Google Allo – First Impression

Yesterday I installed the new Google Allo and gave it a first try. My team at Outbrain is responsible building chatbot CMS for publishers. So I was interested to learn about some of the decision made in Allo, and compare them with what we’ve learned over the last 6 month powering the CNN bots on Facebook Messenger and Kik.

User on-boarding

I downloaded the app, installed it, but then deleted it in the middle of the on-boarding. Why? because Google are being overly transparent. Why do they make such a point that they are going to send my contact list to their cloud now and then? there must be some evil reason for that…

Allo-onboarding-1.png

So, I deleted the app. But then I thought to myself, “wait, you’re using Google Contacts, and your contacts are already syncing with google. Not periodically, but all the time, in real-time…” I felt stupid, downloaded the app again and completed the on-boarding. And I won’t say I felt better when the first few prompts from Allo kept pushing on that sharing thing, as if trying to tell me that I’ll be better not use it, if I want keeping private anything

Allo-onboarding-2.PNG

To sum things up, the on-boarding experience could have done more to instill trust and make me more comfortable. Right now I’m not, and although he is a bit more of a privacy snob than I am, Snowden already made a point about the lack of privacy in Allo.

Content experience

  • Typed “top stories” – I got relatively fresh stories, but definitely not important ones.
  • They put the publish time. Seeing that a story published 37 minutes ago give confidence that they deliver news as they happen.
  • The stories carousel is clean and simple, but I would have liked to be able to take action on a specific story. This is possible in Facebook Messenger using the ‘Structured Message’ template. Articles’ recommendations in Allo feel temporary, since you can’t do much to engage with them other than read when you see them. Adding an option to see a summary of an article, save it for later or get more similar stories might give users a better sense of control over the experience and the stories they are seeing.
  • Google seems to think of Allo as a new interface for search, which makes sense for Google, but make Allo feels like a browser. When searching for something, the first quick reply is “Google results”, which once tapped opens the browser and search for your input. I didn’t like that it takes me out of the app.
  • The content in Allo doesn’t feel native. Rather, it feels like a patch, a cut and paste from the browser. Again, makes me feel that Allo is just another browser.

Chat-flow and experience

  • There are no dead ends. Even when chatting with friends, you always have quick replies available. That’s great.
  • There are ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ emoji’s at the last two positions of every set of quick replies. It didn’t make sense to me. As a user, I don’t know what they mean, hence probably won’t use them.

AI

  • That’s the part that surprised me the most. Allo tries to be smart. It tries as much as it can to be non scriptive. Say “hi” and every time it will answer with something different. The first time I typed “hi”, I got the entry point experience, namely the option that I have to interact with the bot. Later, when I wanted to get to the same entry point, I typed “hi” again. This time, though, Allo tried to get into conversation with me. After few more greeting inputs that got me no where, I gave up and typed what I was looking for.
  • At that early stage, when users aren’t educated enough on the conversational design, and are accustomed to more deterministic experiences, trying to be smart is wrong. It’s like the early days of the iPhone – the skeuomorphism design helped users get accustomed to use it, through the icons that imitated physical objects. Once they got educated, more than 8 years latter, the flat design was introduced.

To sum things up, my overall impression is ahh. Yeah, it’s cool to play with Allo and see how well it handles natural language, but it’s no different than google search. In fact, it feels too much like google search, which is bit outdated. But than again, I’m writing this post with Emacs…

Hostile Lead Generation

In the last few days I’ve been getting daily emails from TWC, promoting their “Time Warner Cable Business Class” service. I don’t know anything about this service, and since I don’t run a business, its irrelevant to me. 

Until today I simply deleted those emails, but today I got annoyed, and made an effort to indicate it by unsubscribing from thier mailing list. However, the unsubscribe flow made me think that TWC isn’t really deterred by requests to unsubscribe. In fact, it seems it’s using it as another user acquisition channel.
And I think I cracked the protocol of this funnel:

Marketing emails

Send daily emails to users whose emails we get buy.
img

Keep sending those emails until the user respond, by clicking on the unsubscribe link, or selecting the gmail “report spam & unsubscribe” button.
img

Clean user information through an unsubscribe form

When a user clicks the unsubscribe link in the email, we have a precious opportunity to make sure the information we have about this user is correct.

img

When a user submit the unsubscribe form, we should update our database with the new information.

