Clifford Nass made a name for himself in the field of Human Computer Interaction by proving that most people relate to their PC’s more like they do to other human beings, than like they do to other types of machines.
He showed that we tend to politely focus on the first application we’re interacting with if another application interrupts us, and also that we prefer to be praised by a computer using a male voice, whereas we want to be addressed by a female voice when it gives us love advice. An important paper of his, at SIGCHI 1994, gave rise to the so called Computers as Social Actors paradigm.
As paradigms go it’s an interesting one, but I think it makes more sense to explore how we feel with regards to individual applications, rather than to the machine they run on.
For example: I have no feelings whatsoever in respect to my email client. Even though it’s the app I spend most time in, I never really pay attention to it. In contrast, writing apps are very different. I’ve circled through dozens of them and feel strongly about how each is shaping my thinking. (Back when I was a script writer, I couldn’t live without Scrivener, which helped me see how complex storylines interacted. These days I do a lot of my writing in Jetpack’s WordPress app, which I love for its simplicity.)
Another example of apps that provokes an emotional response is Contacts, Apple’s built in address management software. I often spend time in it just reflecting on who’s in my network, how they relate to each other and what people I could introduce to each other. The feeling I get is not unlike that of working in my garden; carefully pruning and curating that which exist separate from me, but where I also make my particular mark just by providing context.
I’ve got my little hacks and tweaks that make Contacts useful, but there’s so much more potential. Because sadly Apple sometimes seem to suffer from glaring blind spots that leave essential parts of the user experience neglected. The fact that contacts management represents such a blind spot is ironic, given that Apple loves to market itself as a company that’s connecting people.
Now I’m told that Apple doesn’t believe in product managers, but if there was one for Contacts, here would be my open letter to her or him.
- First of all: Take metadata seriously. Ok you don’t have to spell it with a capital M as some geeks insists on, just try and do a half-decent job. Like, why isn’t it obvious to you to include the functionality of tagging, smart folders and categories, just like you do in your email client? That would go such a long way, and if you really want to go full monty, think what you could do with time-stamps that allows me to not just treat my address book as a snap shot of now, but also as a registry where I can delve back in time to explore, for example, when was the first (or latest) time that I met with a particular person. I have this need all the time and I’m sure I’m not alone.
- Second of all: Allow linking. Just as no man is an island, no one app should be expected to do everything. I have my todo-lists, my project management platforms and note taking tools. They’re all great at what they do, but they’re not built to manage contacts. That’s why I want to have my address book as a universal single source of truth, and for that to work I need to be able to link both to it and from it. That is to say, I want to be able to instantly create a calendar entry, a reminder, or whatever else that pops into my mind just when I see that persons name. Moving from there, two-way linking would be extra nice. What that means is, as I pull up Jane Doe in my rolodex, I automatically see not only what she’s linked to, but also all the places where I’ve linked from, potentially getting a well needed heads-up on that Trello-card which says I need to reach out to her by next Monday. (If this feels overly complex, I recommend looking to Obsidian for a gold standard implementation that manage to be as powerful as it’s elegant and simple.)
- Third of all: Visualise. Again, you can go deep down this rabbit hole, but just the smallest effort would make a world of difference. Anyone who’s been in business for a while will have amassed hundreds if not thousands of contacts. Taking a queue from your Photos app, it would seem like a no-brainer to start by providing some way to map them out geographically, as well as on a time line. But really why stop there? I mean, if you started taking metadata seriously, there’s really no end to what you could do. At the flic of a switch I could go from a boring list, to a filtered graph where it’d immediately be clear who share an interest in neuroscience mixed with, say, that rare type of probabilistic machine learning. It would open up for so much lovely serendipity!
Now before you say: It seems to me like you’re really looking for a full blown CRM, let me counter that. I know I’d be able to do some of the things I’m asking for with a CRM, but here’s the rub: I’m not trying to “manage relationships” and certainly not with “customers”, I just want to be able to take an open minded look at the people in my network and get some help to connect the dots.
And to end where we started – with the observation that people actually have feelings towards their computers – I think one of the most powerful ways to work with that is to create applications that places everything just within reach and endows the user with cognitive super powers. Applications which doesn’t force them to try push a square peg through a round hole.
That’s exactly what you’ve been so great at doing, again and again. Now here’s a place where you’ve been stumbling, but that’s ok, it’s not to late to make things right!