November 6, 2020

The accidental genius of Yo: On minimal viable communications.

More isn’t always better.

by @maguay

Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Frm. founding editor @racket and @capiche, senior writer @zapier, Mac and Web editor @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
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The craziest app came out a month after the App Store opened to the public, charging $999 for a digital red gem and the text “I am rich.” It sold six copies and shut down the next day.

The next craziest app came out April 1, 2014. You’d tap a button to send your friend a one-word message: “Yo.” 500,000 people rushed to try it over the first three months; investors quickly poured in $1.2 million.

“Yo is mobile messaging taken to its logical – if ridiculous – conclusion,” decided Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw. “Yo feels like The Onion’s take on pointless apps,” tech writer and investor Om Malik remarked to Fast Company.

When Steve Jobs hailed the crazy ones, surely this wasn’t what he had in mind.

But then you have alarm clocks, turn signals, and check engine lights, the hard drive light blinking on original desktop PCs. Maybe Yo wasn’t crazy. Sometimes the bit of data, the on and off, is all we need to know; the details are simply extra.

I am rich conveyed a single thing. Yo conveyed anything you wanted. You just had to assign meaning to the pings.

Atomized communication.

Yo screenshot

The original Yo was unanswered phone calls.

Say you were waiting to pick someone up. They could call you, and after a dozen words back and forth they could let you know they’re ready. Or, they could just call you. The ring’s everything you need to know.

So we built a homegrown push notification system, in the days when everyone had a phone but no one had a smartphone. You’d tell someone to call when they’re ready, when the task was finished, when whatever was agreed upon had transpired. When the call came in, you’d hang up, and do the next agreed upon task and pick them up (or whatever you’d discussed previously).

We’d reinvented pagers, the original addictive communication device of the ’80. Someone would call your number, the pager would buzz, and you’d know you were needed. They got the job done enough that the UK’s National Health Service still relies on them to tell doctors when they’re needed. Your favorite restaurant might use a simplified version to let you know when your table’s ready, or when to pick up your takeaway.

A blip, a beep, and we knew all there is to know.

Data + Information = Knowledge.

On its own, a vibrating puck tells us little. Like an inscription in a tree, it’s a single data point. But spot another inscription, and another, and suddenly your data makes a bit more sense. If you’d been sent into the forest, told to follow the marked trees, those data points would be all you’d need to know.

The instruction was information—incomplete without extra data, as you didn’t know exactly the path to follow, but you knew how to found it. The trees were data. And together, the path came together as knowledge. Once you’d walked the path, you might be able to retrace your steps while looking only at the forest. You’d pick up your food instinctively when the puck buzzed.

That, to a degree, is the DIKW pyramid, where data, information, knowledge, and wisdom are a continuum, each leading to the next.

A surgeon knew when the pager buzzed, they were needed in the operating room. The single buzz gave all the knowledge they needed.

Drum towers and smoke signals filled the same need in antiquity. One drumbeat told the next drummer to beat their drum, which signaled the next person, until you had an extended wireless tripwire sending a single data point across the country.

They got more sophisticated. You could assign meaning to repetitive beats, build patterns from sets of beats. Increasingly detailed information, matched with additional data. You could electrify it, build the telegraph, turn your system of beats into Morse Code. Then you’re only a step away from binary and the computing age, where everything we touch today is encoded somewhere in 1’s and 0’s.

At some level of abstraction, it’s Yo all the way down.

Mingle mangle.

Yo push notification

One beat’s clear enough. Hard to mistake the meaning when you’ve only assigned one message to the drum. Same as a phone call you’re expecting to come in; one ring and you know what’s up.

The more beats you add, the more sophisticated your system gets, the more you increase the risk of error, of turning the message into a game of Telephone where the final message gets twisted as small errors snowball.

“Every natural language has redundancy built in,” explains James Gleick in The Information, an exploration of the history of information theory. “This is why people can understand text riddled with errors and why they can understand conversation in a noisy room.” We can decipher meaning from the chaos—what Gleick called “a confused heap of mingle-mangle”—as long as it’s repetitive enough.

So we add more data. We don’t just send emails, we add a subject so recipients get the core message twice. We don’t say yes, we say “roger that.” We add app icons and descriptions to notifications, so you’ll know your friend Bob sent you an iMessage inviting you to lunch.

