Empathy on the Cyber Frontier
October 2011


Originally Published on Core77.

Originally Published on Core77.

We are finally realizing what the web has been promising us for so long: Human interfaces. Well, let’s not get carried away. What we are really seeing are the signs that software products are finally beginning to understand us as humans, not simply as the other end of a technical process.

This, of course, isn’t the byproduct of a happy coincidence but rather the advancement of human-centered design in software product development. Facebook’s new Timeline with its re-imagination of the profile is one such example. By rethinking what was essentially a standard system-generated set of chronological and biographical lists as an interactive chronology of your life, they’ve changed the nature of this product to focus on the content rather than interface. Regardless of your personal opinions on Facebook’s philosophy and intentions here, it is an excellent example of product design with emotion and human connection at its core—distilled into a tightly crafted (algorithmic) user experience, where the content is the UI.

This launch marks the first time I’ve seen Facebook, a company who has proclaimed to be about people since its inception, actually produce a product that speaks to us humanly. The story they tell through their promotional video has resonance beyond being a simple utility, it’s about an individual’s life. Sure, its a life refracted through the lens of Facebook—but philosophies aside, it takes a step forward toward form-free interface design.

Shortly after the launch a remix surfaced combining the product with Don Draper’s famous ficticious “it’s not called the wheel, its called the carousel” pitch—and the results were spot on. While nothing the Timeline is promising is patently new—the application to a software program is vastly more novel than anything we’ve seen before.

Just as Draper’s fictitious pitch illustrates, businesses have been at this for years. Positioning their products to us through empathy and intimate human connection. While often cheapened or cast-off as consumerist and shallow, these brands and products give us stories and enable us to find meaning and fulfillment in the things we use. If the way in which we’ve mourned Steve Jobs passing is any indication, these things mean more than any of us would like to admit.

The technology sector, however, has been notably less smooth or empathetic in both promise and experience. Until recently, technology has mostly been delivered and received as a rational and deliberate utility—in other words, interchangeable, disposable, and ultimately, ephemeral. This has been laid out in its rapid product life-cycles and the boom and bust of web services. How many people, aside from geeks, can say that they felt a strong, human connection to the likes of Alta Vista and early versions of Windows?

There has, of course, been one technology company that stood outside of this pattern. And with it changed the nature of the industry entirely.

Apple has been building a deeper connection between its customers and their products for years—creating an aspiration to buy and be identified with their products, inviting its users to see the devices as partners, allies, a necessary part of their modern lives. With iPod, Apple challenged the idea that music had any form at all—you simply play songs. Apple created a future where music has become the content and medium itself; how it is played is immaterial to the users. With consistency across platforms music becomes formless—usable on-demand without the inconveniences of past systems (vinyls, tapes, CDs, etc).

The telephone function of any smartphone is another illustration of this pattern. What used to be an organization of numbers that you would dial and call (think: the little black book) has now become a list of your friends and contacts. You no longer call numbers, you call people.

There are indeed countless examples of the evolution and development of naturally human interfaces. In turn, they become harder to ignore. As the communication between device and user becomes more natural, we feel a greater pull to give them our attention. As our digital tools evolve to match our own patterns of learning and understanding, they become more intertwined with our lives (see Apple’s latest iOS technology,Siri). These systems speak humanely: “Willem is listening to Yeasayer” and with that become more like a companion and less like the cold lines of code they are.

Not surprisingly (and for the first time ever) Facebook made me wish that I had captured more stories, photos, updates, and songs to fill out my own Timeline; a little chronological shrine to moi. Not necessarily to share with the world (that’s another story), but just for myself. And that’s precisely their desire.

✌ Thanks for reading.




🙇 Willem Van Lancker
🗽 New York City

📚 Co-founder of Oyster
🔍 (acquired by Google)


🏄 @vanlancker