Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand

I was interviewed by Nate Lanxon from Bloomberg about Skype, specifically its confusing UX history and what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. A whole sentence of that conversation made it into the piece linked below:

Don’t Skype Me: How Microsoft Turned Consumers Against a Beloved Brand – Bloomberg

Here are my full comments for posterity:

Looking back 15 years, it’s almost hard to believe how well Skype did the difficult bit. They brought a groundbreaking technology—video calling—into any home or office that wanted it. The Skype app did one thing well, and it changed the way we communicate on the internet.

‘To Skype’ started to become a common phrase as the app enjoyed the same first mover or category leader status occupied by products like Google’s search engine and Adobe’s Photoshop. Yet as it grew, we saw the beginnings of an identity crisis. The middle period of its history, when it was acquired first by eBay and then Microsoft, saw multiple redesigns, each adding more ‘social’ features. This could only lead to confusion about the appearance and disappearance of different interface elements—particularly from the less tech-savvy users who were urged to install and use the app by family members wanting to keep in touch.

Skype 4.0 saw the return of video calls as the primary feature, but not for long. The launch of Skype 5.0 in 2014 gave a ‘Metro’ or Windows Phone-style UX to its iOS and Android apps. 6.0, released in 2015, ditched that in favour of a combination of iOS gestures and Android’s Material Design look. Meanwhile, Windows users on tablet, desktop and laptop have had to endure different app versions as Microsoft deals with a fragmented operating system base. 2017’s controversial redesign was broader in scope, with bold colour gradients, prominent emoji reactions and above all a renewed focus on messaging. This generated lots of negative feedback with users complaining of significant usability issues. Microsoft eventually backtracked over some of these changes.

In 2018 Skype is by most standards a mature app. Yet it still isn’t sure what it wants to be, and complexity and confusion reign. When I log in, I’m encouraged to update my temporary status with an ‘Highlights’ image. I can open a conversation with a brand’s automated customer service bot. I’m prompted to start group chats with my contacts. The app’s original core features are now widely available in other messaging and social apps and baked into mobile and desktop operating systems for even easier use. These apps and platforms have leveraged their huge install bases by adding video calling to their existing text-based chat, and it feels a natural extension of those services. For Skype to repeatedly try to retrofit an entire messaging infrastructure into their app feels unwieldy and is confusing for users.

There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch with a couple arguing over a new product—is it a floor wax, or a dessert topping? Company man Chevy Chase reassures them: don’t worry, it’s both! And that’s what it feels like with Skype—in the face of huge competition, it tries to be all things to all people, and almost all those things are executed better elsewhere.

## 2. Bit more detail on Skype as a verb

Since it launched, ‘to Skype’ has become a phrase that means ‘to start a video call with someone’. Skype joined the likes of Google, Photoshop, Xerox, Hoover and many other companies and products for whom their brand name has become a generic name, which stands in for similar products and services in that category.

This is a double edged sword. Your name gets out beyond your existing customer base and there’s a sense that you’ve ‘made it’. You’re automatically seen as the category leader—the ones that did it first, and perhaps the best. But it’s not all great news. There are lots of companies—Adobe is a great example—that don’t like you using their product names as verbs. Their legal teams worry that this process of ‘genericisation’ will lead to ‘genericide’, a huge problem where it becomes harder to renew their trademarks if a product name is too widely used.

But perhaps Microsoft shouldn’t be worried. With so many newer features that take the product away from its original core service, it’s less obvious what it means to ‘Skype’ someone. Users of Apple products are more likely to say “I’ll FaceTime you” to each other when they mean to start a video call. Millions of people around the world are comfortable saying “I’ll WhatsApp you” when they want to start a text chat. If Microsoft aren’t careful, ‘to Skype’ might end up meaning ‘to confuse someone’.

Nate had a couple of follow up questions, to which I responded:

Currently, users fire up Skype for two main purposes. One is contact-centric: for ongoing, intermittent conversation that’s typically text-based and either one-to-one or one-to-many. The other is task-centric: one-off, focused communication, such as a video call with another user or group. These are very different types of intent and communication.