User is redirected to unsubscribe form

After we get a successful respond from our servers, redirect the user to the TWC homepage.

img

We assume (or hope) that when the user submit the form, she moves focus to another tab, rather than closing the one she’ve submitted the form in. If this assumption holds, then the user will have the TWC homepage waiting for her, and she’ll get to it in the near future.

User visit the TWC homepage

At some point, as we assumed, the user zap through open tabs and open the one that displays the TWC homepage. Great, we have a new lead! The user is visiting our site, meaning she’s interested in our service.

img

Hurry up to drop a cookie on her, and look for whatever information we can get on that cookie. Wait, we have her full name and email address!

Retarget potential leads

Let’s make sure we slice the bread while it’s still fresh, and find that user wherever she browse. This way we can nudge her just a little more, and try to get her to come back to our site and take another step toward conversion.

img

And wait, we have her email! that’s gold…

Well, no bad feelings for TWC. It’s just an amusing example of the absurdity of how user acquisition works.

Revising My Approach To Drafts

a blog post is like a news story about yourself

This was an insightful commnet made by Nathan, a member of my Blog Writing  Meetup. He made this remark in the context of writing style and voice – he would like to reflect his personality in his posts, rather than simply report on facts. But thinking about this insight from another angle might help me understand why I accumulate so many unfinished drafts, and why I rarely go back to them.

News vs. Blog post

News (n): newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events

I won’t go into explaining news nor will I try to redifine it. I’ll simply assume that if you’re reading this post, you can tell a news article when you see one1.

The thing about news is that it’s ephermal. No one will care about this Apple iPhone 7 release date a year from now; or as we joke in my team – chatbots are so April 2016….

Going back to Nathan’s comment, I think of a blog post as coverage of one’s thoughts and ideas, a translation of what goes in one’s mind. And so, writing a blog post is really like writing a news story, covering what’s going on in the writer’s head2. And since thoughts and ideas come and go, not reporting on them in time (obviously, reporting on those worth noting), makes them stale, irrelevant and less interesting. Mind you, though, that they become so in the writer’s mind, and not necesserily in the readers'[^users].

My Drafts Graveyard

It now makes sense why I accumulate tons of drafts, but don’t go back to edit and publish any of them. It’s not that they’re not good, or not interesting, but that they’re not relevant to me anymore. I lost interest, as new thoughts are gushing through my head.

When I started this blog, I implemented a writing hack I thought was useful (I still do) – keeping a draft section in my blog. Every post I start goes into this section, which suppose to help me capture ideas and serve as a springboard for future posts. In reality, though, it’s less a springboard and more graveyard of half backed posts.

Fight Back

The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution

― Albert Einstein

So now that I understand why I never go back to rework on my drafts, it might be easier to find ways around it. My current approach is to use the “burn the bridges” strategy 3, inspired by Sacha Chua’s “Clear out your drafts by scheduling Minimum Viable Posts” post.

The idea is to write a first draft that captures just enough of a thought to make it understandable. Then, instead of putting it aside and plan to get back to work on it (which rarely happens), I would schedule this post to be published in a day or two. Now, I know it’s going to go public and I have no way around it4; I can either iterate on the draft or let it be. But draft it won’t be forever.

I use this new strategy with this post, with that very paragraph, which I’m writing during the grace period before the post published. Next thing I’m thinking to go through my drafts, and start scheduling few of them, reminiscence of past time thoughts’ news…

 

 


  1. To further your understanding of news, I recommend The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain De Botton 
  2. I’m not going into the differences of writing styles between news articles and blog posts. 
  3.  “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War 
  4. Of course, I can cancel the scheduling, but the idea is to let go of that option… 

Ortus Rengi

Recently I’m into gaming. It started with a nostalgic craving to Half-Life, which I used to spend hours on, about ages ago. I wondered if there’s a version for mac, and found that there is, in Steam. I didn’t hear about Steam before (thinking about it, I did hear about it in one of the Cortex podcast episodes), but once visiting that service, there is no way out… a spent almost the entire night browsing through games, feeling I’m in an amusement park. I forgot all about half-life, and eventually immersed myself in Ortus Rengi, a closed-deck, deck-design strategy card game.

Aim Away From The Target

Yesterday my blog writing meetup got together. We talked about voice:
how do you transfer raw thoughts from your brain, to your hands and type them to the screen without losing their authenticity. How can you make your writing read as if you were speaking it? How can you make your readers hear you speaking to them through your posts?

