I stumbled across a list of 50 most popular sites on the web according to Compete, an online analytics firm ( The top twelve sites, in order, were Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia,, Amazon,, MSN, Bing, Ebay, and Blogspot. The results here are not surprising, but I'm intrigued by the implications of them. Specifically, what are the most popular sites enabling us to do?

At risk of starting my masters thesis a semester too early, I started to attempt to break down each site into the fundamental needs they are addressing. (note: for my thesis, I plan to do this breakdown across a wide range of domains and product types, and then apply the patterns from that analysis into a framework for developing needs-based products).

In regard to this Top 50 list, beyond the Like's, Playlists, and Recommendations, what are these products really doing for us? In other words, we need to shift our thinking from the product does to what it allows us to do. What needs to do the meet, particularly compared to other options on the market? Are there common needs addressed that come up more often than you would expect? This is really just an initial thought exercise to build some foundation for this concept, but I think it's worth doing. The point is that we don't choose products for their features or their performance. Generally speaking, we choose products because of what they do for us or or enable us to be. Let's play around with that Top 10 list...

Top 10 Sites and the Usage Patterns (September 2010) To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Yahoo!: To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Facebook: To be connected, To feel popular, To be entertained
YouTube: To be entertained, To learn,
Wikipedia: To discover new information, To learn
Ask: To discover new information, To find something, To learn
Amazon: To buy, To make money
Live: To be connected,
MSN: To discover new information, To find something, To learn, To be connected,
Bing: To discover new information, To find something, To learn

So, what do we make of this? Just a few thoughts and then you can draw your own conclusions...

- Clearly, the fact that 5 of the top 10 are search engines (Google, Yahoo, Ask, MSN, Bing) indicates that people primarily see the web as a mechanism for finding information, which can lead to buying products, answering questions, finding people, and a countless other destinations. This isn't particularly interesting, but the disparity between search sites and more information-browsing sites (Wikipedia, non-search portion of MSN) show that saving time and reducing information clutter/complexity could probably each be added to the "needs addressed" of the search sites. If we had to abstract this exercise out to the web itself, one could clearly state that the web's primary need addressed is for finding information.

- Not surprisingly, the social capability of the web is also a primary function. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Live all over email clients, enabling people to stay connected from a social perspective.

- Next up is consumerism, which to be honest, is not as prominently features as I might have guessed. After all, being able to purchase products online is a tremendous time saver, and "To Save Time" is probably one of the best features a product can offer. Nonetheless, Amazon cracks the list, and Ebay (#11) and Craigslist (#13) just missed the cut. I would be curious to learn whether there is a trust factor at play here, where Amazon might simply be the most trustworthy site to purchase from.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Idea #14: Artificial Constraints and the "Wake Agent" Alarm Clock

An often valuable exercise in the ideation process is the approach of identifying products or services that have gone unchanged, questioning long-standing assumptions, and looking for opportunities for improvement. This is a common but fairly ambiguous challenge and may be too vague to instigate targeted innovative ideas. Instead, I believe the most effective way to do this is to decompose the system into a set of sub-parts,  understand how they come together and interact, and then questioning them on a part-by-part basis.

Now here's the trick... when it comes to redesigning a product or service that has gone unchanged, I suggest you prompt new ideas by creating a series of artificial constraints for each of the sub-components. For example, experiment with the sub-components by removing them, replacing them, "de-technologizing" them, resizing them, or whatever other action you would like to take to generate fresh ideas. Keep in mind, before you do this, it may be valuable to write down the high-level intent of the product to ensure that whatever innovations you design at the sub-levels do not alter the whole point of the product. 

Let me demonstrate by analyzing a common household product: the alarm clock. While you may wake up to your phone every morning like I do (highly recommend the first few bars of Karma Police for this), this doesn't mean that there is no longer a place for the trusty traditional alarm clock. So, let's just abstract out and consider the intent of the alarm clock, which is simply to "wake someone from sleep at a pre-defined time". In order to meet this intent, there will need to be a timing mechanism, an easy way to set it, and a means for waking someone up. A great deal of products have been created that utilize light, vibration, and other methods for waking sleepers up, so I'm going to try out a different direction for sake of this exercise. 