Skype’s current UX is very contact-centric. You’re presented with a prominent list of people—”who do you want to communicate with?”—then you decide which of these communication types you want to happen. This is fine for users who primarily want to use Skype as a messaging tool and is well executed. All the features you would expect from such an app are present and it’s easy and intuitive to use. It serves the first purpose and works well on mobile, where users are more likely to dip in and out.

But many power users—e.g. businesses, podcasters, the sorts of people who’d gladly pay money for a robust service that’s dedicated to their needs—think in a more task-based way, considering the communication type first—”what do you want to do?”. Typically they’ll be using the desktop version. Their need is to start a video call with person x, for example, or start an audio call with persons y and z. For this type of user, the current UX is problematic. There are too many features and UI elements that they don’t need or want, and they’re all in the way.

All of this means that the app as it stands is squarely in competition with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps which already have a loyal group of dedicated users. For successful group messaging, all participants need to be intimately familiar with the service and its UX. I wouldn’t be comfortable asking a group of my friends to start a Skype chat. Despite it’s UX similarities with its competitors, many of my friends won’t be familiar with the interface and, once they are, I fear that it will change again, leading to confusion within the group.

These different user needs are subtly incompatible. Skype’s identity crisis has lead them to an UX dilemma that interface adustments alone can’t solve, and another major redesign is the last thing its users want.

Designing page previews for Wikipedia 

Wikipedia recently launched page previews for their content—hover over an internal link (i.e. from one Wikipedia entry to another) and you’ll reveal a pop-up with summary information about the destination page.

The link at the bottom of this post summarises some of the design and UX work that went into the new feature. But why so much thought? It’s a simple, straightforward new feature, right? Well:

  • Nearly ~28 percent of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from clicking on internal blue links. a.k.a going down the rabbit hole
  • Blue links account for ~230 million page views per month
  • ~2 million links get hovered per minute across all Wikipedias

In other words, blue links are the most frequently-used interactive elements on Wikipedia. This makes messing with or changing any feature related to blue links a bit more… delicate and challenging.

Not only that, but not every destination page has the same content. They can have long or short titles or descriptions; images of any size or aspect ratio; differing licence information; or other textual formats such as mathematical formulae or musical notation. The post gives a good idea of the challenges and how the feature might develop from here.

Source: How we designed page previews for Wikipedia — and what could be done with them in the future – Wikimedia Blog

Why Slate is moving its URLs to https

As a web developer and product dabbler, I love URLs. URLs say a tremendous amount about an application’s structure, and their predictability is a testament to the elegance of the systems behind them. A good URL should let you play with it and find delightful new things as you do.

Each little piece of our new URL took a significant amount of planning and effort by the Slate tech team. Let’s break it down:

Source: Why Slate is moving its URLs to https.

It might seem trivial, but I’m a big believer in having readable and useful URLs. Useful insomuch as they are a secondary navigation, hackable by users to move up one or more levels in a site. The decisions made here are all sensible and will benefit Slate readers, or at least the portion of users who are as odd as me.

The UX of 280

This is where the design challenge comes in: How can we make a UI that communicates these different character constraints that is still easily understood globally? Simply replacing the number doesn’t work because we can’t be certain which language you’re going to be Tweeting in. We could guess which language you’ll use, based on your location or system language, but that falls apart quickly, as many people live in foreign countries or travel regularly. Additionally, many people Tweet in multiple languages, sometimes within a single Tweet. Because we count dense alphabets differently than non-dense, mixed language Tweets can result in some intricate math that we want to be able to abstract away. The challenge here was to create a design that adapts to different character limits without relying on a number, works with the many ways people compose Tweets, and is intuitive enough that people don’t have to spend time thinking about it.

A recap of some of the UX decisions made to show that Twitter users now have 280 characters with which to compose their post, not 140.

