The Product Developer’s Dilemma; Morality vs. Virality

How the seduction of clever user-flow-design affect the implied trust between a user and an experience designer

Signups with dualistic meaning checkboxes and the autocratic tick trick for newsletter subscriptions have been around for ages – the new breed of signup trickery are upon us.

For every advance there has been in protecting ourselfs from pop-ups, spam, phising and other scamming schemes – there always seems to be new ways of tricking us. Luckily we as users across, have become more aware of these schemes and it takes more the the simple “Click here for something free” banner to lure us to the supposedly greener pastures that are behind them.

In that same vein, as we have matured as online users, the demand to keep sites simple yet very functional is not a differentiator anymore but an expectation we now have of all sites. Luckily this has also seen a lot of change since the heydays of alt texts and forms over multiple pageloads.

As we get increasingly better at helping users navigate the sites we create – this also becomes an area where we face an interesting segway – we are getting so good at it, that we are able to use the expected behavior through a user interface, to sometimes trick our users to do something they don’t necessarily fully understand what is.

Here are two examples (there are many to pick from)


Recently I signed up for, a site that gathers and correlates information about my contacts from my different social
networks and more – the value proposition is clear and so I signed up after reading a tweet about it. In the process of signing up, I could connect my social networks to allow Rainmaker to pull information about my contacts – I went through the motions connected first my facebook and linked accounts, the last one was twitter – there were some options that I could manage and a “continue” button at the buttom of the page. The previous connections where a little bit different and I was clicking quickly on all the screens – quick enough it seems that I didn’t notice the difference in the twitter setup – upon clicking continue, Rainmaker automatically sent a tweet on my behalf: “I just installed Rainmaker. Check it out at #Rainmaker”

In itself not a huge deal – in all fairness I would have noticed and not continued if I had paid a bit more attention – it just took me by surprise and I felt that the process had somehow tricked me, by changing a small detail on the last repetitive step in a longer process – I suddenly broadcasted something that I didn’t feel like I had accepted should happen.

The other example was something I had not seen before and from a product person pov it was intriguing.  I received a torn out newspaper article in the mail the other day – send in paper to my home address. The envelope was written in handwriting and so was the yellow post-it note that was attached to the newspaper article suggesting to me that I should check out some product related to small businesses. (The post-it note said: ‘I saw this in the Times and thought of you. This guy is brilliant. Have a look at his website. J’). Since the only person who ever sent me anything in the snail-mail (and read newspaper in print) is my dad and his name is Hans I suspected it was just a clever attempt of social engineering. A quick look at the font and a google look up confirmed it. In fact the Advertising Standarts Authority in the UK has since banned that form of advertising (read more here)

However, I think these types of situations, deliberate or not, ask an important question – where is the line between morality and virality in a design?

– at what cost do we guide our users to their own sense of a goal – and when do we guide users to help our own goals as a website? My
sense is that this question will become important as marketing/distribution gets more important and we see more and more services fight for users. From a User Experience point of view, the sense of cloaking the massive viral opportunity to broadcast over a users network can seem enticing to do, it’s at a small cost for the user to have access to a site. But does such a muddled approach not  hurt the relationship to the initial user, to a point where the risk of them not coming back or become anti-evangelists is to high? Let alone the philosophical question around an experience designers moral responsibility.

Stating the obvious – if you make a great product and have a great company narrative, users will take these as social objects and help preach it out to others – but what if you don’t have any user – or at least enough – wouldn’t you take a shotcut if you could?

What I am doing next; mixing my passions of entrepreneurship, experience design and New York City.

A few people have asked me what I am working on…

The short version;

I am moving to New York to join Prehype, a product innovation studio that help corporations build successful digital companies.

The slightly longer version;

Over the past year, I have had the fortune to be an Entrepreneur in Residence at Index Venture. Index is one of the most respected VCs and for good reasons. It is a group of amazing people who have a rare combination of incredible business intellect, venture experience and human empathy. I have also had the luxury of meeting a bunch of great entrepreneurs, spent quality time with inspiring industry fellow travelers and worked on interesting products like and (recently sold to facebook).


