Simplification, Implicit Behaviour and Explicit Opt In

Some recent events in the past few weeks have had me thinking about how we develop software, specifically software that deals with social sites. The release of Google Buzz has raised various privacy concerns from people. I am not as worried about privacy, as those issues tend to get resolved fairly quickly. The problem that we are now seeing is the difference between doing things automatically, or implicitly, and asking for explicit permission. How you handle the difference can have a direct impact on the design and usability of an application.

So, Google Buzz brought the implicit/explicit debate to the forefront mainly because of the privacy issues that it raised. However, this is not Google’s first attempt at building implicit information. Fred Wilson had a post about Buzz, but brings an interesting geolocation perspective:

If you compare Google Latitude, where you broadcast your location, to Foursquare, where you explicitly checkin to a location, I think you’ll agree that the explicit gesture is better.

And so it turns out that implicitly deriving social relationships is tricky and potentially dangerous. That doesn’t mean the idea isn’t powerful.

Obviously, email and implicit networks are a good idea, but how we expand out from email will be very difficult. Changing something as stable as email is drastic for most people. Building a social network automatically from your email contacts can be incredibly powerful, but it has some privacy concerns. Purely explicit network building does not carry the same privacy issues, but it is slow and people are frequently omitted that should not be. How many times have you gone to someone’s Twitter profile and asked yourself, “how am I not following this person?”

Take a look at FourSquare. There is a group of administrative pages where you can manage your friends. Twitter also has some basic friend management, but there is so little that it becomes difficult to do much of anything. Now, look at GMail and Google Contacts. When you email someone, a contact is created. Google automatically segments your 20 most contacted people. You can quickly assign people to groups as well. Given that this is your address book, this all makes sense. However, should all of the social applications have their own friend lists and management tools?

Where is the simplicity? Implicit or automatic tasks are the playground of simplicity. Two companies that continue to attempt to simplify things are Google and Apple. I have talked enough about Google, but look at what Apple did with the iPhone. They simplified the smartphone, made it accessible to almost anyone and did not sacrifice much in terms functionality. I have used a BlackBerry for the past 5 years or more, and refused to use many other phones. I recently purchased an iPhone, mostly because it was a good value compared to an equivalent BlackBerry, but I also had the option of returning the iPhone within 30 days. It took me a month to get comfortable with my first BlackBerry. It took me two hours to get familiar with the iPhone. I had loaded my email account, contacts, Outlook Calendar and Google Calendar and downloaded both FourSquare and Tweetdeck. The key was simplicity and the integration between the phone and its management software, iTunes. Google has been doing the same with much of its software as well, providing simple integration points to allow the user to have more power without the typical complexity.

Facebook is now trying to do the same things as Apple and Google. We can use Facebook Connect to login to many different sites. You can get your news feeds from the main page, and they are building a better messaging or email system. The integrated experience that Facebook is trying to develop is all based on implicit power of the network. As you build your network, you automatically get news or updates from your connections. There is no explicit request after the initial friend connection.

However, the question remains, where do you draw the line between implicit and explicit behaviour? The integrated experiences from Google, Apple and Facebook are winning the battle for your attention. The key to these implicit actions is to not be intrusive. As can be seen by Facebook’s Beacon debacle and the recent Google Buzz reaction, the line of intrusion is a very fine one.