Source: Looking After Number One-forty – Twitter Design & Research – Medium

Better interface copy

John Saito, on Medium, has 7 tips for designing words. The best is the final one:

7. Write in mocks, not docs

Have you ever written something that looked good on paper, but ended up looking too long when it went live? That’s what happens when you do your writing in Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, or any other writing app.

When you write words for an interface, seeing the full context is so crucial. You need to know how your words are going to look next to everything else around it.

That’s why I prefer to write in Sketch mocks, not in docs. I find that writing in mocks helps inform my writing decisions, because I can see how my words will look in context.

Screenshot of an iOS interface

The art of writing microcopy

Christine Hawthorne has a great post about microcopy on the GatherContent blog.

User experience design aims to make things feel intuitive for the person using your app or platform. Microcopy needs to act in the same way.

Just a few, carefully chosen words can go a long way in apps and can stop users struggling or dropping out of the process altogether.

Microcopy shouldn’t explain the design. It should enhance the user experience, working within context and to answer the question a user might have. For example, the copy on a button shouldn’t tell users to click it. It should say where they will go next, or what will happen when they press it, i.e, it saves the information.

Creating a tone of voice

Ellen de Vries, for the Clearleft blog:

  1. Gather up a set of magazines, some of which you feel have affinity with your brand, some of which are total wild cards.
  2. Establish a question that you’re hoping to answer with this exercise.
  3. Allow your team to spend time ripping out anything and everything that sparks their imagination, from the profound to the downright silly.
  4. Ask the team to group the images according to relevance. Do it out loud.
  5. Harvest their language as you go.

As they spoke about their choices, wild and wonderful language emerged, almost by accident. This language serves as an authentic starting point for the tone of voice.

Creating a tone of voice is something I’m asked about a lot, and this is an interesting approach.

Title case and sentence case

John Saito on the relative merits of title case and sentence case in UX:

Much like the word “gravitas,” title case gives your words a feeling of formality and importance. Sites like The New York Times and USA.gov primarily use title case. It’s Professional. Serious. Established.

Using title case is like dressing your words up in a suit. For certain brands, you might want your words to look like they mean business. If you’re in the business of security, for example, title case is more likely to feel professional and trustworthy compared to sentence case.

[…]

Just as title case looks more formal and serious, sentence case looks more casual and friendly. I’m a writer at Dropbox, and we intentionally write in sentence case because we want our brand to feel natural and approachable. We think our product’s voice sets us apart from our competitors, and using sentence case is one way for us to maintain that voice.

I greatly prefer sentence case, for the reasons John outlines and more. I get irrationally bothered when people unnecessarily (in my eyes) capitalise words—particularly long strings of them—in an attempt to make things sound more ‘important’.

However, the title case example he presents does make some sense. His final thoughts are sensible advice for all writers and interface designers:

Title case and sentence case both have their advantages. Whichever direction you decide to go, just make sure you make an informed decision that makes sense for your brand. The worst thing you can do is to not have any standards at all, which eventually leads to inconsistencies that’ll be a pain to fix later.

Once your users start noticing inconsistencies, that’s when they start losing trust in your brand.

Migrants are too wealthy

1: Spotify is getting unbelievably good at picking music — here’s an inside look at how

There’s a playlist on Spotify I love called Discover Weekly. It’s updated every Monday with a mix of songs, some I know and some I’ve never heard, crossing into almost every genre with no discernible pattern. Like magic, it just knows what I want to hear.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m listening to Spotify more than ever. And I’m not alone.

I’m pleased with Spotify’s Discover playlist. Mine this week is 30 songs (2hr 1m) and is a nice mix of bands I’ve never heard of, back-catalogue songs by bands I know, and a handful of songs I own and/or I’ve listened to (on Spotify) multiple times. I think this last tactic is deliberate; relatively few people will want two hours of music that they’re completely new to, and will appreciate a bit of familiarity along the way. I’d like more new (to me) music, but I’m a bit odd: maybe ‘Discover’ could be an integral part of the Spotify app, along with ‘Browse’ and ‘Radio’ and the like, that we could tinker with using filters and settings depending on what we want to expose ourselves to.