We solve everything with more data. What’s blurry and hard to make out on a downscaled YouTube video might be unmistakably clear on a 4K video. The same information, now with more detail.

And maybe we overdo it. You might not need to know the precise time your friend sent a message, the app they sent it from, and if they read your previous message. You might not need to know you’re on the fastest route despite heaver than usual traffic. But data’s cheap, and so we push it all through for you to decipher.

Everything’s an API.

Then it all gets to be too much.

“Email chains were burdensome,” wrote Alyson Shontell in Business Insider’s profile of Yo’s co-founder Moshe Hogeg. “Even texting encouraged longer conversations than Hogeg had time for.” All the detail was too much; he wanted just data.

“He envisioned a simple app with large buttons that, when pressed, would send a one-word notification to another person: ‘Yo.’ The ‘Yo’ would let the person know they were needed or being thought of.”

One data point was all he wanted.

Those individual data points are all around us. Facebook’s Poke was a similar idea, a ping to let someone know they were on your mind. The Like button—at least before it gained additional emotions—was the same, a single point to show affirmation. The email flag and read receipt, the red dot on Slack’s icon, the line beside edited text in Sublime. We need affirmation, assurance, reminders and signs to give us place, things we can glance at and glean all the information we need.

“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive,” wrote Gleick. We might not need all the detail, all the time. A bit may be enough.

Sometimes we want a conversation. Other times we just need to check in, like a server pinging another to ensure it’s still online.

That’s what makes many of the best software integrations work. Sometimes you want everything, to archive your customer data from Shopify to Google Sheets or to move your contacts from Salesforce into your Mailchimp list. The more data there, the better.

But you don’t need all of that data, all the time, an endless stream of contact info and orders pouring into your Slack feed. There, you might just want a notice that someone bought something, that your mailing list got another subscriber. That’s where so many popular Zapier and IFTTT integrations are helpful, as a filter against the data overload.

You don’t need to know everything; that’s for the computers. You just need a ping that something happened, that your business is ticking along.

As Gleick quoted philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy: “Ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.” The clearest meaning might come from more precise information.

Just enough data.

So you scale back. Video calls are now as common as phone calls, if not more so—but that doesn’t mean you always have to use them.

“I think we organically decided to use voice only,” said @MikeRaia in a Capiche discussion about video calls. “No one really felt like we needed to see each other to communicate.”

Mike wasn’t alone; several others in the conversation mentioned keeping the camera off on Zoom calls. The call was what mattered, the video quality was if anything a distraction.

So it is with so many of the apps we check every day. You need to know how much traffic your site got, or perhaps just a ping if your site went over your goal. You don’t need to weed through pages of data every time. Perhaps the solution to information overload is to scale back, and build notifications that fit what you need, a bit of info instead of all the details.

Somehow, Yo’s seemingly meaningless pings might have been a solution to the information overload we face every time we open our phones. You just need to define the information, and wait for the beep. That might be all you needed to know.

MikeRaia's avatar
@MikeRaia (replying to maguay )
almost 3 years ago

I will follow this up with a note that, while recently onboarding a new marketing team member, we have been using our cameras during training. We'll switch to audio-only at some point but for these introductory sessions I felt it was important to see each other "in person." She is our first "remotely-hired" marketing team member and it's been a bit of an adjustment. Not bad, just different.

1 point
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @MikeRaia )
almost 3 years ago

@MikeRaia Thanks for the update, that's interesting to hear and fits in this general idea I think: The video and its extra detail and data is helpful in some instances, but then once you've got the basics covered, it might be extraneous. Congrats on the hire, and good luck growing your team remotely!

1 point
omarius's avatar
@omarius (replying to @maguay )
almost 3 years ago

Agreed. For a new hire you are seeing novel information and learning about their personality, outlook, confidence level, etc. When you have a conversation with your old colleague Fred, the fact that you know it's Fred is all the info you need because you "know" Fred. Interesting topic!

2 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @omarius )
almost 3 years ago

@omarius Yup! It's that shared history that makes communicating easy—similar to how you could get a lunch order from a friend or significant other almost without talking as you already know their preferences, where you might need to write down an order from someone you just met.

1 point
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