What have fascinated me the most is the shift in the skills needed to make a successful company/product. My thesis is that the 90s was all about innovation within technology, the 00s was about innovation within social engineering and robustness and the next area of innovation is all about Experience Design (see my earlier post about this). We have moved from a time where a product only had to be functional to be successful, through the 90s where it also had be reliable, fast and reliable  and into the 00s where it had to be social. Now, in the 2010s, a product needs to be enjoyable – an experience that not only solved your problem – but also make you enjoy the process of doing it. The new skills needed to create these experiences are linked to design, but ranges much wider and includes: perceptual psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, architecture and environmental design, ethnography, interaction design, storytelling, heuristics, and design thinking. While this type of thinking is well known in the offline product development world, it seems to be something that we have yet to embrace in the online world. (althought companies like Gilt Group, Groupon, Zappos and Etsy are catching on quickly)

So what does prehype do?

Prehype is a studio that partners with corporations, angel investors and venture backed start-ups to build successful companies. Here is a few reasons why people work with us. We are hoping to take the best of several companies we really respect; The understanding of Experience Design from Ideo, the innovative approach to business models of Fahrenheit 212 and the entrepreneurship of Betaworks. The mixture of those three is a new form of experience design innovation studio.

Corporates work with us when;

  • They have great internal entrepreneurs but don’t have a process for them to invent great new businesses
  • They believe that quick product development, great experience design and shared risk is key to innovation.
  • When they want to build successful tech start-ups but their internal organization doesnt have the DNA to do so.

Founders and investors approach us when;

  • The user experience of a product is bad or broken.
  • They need experienced creative product developers to help launch, pivot or accelerate a digital company

We will also do a few of our own projects. Most will be what we call ‘research’ projects (see website for details) while others will become substantial enough to be spun out as separate ventures and become clients of ours (e.g.

Overall, I am incredible excited about it all, I love New York already – and the people I work with there are both kind and truly inspiring.

Onwards and upwards… Rock’n’Roll

Why defining your company narrative and creating a 'social object' is important.

How to give people something to talk about…

A few months ago I wrote a post called Virality is all about making your users look awesome in front of their friends. It was promoting the idea that you need to think about what your users get out of talking to others about your product. What was implied in the post was the concept that you need to create a narrative around your business or product that is easy for your users to articulate to others. You need to hand craft a story that is easy to remember, easy to tell and, importantly, makes the person telling it look good. Lately the importance of this point has been growing on me. What you might call ‘The lacking narrative issue’ seems to be a core problem, not just for creating virality but for many other aspects of your business – such as attracting staff, getting investment, and creating clear design briefs – and simply for making it easy for your mum to tell her friends what you do. 🙂

So let’s set aside what your users get out of telling others about your product, and just focus on the core narrative of what you do. It’s quite amazing how many founders and company leaders are making amazing new technical solutions or products but seem to have difficulty explaining the core narrative of the product themselves. Now, if the person who built the product has a hard time explaining it, then just imagine how hard it is for others to understand it – let alone promote it. The simple question – what does your company do, and how does it help your users? – is really something you should be able to explain without the use of 25 slides or a fancy flash video. I was reminded of the importance of this when I was reading about an interesting term called ‘The Social Object’. ”The Social Object, in a nutshell . . . . Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if [we] think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.”  (via

Human interaction is widely based on exchanging stories, so if you create a very good narrative of your company or product, it can become just such a social object. A good exercise is to spend some proper time making a good story about your business and try it on a few people. Then wait a few days and ask them to explain to you what your business is doing – and see if you like what you hear. If the story is good, it should become a social object. From there it can be shared easily with everyone from new customers and investors to your mum.

Happy storytelling.

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Creativity is just connecting things

I am in the process of writing a longer post about the difference between Google’s and Apple’s approach to ‘User Experience’ and stumbled over this wonderful quote from Steve Jobs:

When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

– Steve Jobs

A ultra local computer generated newspaper (Research project #2)

Research project #2. This is part of a series of research projects. See the first project #1 where we tried to make a page rank algoritm for physical locations.

Project: We wanted to create an ultra-localized newspaper with the visual language of print but based only on RSS feeds and with no human intervention. Usage examples: allowing real estate agents to offer a localized newspaper, adding information that is related to a homeowner –  popular venues, local council info, what people on the street tweet about, local news headlines, and so on.