I still like Apple Music, by the way, and I’ll likely carry on paying for it and using the free version of Spotify, which I downgraded to a couple of months ago. But the excitement of the ‘For You’ section in Apple Music has worn off. There’s only so many times I want to see ‘An Introduction To’ an act whose back catalogue I own in its entirety, nor ‘Deep Cuts’.

2: Social decay: How Tweets can predict the death of an app

We used Twitter data to analyze the health of social apps and find out which ones might be in trouble — or, as we call it, in social decay.

Interesting to see the slow decline of This Is My Jam, and how Ello has peaked, dropped and plateaued.

3: How to write a great error message

Your job as product manager, designer or developer of an app is to recognize that writing copy in your app is not something that you can just do on the side. It’s just as important as having the application work correctly and the user interface being easy and efficient to use.

4: Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot

On the surface this may look like xenophobia searching for something to grab on to following a shift in the public mood towards refugees from the Middle East. But it is actually a fairly progressive stance: just weeks ago the anti-immigration brigade were complaining that migrants are unskilled and just want our benefits. And now they’re arguing that migrants are too wealthy instead, implicitly arguing we should prioritise helping the poor. But in any case, it does raise an interesting question: Exactly how surprised should we be that people from Syria carry smartphones?

5: How media ‘fluff’ helped Hitler rise to power

In the years preceding World War II, news outlets from home magazines to the New York Times ran profiles of the Nazi leader that portrayed him as a country gentleman — a man who ate vegetarian, played catch with his dogs and took post-meal strolls outside his mountain estate […] The 1930s marked the rise of celebrity culture, in the era of talking movies, radio and new lifestyle magazines […] Hitler’s propagandists took advantage of the new celebrity culture and even helped to shape it.

6: Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto explaining World 1-1 is the best game design lesson of the week

Miyamoto talks level design.

How most people experience ink

1: The momentary compression of design

It’s not that designers coding is totally irrelevant right now; I would happily debate that with anyone interested. But if software is eating the world, software design ought to be as diverse as the world itself. I would encourage designers to think about their roles and skills in the broadest sense, in terms of their knowledge of humanity and the world, rather than the technical deliverables of today. Divergent processes will become mandatory for survival and in the future I expect the question “should designers code?” to make as much sense as “should urban planners carve wood?” Our practice on the other end of this moment has a good chance of entering the most diverse, vital era we’ve ever known, which should be celebrated and encouraged rather than squashed and judged.

2: Limetown

New fiction podcast: part Serial, part X-Files. A bit hammy at times, but promising.

Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again.

In this seven-part podcast, American Public Radio host Lia Haddock asks the question once more, “What happened to the people of Limetown?”

3: Radical sandcastles

These aren’t your prototypical bucket-and-pail sand structures. Matt Kaliner’s creations deserve an architectural category all their own.

See also Renzo Piano: how to build the perfect sandcastle.

4: Woman with no recollection of last 10 years asked to run major media company

She has a knack for a good story, she’s great with people. Sure she couldn’t remember whether the Prime Minister of Great Britain attended her 40th birthday party. But then, who does remember these sorts of finer details?

5: The guy who owns .xyz will only get $8 from Google every year

Sure, but he’s making over $160k per day on new registrations.

6: The hamburger menu doesn’t work

It’s a beautiful, elegant solution that gets it all wrong, and it’s time to move on.

7: How the ballpoint pen killed cursive

The ballpoint’s universal success has changed how most people experience ink. Its thicker ink was less likely to leak than that of its predecessors. For most purposes, this was a win—no more ink-stained shirts, no need for those stereotypically geeky pocket protectors. However, thicker ink also changes the physical experience of writing, not necessarily all for the better.

