App Design for the Impractical, Pt. Three

Joseph Syverson
Oct 18 · 5 min read

Functionality, or “virtue” as philosophers have called it for a really long time, often manifests in circumstances where functionality is absent or limited, while the goals of that functionality nonetheless exist.

Or maybe it’s the thought that counts

A prehistoric human might hurt themself running barefoot in the woods. If shoes have not been invented they might go ahead and do so because the goal is to protect one’s feet and shoes fulfill that function. If shoes have already been invented, they might go ahead and make better ones, because the shoes they’re wearing obviously aren’t very good. In this sense we can understand the meaning of the cliche “necessity is the mother of all invention”, in the wild as well as civilization. I would also expand the saying to included the impetus of desire and, especially for human beings, moral obligations.

Searching around for a Rails project to make with Yoon, I began to harp on my dissatisfaction with Facebook.

What does Facebook do?

W e call Facebook as an “application”, and in the following sense it is: at a single domain there exists something that is called “Facebook”. But Facebook is different from many other popular web applications because identifying a delimiting function, or purpose, is more difficult than with other apps. For example,

  • Instagram is a photo sharing app. From a user perspective (and maybe not an engineer perspective), users connect to other users through the medium of photography.
  • Twitter is a news app where everything anyone says is considered news (for better or worse). They call a news item a “tweet” and this is the primary medium through which users interact.
  • Venmo is an app for exchanging money, and through monetary transactions users interact.
  • Users connect through events on Meetup.
  • Tinder connects users through matches.

The mutual join friend seems glue Facebook together, but unlike photos or tweets, there’s no distinct medium through which users relate. They can share photos or a comment (which is a tweet in Facebook’s domain). Users can R S V P to events, exchange money, and Facebook now even has a dating feature.

I’d like to answer why users continue to use Facebook and at the same time continue to use of the other apps listed above. Here’s a bad answer: Facebook brings all the other app’s features together, as a mirror of real society. The premise is true but the conclusion does not necessarily follow. In ideal society, purposes are allotted to distinct organs that, (again, from the user’s end), serve as the single source of truth for that purpose. When I click on my Notifications drop-down menu, meanwhile, each of my categorically separate purposes is treated as one linear, chronological story.

Too many notifications

This is reflected in the greater interface, which has ten times more buttons than I’ll ever click on. Then there are buttons I would like to click on that I cannot find and may not in fact exist.

Too many buttons

As we moved forward into the Information Age, stretching all the way back to mechanical printing, the amount of information available and the complexity of human society accelerated. The great advantaged of having reasoning machines in the Information Age is that they can help us organize that information. Facebook proposes to do this and it does. But, when we compare it to the notifications that I O S or Android delivers to our lock screens, we can see that it only succeeds in doing so falteringly. When something happens on Twitter, a blue bird appears on my lock screen. Likewise a red flame or some other notable icon. I don’t need to read anything to know where the event occurred, but if I care about the event’s origin I can look into it further. Finally, when I get there, the app is intuitive, has three to five buttons that I use, and demands no detailed inquiry in order to use properly.


With regards to U X and user functionality, Facebook is an operating system that seeks to centralize all user to user interaction. It developed significantly before the proliferation of more specifically purposed apps and has incorporated many of them into it’s own schema in order to compete for their users. However, in order to do so, it sacrificed the clear-cut purpose we need to determine it’s value. Because it’s purpose is more ambiguous than so many others, it’s difficult to judge. At the same time, its means of centralization is ineffective and complicated as compared to mobile operating systems that are capable of tracking and organizing changes that occur across many otherwise unaffiliated applications. Because its unique value is less efficient than some competitors, like Android and I O S, and its functionality indistinct from other competitors (Twitter, Venmo, Tinder), it does not have “virtue”.

But for one thing.

The join friend is Facebook’s driving association. Friends have one natural medium that Facebook excels at connecting friends through. Since I stopped using the Facebook the only absence I’ve detected in my life is Facebook’s event feature, which allows users to RSVP to events, comment on those events, and see who else is going. Although I’ve warmed to Meetup a lot in the past few months, it has failed to fill this void. Meetup uses events to drive user interaction. The events have concrete purposes. Usually professional, sometimes social, the not so hidden premise of Meetup is meeting people you don’t know based on a common goal. In an increasingly alienating world where we often spend most of our time with people we would neither call friends nor family, Meetup has a legitimate purpose and function. But what if I want to attend an event just because my friends will be there? Here, I think Facebook wins.

TREAT yo self

So, Yoon and I made an app that connects users to events. With two weeks experience in Rails and zero days experience in C S S, it came out rather nice. Although four days of building got us CRUD capabilities, E R B forms for login, signup, and profile updates, authentication and authorization with B Crypt, and a not so bad user interface, we never implemented the self-referential join that would liberate users from associating primarily through events.

Oh well. They say that intention (and not virtue or utility) is the best way to judge value. Well, someone said that…

Stay tuned for future developments!

Special thanks to Yoon, who developed this app with me and taught me that playing is the best way to discover the unexpected

Special thanks to Momo, who taught me how to TREAT my self

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