Branch and the UX chute of uncertainty.

Update: Branch did clarify that you can sign up / invite via email. This is good. They were also really good about reaching out and listening to feedback. I still think it's a neat idea, I encourage you check it out.

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I recently got an invite to the closed beta of Branch - a site that's geared toward having quick, limited and semi-private threads of discussion on a given question or topic. I'm not usually a social network early adopter, but this piqued my interest (kind of like a low-key Quora, or a very simple forum site). 

Of course, like so many sites these days, Branch relies on your to link your Twitter account for authentication and asks uses Twitter to invite your followers to the discussion or broadcast news of your latest activity.

I thought I might start a discussion on web development trends with a few Twitter buddies, so I included them on the invite list. So Branch sent them all a DM that looks like this:

Transient

And upon clicking that link they were brought to the Branch thread with this screen:

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So of course, as naturally internet-savvy people, my friends responded to my message by:

  • Informing me that my Twitter account had been hacked, and that I should change my password immediately.
  • Informing me that they were not comfortable providing Twitter access to this site.

Suffice to say, it was not my intention to spook the hell out of my friends. And honestly, had they done the same to me, I would have definitely reacted in the same way. I normally pass over any site that asks for potentially invasive permissions of Twitter or Facebook. To receive a somewhat cryptic DM via Twitter, then be immediately asked to verify your credentials feels like a scam

The current experience on Branch is sending users down a UX chute of uncertainty, asking for too much while giving very little information about what they're about to do. Here's what I would suggest:

Provide More Context in Twitter

The text of the Twitter DM needs to feel less spammy. It should identify itself as coming from Branch. It should mention in plain English what the intent of the message is. Something very straightforward like:

I would like you to join my discussion on Branch: “My Thread ...” http://t.co/abcdefg

It's hard to cold-DM anyone a shortened link and not have it look like spam or a compromised account, but there are certainly improvements to be made here. They should also leave out the mentions of other users. Feels less like a data mining operation.

Lose the modal pop-up

Why would I ever provide you with my credentials before even being able to see the site to know if I'm interested? Don't pop-up some box asking for the keys to the kingdom as soon as the invitee lands on the page. Let them actually read the damn thing first. Prompt them to login or sign up after they've written (or have started writing) a response. By then they've probably verified that this is a legit site and that I'm generally interested in having them contribute.

Provide a one-time use token for invites

Asking for access to someone's Twitter account before they have an opportunity to use your product is just greedy. Let them experience the site before asking them to commit. When I invite someone to join the discussion, my interest is in having them actually join the discussion, and not necessarily that they sign up for Branch. Invite URLs should contain a one-time use token that will let the invited person enter the discussion without having to sign up. If they're interested after that, then they can create an account.

An email sign up / invite option

To be fair, this might exist, and I simply didn't notice it, but I think having the option to sign up and invite without a Twitter account is useful. Asking for control over someone's Twitter account is asking a lot. There have been plenty of times I dump out of a site registration process when this is the only option. I don't always want to conflate my Twitter identity with all my other identities on the web.

I've increasingly become more and more interested in the idea of smaller, tightly scoped and private-ish communication on the web, as opposed to the uber-public free-for-all of most discussion sites. Branch has some potential, but for such a simple concept, its process for including new user activity is greedy and a little bit spooky.

The Scoop on App.Net

The ire of the geek community seems pretty fired up over the news that Twitter is reigning in their brand and restricting how third party developers interact with the service. While the tech community is nothing if not an expert at announcing the premature death of a product, it is starting to look like the writing is on the wall: that Twitter, while still far from being useless, is trending in the direction of a more closed technology where control follows a traditional top-down approach, and advertising/marketing tie-ins will lead to continued revenue and growth.

Suffice to say, it is slowly becoming un-cherished by the same audience that was so enthusiastic at it's outset. Enter the crowd-funded App.net, a Twitter-like service founded under the idea that by having users pay for the service, we can avoid this nasty predicament of having to cater toward advertisers or alternate revenue streams. It also makes the implicit promise that if people need to pony up cash to use the service, it will keep out the riff-raff (read: Bieber fans and fake PR accounts).

