Social Instincts

It's funny - but last night I was measuring and blogging about the social instinct of bees, at the same time watching the live annoucements from the Facebook 2011 F8 developers' conference - the main theme, of course, the social graph.

There are interesting times ahead.

The social graph, in a nutshell, is a conceptual map of all the people and things that are socially connected to each other. The people you friend with, the brands you follow, the things you 'Like' all build out this graph. It's unique to you and some would argue, it pretty much defines you.

Over the years, behind the scenes Facebook has been building out ways for this graph to grow, by increasing the range of things that can be added to it. At first it only contained people - "Friends". The big change was to introduce the "Like" concept - now status updates, announcements, media, "pages", brands and so on could be added to your graph. It exploded.

Sadly, while Facebook was plotting world domination of social information, it wasn't paying quite as much attention to the user experience. Access to these features were being bolted onto the user interface bit by bit in a myriad of apparently disconnected functionality. The latest additions to the facebook experience, the "live stream" window alongside the "news feed" seems to have tipped the balance in terms of user horror; for every one person I hear say they like it, I hear four say they don't. Ouch.

Fast forward.

Behind the scenes Facebook has continued plotting its world domination of social graph data, starting from the ground up with a taxonomy that allows them to model and capture the data in many more orders of magnitude. In simple English, this means they'll be able to let you not just "like" things, but capture data about any activity you do, such as watch you read, listen to, watch, eat etc. You can see where this is going. The apps and applications that you use to go about your daily life with be "socially" connected and have the ability to log everything you do.

You are either going to love it or hate it or be completely scared by it, but it's going to happen.

This mass of data on the input side needs a way to be viewed and this is where Facebook have finally put some deeper thought into the user exerience and, I think, played something of a trump card.

First, they are encapsulating all the data about you as a person - your profile - in a timeline. A dynamic, living timeline that can extend back to the year you were born. It's organised in time order so that you have (if you want) a complete story of your life, based on all the things you do and document (from the trivial to the lifechanging), all the photos you upload and so on. Importantly, it can be curated easily, so that you can keep the important stuff and remove the things that shouldn't be seen.

What's more, applications can be embedded in this timeline. For example, I have electronic weighing scales that automatically capture my weight data and store it online where I can see my history and progress. The viewer application for these scales could be embedded in my timeline in a small window, so that at-a-glance I, or anyone I choose to share it with, can see the chart of my last year's weight loss. While you may question how useful this is, it serves to illustrate the concept and demonstrate how connected and "social" our worlds can become.

That, of course, is only half the equation - the timeline is a view of the profile, and the profile is an inward looking view of one person. The other half is the outward looking view of who and what that person is connected to. This is where some of the latest concepts Facebook has been rolling out come into play.

Social data will need to be classified into importance and relevance. This is a huge challenge to automate, although Facebook has continually been attempting it and will continue to do so. My weight data is pretty unimportant and irrelevant to most people, except me. It shouldn't be appearing in their stream everytime I get on the scales, even if it is logged to my profile. But other status updates are highly newsworthy: moving house, getting married, births, deaths, career successes and so on.

Facebook will (and is) splitting data into two types of stream.

First: the transient, real-time, 'socially' generated data - such as what I'm listening to right now, what I just photographed, what I'm watching. It's calling this "serendiptious" data and sticking it in the "ticker" that appears along side the main stream. This gives users an unobtrusive view of realtime activity of friends and (here's the new bit) the ability to join in. You might, for example, see your friend playing a new music track you've not heard, click on it, and immediately start listening in sync. In fact, for music, this concept is being touted as the next big thing to drive music discovery and grow the music industry.

Second: the newsworthy, interesting, 'sticky', non-realtime information - such as news stories, important events in people's lives, updates on items of special interest. This is your more-classic "wall" or news-feed, designed to filter out all the low-level noise. You'll be able to control what type of things you see in there (as indeed you can to a degree now) and as you extend your social graph (e.g. by liking and interacting with things), Facebook will get better at learning what it should show you.

The future

When you look at all these components in totality, you can see that Facebook has been dabbling round the edges with this, trying to patch up its broken User Interface/Experience and get to grips with these concepts. Finally, it seems to have taken a step back and started from the ground up to build the next era of social connectedness.

