March is the one year anniversary of the “new” social network Ello. Ello was (is?) striving to be a social network free of advertising, that gives users more freedom and simplicity in sharing than existing options. Their goal seemed noble enough, and four months ago I signed up to give it a look. They had a motto and plan that there was an apparent demand for. People came. After the time passed, I thought it was worth taking some time to share my reactions and thoughts on the platform.
In case the title wasn’t obvious, the tl;dr opinion is that it has a long, long way to go. I’m going to try and temper my comments as much as I can to strictly UX related things, and not stuff that might be the result of my limited friend base. But some of that has to factor in out of necessity. I’ll try to be clear when that’s the case. It’s also worth noting that the owners still consider Ello a “beta” product. I don’t allow much leeway on this, since if you’re going to let people into a beta product, it better be good enough to wow them and keep them coming back. If it isn’t, it isn’t ready to beta.
First thing’s first. When you go to their homepage, you’re greeted with a basic statement of purpose: Simple, beautiful & ad-free. Well, I guess two out of three isn’t terrible. They are, indeed, ad-free. And their design is inspired by a desire for simplicity. But beautiful it is not. I know design aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, so I don’t want to be too unfair here, but it’s hard to ignore the idea that they might be letting their desire for simplicity get in the way reasonable design choices. Black, white, serif fonts, flat layout, iconography. That’s what you get. There isn’t a lot of room for beautiful to even factor into that.
At this point, I have a whopping 21 friends on the site. Obviously this is a pretty poor representation of my social circles, but the ones that are on Ello I would mostly rank with some of my more webtech savvy folks. That said, the last update on my timeline was two months ago. There’s just no engagement happening in the trenches. Anecdotal? Yes. But I don’t think my feed is the exception by a long shot.
My feed is filled with comments (at least, it was from before two months ago) from people just positing what they should do on the site. Hello World type posts, and then silence. By lacking even basic URL scraping functionality, sharing links to other content – the lifeblood of most social networks – is nigh impossible. Ello found itself deeply disadvantaged by lacking a staple function of social networking, and remains so to this day.
If, by some chance, you do have a lot of users posting a lot of crap you don’t care about, Ello has an answer – Noise. You can designate a friend as “noisy” and it will filter them to a different tab out of your primary feed. This is, of course, an all-or-none filter. So there’s no such thing as only getting some of a users posts and not the crap ones that don’t matter (Google and Facebook have both sorted that out). Aside from the simplistic functionality, my criticism of this is somewhat petty: “Noise” is a terrible name for a filter. Noise is not a good thing. Noise is bad. Noise is something you don’t want. Noise is something that gets in the way of the signal. Basically, noise has a negative connotation and will likely discourage users from using it at all.
Add to that the user control for siloing people within the system. “Friend” is fairly straight forward. “Noise” basically is, too. And then there’s a random icon. The other two options don’t have icons, why the weird change for the third? What happens when you click it? Does it delete them? Report them? Impossible to tell. There isn’t even a hover tooltip to help you out. Again, this is an example of an interaction that is needless obscured (for what it’s worth, it allows you to mute/block a user). It’s also worth noting that the pattern of non-tooltipped, non-obvious iconography is repeated many times on the site.
A social networking site lives and dies by its users. If they aren’t engaging and using the site, well… remember the discussions about Google+ a couple years ago? Ello is a lot like that, except the criticisms are substantially more apt and the dangers much more real. Ello is not Google. They can’t afford to make the same mistakes and expect to skate by until growth just happens.
Managing your account, there’s not too much you wouldn’t expect to see. Most normal options are there… only… wrong. For instance, you can set up a header image for your profile. See it in that screenshot above? No? Oh, yeah, that’s because when you click someone’s profile, the page scrolls down to the content, and completely bypasses their header image (hint: that black bar at the top is the very bottom of my photo). So… why? Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, they all have this option, and they’ve all figured it out. If your goal is beautiful simplicity, either factor it in gracefully, or maybe get off the bandwagon.
Next, a super common UX pothole that I’m frustrated people are still falling into. They have a lot of options with binary settings: yes/no, true/false type conditions. Because of the monochromatic style and flat design, it is 100% impossible to look at those options and tell if I have them turned on or off. It’s more clear once you hover, but hidden user interactions are hidden, and only work with a mouse. It’s silly, it’s small, and it’s sorta picky, but there’s also no excuse for not doing better.
Are your friends on Ello? Maybe! Maybe not. You know when you join a site and can use your Google contacts, or Facebook friends, or Twitter follows as a means of quickly finding people on the site that you’re connected to already? Yeah, well, none of that exists on Ello at this point. You just have to hunt people down.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. You could, for instance, look at a list of recommended friends that Ello puts together for you. What’s a recommended friend? I have no clue. Apparently it’s just folks with a lot of followers, or something along those lines. My recommended list gives no indication as to why they’d be recommended to me. Common interests? Thought leader on a topic I like? Do they stalk me? There’s not one person there that I would follow for content worthwhile to my interests. Maybe you’ll get lucky though.
If you aren’t too lucky, you can always take a spin on the random wheel. Because nothing says meaningful social connections like getting a list of random people and following them. And I’m sure there’s no way that feature could be abused, right? This is just one of those features that doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense to me. I’m all for content discovery, and there’s certainly some room for randomness in that process, but a pure, naked random recommendation list just seems half-baked.
If all else fails, there’s always search, right? Definitely the way most people would think. But arguably one of the most important features is weighed down by yet more hidden user interactions. Clicking the search button lands you with the above screenshot. A header and a blank page. Only through guessing will you discover the “Search” header isn’t actually a header, that’s the input for the search field. Clicking it allows you to type in there. Yet again, obfuscation without reason, adding needless friction to the UX for the site. Solving problems like this would be trivial and could be accomplished with almost no impact to the aesthetics of the design. And forget advanced search. There isn’t any. Want to search just names? Just interests? Too bad for you.
Ello just announced the hiring of a CMO for the company last week. This is interesting, given the fact that marketing doesn’t seem to be their weak point. In fact, they did very well during the word-of-mouth explosion a few months ago. The problem wasn’t interest or demand, it’s that they couldn’t deliver a product that was ready for the demands of the beta-invited public. In my opinion, they still can’t. The site is still easily six months to a year from being feature-complete enough that people would envision using it on a regular basis. Attempting to burn part of that $5.5 million VC round on marketing right now would just be a waste.
Just doing a news search for the site now reveals [what to them should be a frightening] lack of commentary. What is there, is very much like this post. In the end, it looks like they are a prime example of a good idea, that had demand, that just belly flopped into the pool and didn’t know how to recover. It makes me think a bit of New MySpace. If you haven’t tried it yet, don’t feel bad. You’re not missing out, and will probably be better off by waiting until they deliver something much more robust and useful.