Right now, the service is in still in it's alpha phase, and it costs $50 to reserve your username and join. Because I can't seem to tell my brain that crowd-funding is a light form of gambling, I spent the cash and dived in with my fancy three-letter handle: @bry.

It's like IRC, without a channel topic

My first thought was: Geeks. Geeks Everywhere. And it's true. The only people who really give an ounce of care about App.net at this point are geeks. Mostly programmers, designers and tech people. This is the same crowd that embraced Twitter at it's birth. And App.net bears a lot in common with early Twitter - the conversation is global as replies aren't scoped to followers. In this way it resembles a loosely structured chat room, much like IRC (without the fear of getting kick-banned for asking the wrong question). Of course, there is no central focus or topic, but it's a sure bet the more focused your post, the better chance someone will respond to it and a conversation will start.

There are real and interesting conversations happening, but you kind just have to jump in and insert yourself into them (no one will think you're rude, unless you are). I'm a classic forum/channel lurker myself, so it takes a bit of effort for me to reach out. But I can report that while writing this post, I had a great discussion about mechanical switch keyboard models with total strangers!

Of course, the first rule of App.net is...you must talk about App.net. If you were an early Google Plus user, you know what I mean. A lot of time and energy is spent in the meta discussion about the service itself. If you think about it, it's kind of like an icebreaker--being on App.net is the only thing you know for sure that you have in common with other App.net users. To be fair, the founders and developers of the service seem to be listening intently to feedback, but for the most part, the meta discussion is just noise.

Is it worth the cash?

Depends.

Right now, the thing that App.net has on it's side is chaos. The service is a little messy and still lacking in some convenient features. Having a large global chat feed is certainly a plus, but it can be hard to follow a single conversation thread or see the most relevant posts. I find myself having to devote a bit more of my focus and attention to it (while Twitter just churns in the background). But being involved in that much chaos makes everything feel new and fresh. If you like taking the plastic off new social networks, and witnessing the slightly awkward, "is this thing on?" phase, then I see no reason to stay away.

If on the other hand, everyone you know is on Twitter, you're not interested in talking about tech and tech culture, you'd probably do well to stay away for a while. Also, it's $50, which is a non-trivial amount of money to pay for being cautiously optimistic that we can survive without our Twitter overlords.

Steam Summer Sale: The Damage

Like a goddamn heroic addict, I found myself constantly refreshing the Steam store page last week. Their summer sale was massive, and I'll never actually find time to play all these games. Nonetheless, here's my haul:

  • Terraria
  • Legend of Grimrock
  • Shogun 2
  • Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2
  • The Binding of Isaac
  • Left 4 Dead 2
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
  • Cave Story+
  • Company of Heroes
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat
  • The Longest Journey
  • The Longest Journey: Dreamfall
  • Beyond Good and Evil
  • Civilization V
  • Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
  • Borderlands
  • Bioshock 2

TOTAL: $72.32

So for the price of one brand new AAA console game and coffee for two, I walked away with 18 games I've never played before. Steam, and ostensibly, the games developers get my money, which they probably would have never gotten otherwise. Everyone walks away happy. 

Double Fine Raises $3.3 Million for New Game

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Holy Crap. Double Fine isn't claiming they're going revolutionize or reinvent anything. They just want to make an adventure game like the ones we played when we were kids.

Kickstarter makes me happy because when projects get funded, we all win. Double Fine's adventure game will be available to the world, not just those that helped fund it. Something that could not exist under current market conditions now will. Three million dollars is not exactly chump change, either. It sounds like a lot of money, but keep in mind that 83% of the Kickstarter backers paid thirty dollars or less, which is roughly MSRP for a new "casual" game anyway (I cheaped out and gave $15.)

Seeing success like this must make a lot of market analysts nervous. People are voting with dollars, and it isn't for another Call of Duty game or something involving zombies. Down is up, cats are living with dogs, and disruption sure is fun.