There are definitely some exciting concepts in there that not only play to the apparent social desire in human beings, but perhaps to a degree drive them too, by encouraging users to connect all their activity back to the Facebook "mothership". Certainly this will continue to raise alarm bells for those concerned with privacy and Facebook's attempt to monopolise this whole space.

For me, however, I'm delighted to see that a whole load of design thought has gone into the underlying concepts, information architecture and (if the presentations are to be believed) the user experience. It even helps just to understand the motivation and aspirations of what Facebook is doing here in order to get a handle on what you can expect to do with it and how to be able to use it. I think to date much of that has been lacking.

Whether you consider this as radical and groundbreaking as the pre-hype led us to believe is a moot point, but it is certainly taking our social instincts to the next level. Is that good or bad? Like all things, I suspect that is going to depend on how you use it.

The trouble with marketing...

Personally I think that traditional marketing techniques, such as a direct mail, are getting well past their sell-by date. It probably happened for me about 15 years ago, but I know for others it varies.

I was amused this morning to receive some direct mail from my favourite coffee company. Aside from anything else it contained a fairly well disguised and weak promotion: free shipping for larger orders (they already offer half-price). Certainly not enough to tempt me off the sofa.

But more noteworthy was the fact they had obvisously gone to some lengths to profile me and figure out the pattern of my recent orders, and come back at me with an attempt to change that behaviour (i.e. spend more). You see, what's happened, is I've been ordering a lot of decaff. Mainly decaff in fact.

So, some bright spark has come up with a database query to spot this and created a campaign to tempt me back into ordering all the other coffees they have. Nice campaign it is too - lots of plush brochureware and a well-thought-out approach to explaining and grouping all their coffee blends and flavours and so on. Almost good enough to lick.

It's all very admirable, all very expensive, all very nicely done and I'm sure there has been much back-patting over how cleverly targetted this campaign is - as if it's just for me, the decaffoholic.

But the problem is, it won't change a thing about my behaviour: it won't achieve its objective or call to action. So why on earth not?

Because they haven't asked me why I'm ordering decaff all the time. They haven't understood my motivation and needs. They haven't understood why I'm going to keep doing the same thing regardless.

And that's the problem with these traditional marketing approaches: there's no feedback loop. Marketers tend to observe a consumer behaviour pattern (to a greater or lesser degree of granularity, refinement and sophistication) and make some assumptions about what's going on and how to change it.

Get that assumption wrong and you've wasted your time and effort. It never ceases to amaze me the time, effort and cost organisations plough into this type of marketing with such little return and reward. Not to mention the carbon footprint. It's so easy now to engage with most consumers, it ought to be the mainstream approach and yet we are still in an age where the organisations that engage more intimately with consumers (over, for example, social media channels) are still heralded as trailblazers and innovators.

Barely a day goes by without my twitter stream being inundated of reports from "social media conferences" reporting the latest exciting trends and ingenius developments in social marketing and branding. And yet in reality, this is schoolboy stuff - this pares down to long-established simple concepts, such as good customer experience, meeting the customer where they're at, engagement on appropriate channels.

What the new tools and new-connected-world order offers marketers is the chance to engage one-on-one with their customers and, for the first time, to properly listen - i.e. complete the feedback loop. Have conversation, not broadcast. And yet so few organsiations seemed to have grasped these basic ideas that the social media industry feels compelled to slap the backs of those that have and do "get it". What they (and we as consumers) should be doing is kicking the backsides of those that don't! 

Instead, I'll be making one extra trip to the recycling centre and ordering my decaff as usual.

By calling 34 minutes per day Unlimited, is BT mis-selling?

I explore below a recent encounter with BT, my domestic telecoms provider, as an example of poor communication, product mis-selling and a strained attempt at using social media to mask customer service issues embedded in an organisation.

What's painful for me is that I actually quite like BT - cards on table: I used to work for them, I'm a shareholder and I think on the whole they have pretty good products. So I'm writing this with utmost transparency and a slight pang in my heart.

I may work in telecoms, but in real life I'm also just an ordinary consumer; I need consumer products and consumer levels of service. I should not have to rely on specialist knowledge to use and enjoy mass market products. I also value my time and like my dealings with companies to be efficient and organised.And I also have an interest in interaction design and business processes, especially in the field of customer service, because basically fixing and improving them is what I do for a job.