See also Bic uses the same photo to advertise their pens and razors.

They pay in faeces

1: A/B tests are destroying your conversion rate

Have I heard clients tell me that they incur performance slowdowns due to their use of A/B tests? Absolutely. But when I hear that, I don’t hear “A/B tests are the problem.” I hear “maybe you need to put in a bit more work until you get it right.”

2: Ultimate steak sandwich: rib-eye, Boursin & watercress

This really does look excellent.

3: The 33 best 33 1/3 books

The 33 1/3 series has revealed a way that we can save the album: by dislocating it from history and letting a new generation develop their own canon. Recently announced titles suggest this trend will continue, but while we wait for new editions on Beat Happening, the Raincoats, and the Geto Boys, here are the 33 best 33 1/3 titles in alphabetical order by artist.

4: Incubus on Instagram

The mostly-forgotten band Incubus are doing something extremely interesting with their Instagram feed. (This looks much better in the app as there is less padding between posts.)

5: A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)

Yes, I am still re-reading this goddamn novel.

6: When you give a tree an email address

This is wonderful:

The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.

7: leejohnphillips on Instagram

Spending the next 4 years of my life drawing every item in my late grandfather’s tool shed.

8: lightyear.fm

Radio broadcasts leave Earth at the speed of light. Scroll away from Earth and hear how far the biggest hits of the past have travelled. The farther away you get, the longer the waves take to travel there—and the older the music you’ll hear.

9: My burger manifesto

10: One-minute time machine

A great short film.

11: God tier: Facebook moms run the meme game

The advice meme as we knew it (original characters captioned in Impact) is dead. But while the internet cultural vanguard moved on, a newer class of internet user, the well-connected mainstreamer, reinvented it. We live in the age of the post-meme.

12: This plant is a hotel for bats, and they pay in faeces.

13: Archeologists have found 2,000 ancient golden spirals and they have no idea what they are

I was also surprised to find out that I live about 1 mile away from one of the biggest concentrations of Bronze Age gold known from Great Britain, valued at £290,000.

14: Species in pieces

30 species. 30 pieces. 1 fragmented survival. A CSS-based interactive exhibition celebrating evolutionary distinction.

Shit readers give zero fucks about

The king of bullshit news

This is an excellent critical look into the veracity of CEN’s too-good-to-be-true stories, used by The Daily Mail, among (many) others:

How a small British news agency and its founder fill your Facebook feed with stories that are wonderful, wacky – and often wrong.

The words the media industry prefers

The scraping process and resulting visualisations are interesting; what got me more was Ford’s typically humorous style:

Does Bing care how I use it? I bet “nope.” After some testing, it seemed that was true. You can hit Bing tons of times and Microsoft is like, our milkshake brings all the bots to the cloud […] I exported the data to Excel because Google Spreadsheet charts look like they were made by color-blind eleven-year-olds. Excel charts, on the other hand, look like they were made by drunks who sell timeshares in Tampa […] In the far future, you might attend my wake. He did important work, you will think. His comparison of sexualized terms on websites changed America.

UX from hell

A couple [of] weeks ago a UX designer Twitter friend tweeted “Web peeps: Is there a particularly industry, segment, or niche that—generally speaking—has REALLY bad mobile web experiences?” I didn’t even have to have to think about it before replying: News sites.

I’m interested (personally and professionally) in news site UX, and have documented many similar things. I like the idea of “Shit the UX designer was forced to include” vs “Shit readers give zero fucks about”. Almost always a complete overlap.

A brief history of the # and the @, by Keith Houston

The average tweet is not an especially remarkable thing. It can contain letters (and almost always does), marks of punctuation (perhaps more of an acquired taste in this context), and pictures (mostly of cats and/or the photographer themselves). But in amongst these most conventional components of modern written communication are two special symbols around which orbits the whole edifice of Twitter. Neither letters nor marks of punctuation, the @- and #-symbols scattered throughout Twitter’s half billion daily messages are integral to its workings. And yet, they have always been interlopers amongst our written words.