Here are couple of posts we read, as examples for strong sense of unique voice, which the authors were able to maintain, or maybe convey:

My biggest takeaway from the discussion last night was that voice isn’t something I can think of or plan for when writing. Instead I should not think of it. Only when I won’t, my voice will find its way, and slip into my writing.

Holly, on of the group members, put it nicely,  paraphrasing on “Zen in the Art of Archery”

Aim away from the target.

If only it was that easy, though…

Chronicles of Addiction

6 months ago I listened to a podcast, and learned for the first time about this mechanical keyboard thing.

I was intrigued and began reading about it.

3 weeks later I bought a wasd code.

I kinda liked it, but not that much. The blue switches, together with the thin keycaps felt flimsy and hollow. The typing experience wasn’t what I imagined it to be.

More research, and I’ve learned about the different types of switches. I returned blues and replaced with a tenkeyless greens.

The sound and tactile feel of the green switches was better, but the typing experience still wasn’t there.

I’m looking for mechs on Craigslist and find this old Northgste keyboard. I google and find its an old classic. Trying to buy it didn’t work, but I’m getting hooked to old school keyboards. Shortly after, I venture with an Apple Extended Keyboard 2.

The AEK2 felt like a dream. But it’s 30 years old keys start to die one after the other.

I’ve turned into a keyboard doctor and gave it an open heart surgery.

I’m delving deeper into mechs, and spend hours at r/MechanicalKeyboards/.

I heard about Massdrop. This horrible site detached me from hundreds of dollars.

There is more to mechanical keyboards than just the switches. As it turned out keycaps is an entire area that I wasn’t aware of. I’m learning about all the different profiles. SA looked awesome, but there is a Granit DSA drop in Massdrop, and I can’t hold myself from committing to it.

I need to see and try more keyboards than I can buy, so I’m starting a mechanical keyboard meetup.

The granit drop was closed 2 and I’m getting the keys 3 months later.

I’m swapping the crappy wasd keys, but finding that the stabilizers won’t fit into the new granit keycaps, so I buy silicon tape and wrap it over the stabilizers to make it fit more closely with the new granits.

My renewed code can finally compete with the AEK2; compete but never win…

What have become of me… How have I been sucked into this world…?

Anyway, I’m starting to feel an itch for a portable mech. For travels. Going to hunt a 60% drop.

The lesson: never listen to podcasts again.

Morning Muses

One writing hack is to read something by someone you admire, before going about writing. Today, I went on my morning pages right after reading “The Tempest“, one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays. Here’s the outcome…:

[I’m] On a flight back from a well needed vacation in the Caribbean, the first, in a long time, which got me to an almost complete relaxation. I got my sleep deprivation sattled, feel refreshed and recharged, ready to a new adventure. And a new adventure is right by the corner, hopefully this week its nature I will uncover. Writing prosaically, a Shakespeare influence it must be, hence can settle the battle between writing and reading. My mind craves the taste of a good book, but bloated from the execive thoughts it has absorebed, with way not to let them out.

Such fun it is to write this way, encrypting my thoughts, the key to which known to only me.

What’s in me, but a storm? I can’t make my mind if I’m an owner or under someone else’s power. I want to make some of my own, yet can’t commit for the sum with which it comes.

I like this muse, it makes me flow, it make my mind fly, sing and play. Lots of serious business to consider, but I’m going to let my heart take the final decision.

Here, here, for a fun afternoon astir.

From an Idea to an MVP

So I have this idea for food recommendation, but now I’m struggling with where to start. What will be a good first usecase for a POC or MVP.

At the moment, I’m planning on a single page dashboard where users can login to, to get a report on their food ordering habits – top dishes and restaurants and more such data.

But I have are two issues with scope:

  1. Not sure users will see the value that I see in such dashboard. Now, sure, that’s what the MVP is for, but:
  2. It’s not testing the real product assumption that users will want to get recommendations for food.

With that in mind, I thought of two other options:

  1. Dishes following – as a user, I can follow the food that I like and see updates, recipes and places I can find them.
  2. Group ordering – offer a simple ‘negotiator’ for food ordering. For example, a group of 4 people who want to order lunch, will connect to this page and put their preferences. The system will match their preferences and come with a suggested restaurant. Users can then save their preferences by registering. It reminds me of doodle.com.

I like the other option both because it requires less technical effort – I can see how I can pull out an MVP without writing a line of code. In addition, this can turn out to be a utility that users will be willing to register to. Lastly, solving for groups orders introduce the possibility for virality and network effect.