So, recently I became enagaged in a conversation with BT on Twitter, because I wanted to understand properly what the usage allowance was for BT Broadband talk (a domestic Voice over IP package) - a product for which use is quoted as "unlimited" with the customary asterisk by the side to mean "not REALLY unlimited" (see image).

Here's that twitter conversation word for word.


  • me: So, BT offers "*unlimited broadband talk calls if you redial" but quotes "abuse policy applies" - WHERE IS THIS POLICY? BT website sucks #fb
  • BTCare: Hi, have a look at this .. .. The info you are looking for is at bottom of the page..hope it helps
  • me: That's the page I'm complaining about! It says "Abuse policy applies" - WHERE is the policy!??? (i.e. original question) :-(
  • BTCare: It's at under "Using the service", point 22 to 30. General abuse policy applies to all telephony.
  • me: thank you! I'd like to suggest that references to this policy on product pages are hyperlinked to it. That's how the web works ;-)
  • me: so to be clear: on BT Broadband Talk you can redial every 60 mins for free calls indefinitely and no monthly (abuse) cap applies...
  • BTCare: A Fair Usage Policy of 1000 minutes or 150 calls a month applies. for more info
  • me: thanks. So my next question is, how do you know how many broadband talk minutes you've used? is there a page to find out?
  • BTCare: There is no facility to monitor calls to be honest. As you can see though, you have alot of minutes to use on a monthly basis
  • me: "a lot" = subjective. So BBTalk allowance = 34 mins per day. Calling this "unlimited*" is tantamount to mis-selling. OFCOM's view?


at this point the conversation stopped - it seems BTCare had nothing more to say!

So, let me cover some of the basic errors in this mini-saga.

The First error is that which caused my problem in the first place - lack of clarity on the product pages at such as:


  • mentioning something but not referencing it properly so I can find it
  • writing a single paragraph covering two topics - leaving the reader wondering if the items are related or separate.


The issue here is that the paragaph in question (see first para in image above) starts by covering 0845 & 0870 numbers and then apparently changes in scope without being clear that it does so.

The second error, once the twitter conversation started, was the company didn't LISTEN to my question. I asked for the abuse policy - the response was to tell me where it is mentioned (the very page i was viewing), not where it is published.

The third error is the confusion caused by using the terms "abuse" and "fair use" to describe various forms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour - this is like introducing some kind of "low-watermark" and "high-watermark" points as to acceptable behaviour. It's like telling a child some of their behaviour is "bad" and some of it is "unacceptable". That's confusing. I don't want that - just tell me what I can and can't do - just draw ONE line in the sand. I asked for the abuse policy because it seemed to that's what going over an allowance would be; turns out I need the fair use policy.

The fourth issue is that the company has "fair use" limits it expects you to abide by, and yet has no way of allowing you to monitor whether you are within those limits. This is patently ridiculous. Who ever heard of a car without a speedo, odometer and fuel guage? This is a 21st Century technology product, billed by usage, a usage you cannot track. It's not just ridiculous, it's verging on sharp practice.

Finally - the crux of my whole enquiry - the fair use (or as I thought, abuse) policy. What BT seems to have confirmed is that your "unlimited" allowance of minutes is actually limited to 1000 per month. It may seem a lot, as BTCare tried to point out, but that's actually under 34 minutes per day. (And please don't insult me by telling me how valuable call minutes are to me; in my world it's nowhere near "a lot").

Can they really be justified in calling this unlimited?

Ways forward

Setting my whole concern about the positioning of "unlimited minutes" itself, I fear this conversation is symptomatic of any large organisation that "talks the talk" as far as customer service is concerned, but fails to grapple with it effectively.

I spend much of my time working with organisations that are struggling in this way. The modern consumer is often a well-informed multi-channel being - often more informed than some of customer service represenatives of the organisation itself. This presents a challenge - and businesses need to rise to that challenge.

There's a bit of back-patting going on at BT over its use of twitter (, but responding on twitter is not really fixing anything. Rather it's implicitly acknowledging that there are cracks in service and attempting to paper over them. And it's not scalable either. Full marks for trying, but you haven't prevented the problem from occuring over and over again.