Keith’s Shady Characters blog and book are both highly recommended.

Explore the trees

A terrifically detailed visualisation of all street trees in San Francisco. See also Matt Dance’s Trees of Edmonton.

A crowdsourced list of the top 50 cult movies

I asked my Twitter followers about their favorite cult films, and got some great responses (I also triggered a kind of Twitter war over whether quoting people’s tweets using the new embed feature is rude and/or noisy, but I will leave that for another day). Here’s a list of the top 50 suggestions — I didn’t include every one, but they all appear in the tweets I’ve embedded below.

Apple: ‘We do not accept fart apps on the Apple Watch’

The water in my heart has fallen

Why Cambodians never get ‘depressed’. “People in Cambodia experience what we Americans call depression. But there’s no direct translation for the word ‘depression’ in the Cambodian Khmer language. Instead, people may say thelea tdeuk ceut, which literally means ‘the water in my heart has fallen.’ ”

Why Is the dollar sign a letter S? “There’s a good story behind it, but here’s a big hint: the dollar sign isn’t a dollar sign. It’s a peso sign.”

My week of dangerous self-indulgence . “I’m not a person of modest appetites: I love drinking, overeating, gambling, certain drugs, and having casual sex with horrible people. […] Here is what I did — for one week — that was bad for me. And also ‘exactly what I wanted.’ ”

Printing Medium stories. “Printing articles off of Medium might not be commonplace, but we want it to be a great experience […] The idea that printing could leave your words mangled or stories disfigured, felt like breaking our part of the deal we feel we have with everyone who writes and reads on Medium.”

Where art meets Gif: the hypnotic animated Gifs of David Szakaly. “Since 2008 Hungarian/German graphic designer David Szakaly has been churning out some of the most dizzying, hypnotic and wholly original gifs on the web under the name Davidope.”

“Every Breath You Take” in minor key. I think I might like this more than the original. Added creep factor!

Emojicons. “Welcome to Emojicons, your one-stop plot of internet land for every ლ(╹◡╹ლ), ¯\(ツ)/¯, ಠ_ಠ, and (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ you can possibly imagine.”

Improving bounce rate

Today I gave an informal presentation to colleagues about monitoring, investigating and improving the bounce rate of our website, OpenLearn.

We all have different levels of understanding and experience of using Google Analytics, so this was a reminder for some and an introduction for others.

Below you can see the slides—they’re very minimal. You can see the slides with accompanying notes here.

Underneath there are some Google Analytics dashboards and custom reports you can use. Log into GA and click on a link. Choose a profile to apply the dashboard or report to it. It will then be your local copy, so you can rename it or modify it for your own needs.

I’ve collected some of these resources from various places and not noted where from. If any of them are your work, let me know and I’ll give you credit and a link.

I know the following embedded thing breaks the column it’s in—sadly I can’t resize Haiku Deck embeds to make them smaller.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

(Remember, you need to be logged in to GA for these links to work)

Google Analytics dashboards

  • Brand monitoring. A dashboard that focuses on how people found you by searching for you. Change any mentions of ‘openlearn’ to your brand name.
  • No-bullshit. A summary of important data in plain English. This is especially useful if you’re not used to the terminology of Google Analytics.
  • Site usage/quality. Browsers, devices, top content and bounce/exit rates.
  • Visitors technology. Summary of devices, browsers, resolution, Flash capability, etc.

Google Analytics custom reports

  • Search performance. Apply this report and use advanced segments to explore paid and non-paid search traffic.
  • Browser version. How your traffic copes with different browsers.
  • Mobile performance. All about mobile.
  • Keyword analysis. Click the ‘engagement’ tab then look for troublesome pages. Click on the page title. Are there any keywords that are irrelevant? Solve with SEO.
  • Link analysis. Which sources are helping your goals?
  • PPC. How are your ads doing?
  • Social media. Judge the success of your social media campaigns.