Background: There were two core drivers behind the idea of this research project.

1.Our fascination with just how superior offline print design is compared to digital when it comes to the experience of consuming text. While the internet offers a world of opportunities when it comes to creating engaging storytelling experiences, it seems that the innovations around reading text online has a long way to go. Print papers offers many subtle but powerful properties not yet found online:

  • a great way to find out how much content there is still to be read (by gauging how many pages are left)
  • added visual clues to enforce the emotional impact of the story
  • a structure/format that creates a reading flow and a sense of “freedom from choice” in what to read next
  • a  focus point that doesn’t get interrupted with hyperlinks, pop-ups, or ads.

2. Our respect for how Netflix taught us how to introduce new technology when users are ready for it (rather than when it can be done). About 10 years ago I gave a talk at Harvard Business School about digital television. Someone from the audience asked me what I thought about Netflix. My answer was that Netflix was missing the point and that VOD would overtake them shortly. In retrospect, it is clear that Nexflix had actually done something very smart. They met their users with a product (movie rental) that was aligned with their users’ technology comfort level and then established a business relationship with them on the users’ terms. Now as broadband and connected devices are commonly used, they can migrate their business alongside their users into new digital platforms and offer their own VOD offering. I don’t know the Netflix people, but I assume that they are so smart that they had this planned all along. The lesson from Netflix is to keep an eye on where the users are in their adoption of new technology and then think how you can design new products so users don’t have to change their behavior too much in order to start adopting the service. With that in mind, consider this fact: the direct mail business in the US is still several times bigger than all internet advertising.

The Project

Gavin, Stacey, and I were discussing the above and came up with the idea of making an ultra-localized print paper that would utilize all the amazing local content that is available online and create a system that would format the content into a visually pleasing paper design, which would then be printed and delivered to people’s homes.

We started to find great sources of content that could be extracted from the web by only knowing a user’s zip/postcode. The thinking was that real estate agents would sponsor the print of these magazines and target the streets/postcodes they wanted to sell houses in. We found there was a lot of great content out there. Here are a few examples of sources we used:

  • Foursquare check-ins to find out what places were hot on your street/block
  • Meet-up information about what meetings were going on
  • Price information about your street, so you can see if you are making money on your apartment/house
  • Free things that people around you are giving away on Craigslist
  • The Guardian’s local API for local news
  • Local reviews on Yelp
  • Local council meetings

Our “hacker in residence” Andras did some research on how to do some formatting and choosing of the content we had taken in and Gavin did some nice designs. We then teamed up to get this printed on real newspaper paper with the awesome guys at Newspaperclub who had already done an interesting and rather similar prototype of a service for people moving into a new area.

Below is the result. A nicely designed ultra-local newspaper based on my postcode. We could now do these week in and week out based on any postcode without having to do much or any work.

As this was a research project we don’t plan to take the concept further, but we might use it for other projects we are involved in. To test the concept we applied the same solution to (se pictures below) to see if we could apply the same system to another problem. Here we took the data (dummy data was used) that was already available and created a yearly update paper for my family. The thought was that many people would like to get access to online data but would find paper better suited as a medium.

I realize that many will say that (i)Pads can provide the same experience and there is no clear business model for this idea. This is partly true. The iPad has already seen an amazing growth in apps that mirror the visual design of papers and magazines. For us this was not about arguing about whether one business, platform, or process was  better than another, but to experiment on how to use convergence to come up with a completely new experiences. When sat down with a nicely designed magazine about our street – that had been made totally automatically – we felt we somewhat succeeded.

Postcode NewsPaper
Digital version:
[issuu showflipbtn=true autoflip=true autofliptime=6000 documentid=100506162413-7bb2653b39b9491c9cc77e22c82b61b6 docname=localmag username=gavinocarroll loadinginfotext=Local%20Paper showhtmllink=true tag=property width=420 height=325 unit=px]

The proof of concept:

Printed edition:

PDF version:

Trying to become more creative by unplugging

More and more research is popping up pointing to negative effects of being online and available all the time. Most of us are pretty accessible and judging gets slightly restless if we dont get our information fix:

” Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.”

