Small and simple apps, and trust

The week of New Year’s Day is a strange one. Few companies want to release products or news, most people are on vacation for at least a few days (as I was), and this year a lot of folks got the flu (like I did). So, the result is a mixed bag at the best, and it’s often a chance for analysts and mavens to make predictions about the coming year or to look back on what took place in the prior one.

I have largely opted out of that prognostication snare so far, although I have some projections coming in the quarterly wrap-up for social, which should be out in a week or so. However, one thread figured in several posts this last week, and I’d like to take a few paragraphs to motivate it a bit. The concept is what I have been calling “small and simple,” an attribute associated with a broad array of applications sharing certain characteristics:

  • Small. These are applications that are intended to solve a single problem or implement the smallest possible collection of functions. Since I am focused principally on social applications, these apps support a tightly bounded social interaction, not a broad and sprawling collection of interactions.
  • Simple. These are applications that have the most minimal cognitive overhead and rely on well-understood conventions or extremely intuitive user experience.

I think that small and simple will be a major trend in the social business context this year, and it will be starting primarily in the fast-and-loose end of business, meaning small businesses, freelancers, and autonomous creatives in larger companies. This is where we will see the rise of what I am calling the bring-your-own-software (BYOS) movement, as these fast-and-loose workers reject IT oversight and opt to use tools that meet their immediate and small social scale needs.

In the past week I looked at TinyLetter, a small and simple newsletter app, as a winning example of how a simple, bounded communication model can provide a unique and useful form of interaction between a publisher and a group of subscribers. I called the TinyLetter model of communication fan-out/fan-back, and I described it this way:

A small and simple newsletter as a model of collaboration, Stowe Boyd

Consider the scenario of Katie, a graphic designer working in the San Francisco office of a large corporation, who has a loose network of other, remote designers that she wants to remain connected to. Some of these work in the same business, many others don’t, but she means business: she wants to share ideas and gather feedback to help her be a better designer. But the model that makes most sense to her is the ‘fan-out/fan-back’ model supported by TinyLetter, a small and simple newsletter tool that is now owned by MailChimp. And even if she wanted to, her company has locked down access to the enterprise work media solution they have deployed.

By ‘fan-out/fan-back’ I mean the following: She creates and edits a newsletter, with links, ideas, and images, and sends it out to a mailing list of contacts (who have opted in). They read the newsletter in their email — no login to some service, no learning a new tool — and can reply, adding thoughts and observations, answering requests for feedback. These replies are private for Katie: they are not shared with the group as a whole, which is the norm in many open mailing list tools. But Katie can get the benefit of the feedback, and she can surface the best ideas and contributions in the next newsletter, if she wants.

This is a great proof of the idea of a tool that implements a single tightly focused form of social interaction, not a generalized messaging solution, or open publishing model. It’s an extremely simple but bounded social interaction.

I also wrote about Timetastic, a minimal social tool, that allows work groups to keep track of vacation schedules, both in calendar and on “wall chart” displays.

The other theme that came up in several posts recently is trust. Recent surveys by Gallup and others show that a large proportion of the workforce is disengaged. In “What to do about the disengaged workforce?“ I looked at research by economist John Helliwell and his colleagues that shows that workers are making economic exchanges — reduced pay and benefits — in order to work in contexts with more social capital: where trust is more prevalent. I also looked at some anecdotal evidence of improving the perceived value of feedback in short-term training sessions, what Karen May of Google calls speedback, in “Speedback trumps feedback.” I made the case that the unique context of May’s training suggests that the value of the speedback is partly or largely due to the suspension of the usual rules: the executives involved weren’t in their usual roles but instead were working with people with whom they would not have continued relationships in the future. They were pulled into a context in which swift trust was already the rule, as Debra Meyerson and others have researched.

I won’t go so far as to suggest that 2013 will be the year that we will see a huge surge in trust in the office. However, I will make it my goal to continue to draw attention to its central role in productivity, happiness, and well-being throughout the year.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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