In order to instigate new perspectives, I'm going to create an artificial constraint for myself. That constraint is that the alarm clock cannot be placed on the nightstand (or next to the bed). This restriction should instigate new ideas for alterations in alarm clock form factor. Now, we move from intent to concept generation. We could come up with a range of alarm clock concepts that are built into the bed, such as flattening pillows or escaping blankets, but I would suggest avoiding the suggestion of any alarm clock concept that may risk the quality of sleep of the person during the night. With the nightstand and bed off-limits, what's next? My answer came from the sky... 

Consider a small spherical alarm concept that is about the size of a golf ball. During the night, it sits fixed in the ceiling far above you as you sleep. When the time comes for you to wake up, the alarm slowly drops down on a zip wire, like a secret ops agent dropping in for a mission. The alarm wakes you up with audio, direct light, or some combination. Since the length of the alarm drop could be pre-defined, it could drop to a close enough point where only soft audio would be necessary. Once the sleeper wakes and reaches for the alarm, it detects movement and pulls itself back up towards the ceiling. The sleeper is not able to turn the alarm off until they are sitting up in bed. Once the alarm is turned off, it returns to its original place in the ceiling to await the next day's wake-up call. Concept sketches to come...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Idea #12 (Revisited): Cue

The following is a set of design concepts for something I've been working on for Prof. Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interfaces course at the MIT Media Lab. This is a Cue, a system for leaving digital artifacts in the physical world. As you'll see from the images, the basic premise is that it enables people to leave physical or virtual pointer to digital content (video, pictures, audio, messages) in specific points in time and space and for specific people in the real world.

UPDATE: My project team of Birago Jones, Nicholas Pennycooke, Phil Salesses and myself presented the CUE concept to Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Interfaces course last Thursday, the 21st. The class was mostly lukewarm about the concept, but interestingly, Hiroshi was pleasantly excited and receptive to it. We'll call that validation for now! Thanks to the team for the great work. Development to continue on CUE....  

Presentation slides here...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Idea #13: Misdirecting Motivations - Getting Past "Should"

This week's concept is much more a methodology or idea-generation principle than an actual product or service. It's a pattern that I've seen come up on the market but I don't think it's been utilized to its fullest potential. It's concept of tweaking a product or service so that it taps into an unexpected human need or motivation.

For example, take the activity-tracking bracelet offered by startup Switch2Health ( With traditional activity-tracking devices, users are motivated to exercise for their own health and long-term well being. With Switch2Health, your activity level becomes a direct driver for discounts at local businesses, thus misdirecting the motivation of physical activity from health to financial gain. Both money and health are what I like to call "should" motivations. We know these "shoulds" are important, but their level of motivational influence is considerably weak on a day-to-day basis (e.g. "I should save money, but going out for drinks tonight sounds like a good time"). Switch2Health banks on the fact that two combined "shoulds" produce one meta-motivation that just might push you to get up off your couch.

Motivations can also be misdirected on a time scale. Take my personal budget system, for example. I use to track my spending (great service - highly recommended), but I've added an extra hitch to it that misdirects my own motivations. Everyone has the looming feeling that they should be saving money, but why don't we do it? Frankly, it's boring and it's in complete conflict with my current motivations - I care much more about Present Reily getting a snowboard than I care about Future Reily having $400. So, how to solve that problem? Design a system that meets long term goals first and attainable short-term gains second. In other words, whatever I can save beyond the monthly allocated savings is mine to spend on whatever I want. The motivation becomes much stronger because I'm saving  for something I'm going to enjoy right away, and the long-term savings is simply a bi-product of the system. Boring Future Reily gets his money, while Present Reily gets a new snowboard. Motivations were misdirected, and everybody wins.

The takeaway? Examine the human motivations you are addressing in your product or service. It they don't appear strong enough, look for opportunities to combine, replace, or misdirect them. You'd be surprised how motivating it can be.