From todays New York Times; Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price:

Its not just the constant need for information, I have also noticed that I increasingly dont remember information that I can easily access by googling my past emails in Gmail.  A trend that is also being researched; An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness also from todays New York Times

So from today, I’ll try to experience with offline creative hours. The plan is to allocate certain amount of hours every day for creative problems I have to solve. The then force myself to have email/twitter/facebook and messenger platforms closed for those hours and continue working on the problems for the specified time – even if I solve the problems quicker. Its a summer digital detox experiment 😉 . Might even try some of all those new tools that are coming out to keep us from our information addiction like Writeroom and other of these tips. I’ll let you know how it goes.

A/B testing your life

I have been writing a bit about how to use the thinking of offline innovation to make better digital products. (flow over feature & Innovation Architecture). However, lately I have been pondering a bit about how to take online best pratices and apply them to my real offline life. Got the idea of doing A/B testing on areas of my life that I wanted to improve but was unsure what was the most optimial method to achieve it.  First I needed to make sure I had measurable data. The good news is that quite a few people  (e.g. fellow personal stats junkie Sam Lessin) are increasingly blogging about and enjoying datamining all sorts of aspects of our lives – and there are now loads of tools that allow us to do so. Here are a few I use:
  • my weight (My Withings)
  • my sleep pattens (Sleep Cycle) (waiting for my Wakemate that I orded 6 month ago)
  • my running speed (Garmin 310)
  • my heart rates (normal blod pressure machine)
  • my household energy consumptio  (Altertme)
So lately I have started to do A/B testing on all these things. Basiccly, try out different thesis on a specific subject and then do test of each of them for a few days. Applying the same methodology that we use for optimizing userflows and optimize towards what works the best. Here are some of the a/b tests I am running:
  • Effect on weight depending on intake of alcohol, different type of foods and time of eating dinner
  • Breathing technics influence on blood pressure
  • Most optimal running technics
  • Optimize home appliances to reduce energy consumption and so on.

So besides creating a bunch of ultra personalized behavior generated content and the pleasure of playing with data visualization – I am finding easier and more optimal ways to achieve life goals.

Research project: Making a social 'pagerank' for physical locations

I have been working on a small social currency research project with Andras and Simon. The thinking is to make a social page rank for physical locations based on peoples online behavior generated content . In the same way that Google lists websites based on how many other websites are linking to them, our plan was to make a Google’ish algoritm that showed a coffee bar’s ‘Social Value’ based on a number of factors. (Checkings on four square, frequency of check ins on Gowalla, amount of comments on Yelp, mentions on Twitter and so on).

To make the dataset simple we focused on coffee places in London and created an algoritm that looks at multible data sources that we could access via APIs. We then do some black magic where we calculate a social currency value for each place. E.g. a place gets more ‘points’ if people have checked in multiple times on a location rather than just having a lot of checkins.

Next step is to open for our api so you can get social currentcy values for places in your own apps. Anyway, thought I would introduce the concept to get feedback, ideas or comments.

Check it out here; should work in computer and mobile browser: (update: no longer available)

What does the internet look like?

My friend Noah just posted about a new project he is starting called The Gallery Interweb. Its basically a bunch of links to people/sites who have tried to visualize the internet. It got me thinking of this old art piece that I saw and download many years ago. The quality of the video is pretty poor (as I downloaded back when 6MB was a big file :-). While I cant remember where I got it from, I still find it thought-provoking:

Why picking up women and getting your start-up funded requires 'Social Proof' - and why thats interesting...

First check out’s fine list on how to pitch your start up to angels or vcs: . Then jump over to this blog post about how to use social proof to pick up women:

As you can see, there is a fascinating rhetoric overlap between start-up pitching and pickup social science. Maybe its just because I did my degree in social science – but I feel when speaking about product marketing, we should focus less about technology and specific tricks for e.g twitter and facebook. While we are dealing with new communication technologies – its seems the core principles of human interaction and social needs is more or less the same as it has always been. Concepts like ‘social proof’, the need for ‘social acceptance’ and the ‘strength of the weak ties’ have been around for a while. It’s those core human needs and a deep understanding of that psychology we need to understand and discuss to make better products, marketing-tools and designs.

Or at least it’s a good excuse to read ‘The Game’ and expense the book as ‘social media research’ 🙂

Have a great weekend.