So, what are the kinds of things organisations like BT need to do to be effective at customer service:

  • they need to listen, listen and listen again - properly
  • continually improve the use of the right tools for content management and publishing, especially across multiple channels; including the training for how to publish customer facing content (I've written for in the past and know what's involved).
  • you need a feedback loop; stop treating web pages of information as the answer to all questions just because it's cheap (this strategy reminds me very much of an anecdote from a bank that revoked its policy on being able to call branches.
    Caller: can I speak to my branch?
    Call Centre: sorry Madam, no. Anything they can answer, I can now answer for you.
    Caller: OK, I think i left my glasses there this morning - have you got them?)
  • view customer service across channels (web, phone, twitter, IM, email) holistically, not as silos - viewing transfer across channels not so much as "escalation" but "unified communication" and embracing it and enabling it rather than denying it
  • test self-service and assisted-service with real "use cases" of real customers - i.e. user centric design with workflows designed around the tasks customers want to complete not pathways designed around internal business processes.

No-one says this is easy - but nor is it impossible.

Twitter to Facebook: 5 Ways to Post to Both (1 way with speech)

There are times when we’d really like to phone in our Twitter and Facebook updates with little to no effort. Vlingo’s mobile application for Nokia, BlackBerry, and iPhone does speech recognition for a variety of functions, but we love it for status updates.

Once your Facebook and Twitter accounts are configured, you can hit the “press + speak” button and say the “status update” command to start verbalizing your update. Vlingo will then transcribe your audio to text and update your status on Facebook and Twitter. We also really like the fact that you can double check the speech to text translation before you update your social presence.

twit 2 who? Stephen Fry of course...

I was pondering the content of this article a few weeks ago, trying to get to grips with what it might mean to be a society of fully mobile individuals, always-on, always-connected. I can't help but feel it has the potential to change us - for better or worse - because it fundamentally alters the way we share and transmit information and engage with each other. Could it be so significant that the importance of the written word elevates itself above that of our innate desire to speak?
This pondering was, of course, all before our beloved Stephen Fry appeared on Jonathan Ross' talk show (23rd Jan 2009) and reminded us all how much of a twitterer he is. With reckless disregard for the consquences I logged onto Mr. Fry's twitter stream to discover a witty and joyful microscopic bi-hourly stream of what it is to be living the Fry-life, being followed by over 60,000 intrigued individiuals. Naturally I added one to their number (and it has since increased enormously).
At the time of writing, Mr Fry is 2nd in the twitter kingdom for his impressive Followship, while a certain Mr. Obama undeservingly heads the leader board (with a tragically small amount of actual content).
So immediately my mind turned to the thoughts I had been having previously, and to considering what influence does a man with an iphone and 100,000 voyeurs actually wield? What purpose and meaning is in it all? What is it we crave when we spectate on such a beloved figure in such touching detail. And how do we make sense of the paradox of such intimacy, yet such distance and remoteness? Is it doing something to our psyche?
While it remains one of my dearest aspirations to have Mr. Fry over for tea sometime (a cup of Eary Grey and a lip-smackingly good home-made curry), I have to make do with the virtual updates of his walks round Soho, trips to the Mexican visa office and meal choices while filming on set. This is extraordinarily intimate, so much so, that although he has never graced my table, I feel I do know him, I feel I am connected with him, involved in his life. (I wonder if he knows?)
Of course, if he ever replies to any of my twitty interjections, the mirage will be fully complete.
It is all very astonishing, most certainly more revolutionary than evolutionary, since Mother Nature could not have given us these abilities in quite such a short time frame - and therein lies the intrigue. We inhabit the information revolution, it is all around us. We cannot analyse its final outcome, since it is yet to happen. We can only feel our way, experiment with it, embrace it, learn from- and to enjoy it. Either way, in thrusting oneself headlong into this revolution's social web, it becomes captivating. The contribution of my new best pal Mr. Fry is as yet unmeasured, but in stature alone (regardless of content) is most certainly significant.
Where does this leave us in telecoms? Thinking hard about where to earn our lunch, that's where (in contrast to Stephen, who has it provided by the film production company).
(more thoughts on that later)