The Charm of Path

by Todd

Path homescreen

I’m being charmed by the second incarnation of Path, an iOS and Android app that I’d describe as a mix of elements from Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, iTunes and Instagram. Moments of charm are important for experience designers to observe closely, so as much as I’m enjoying the experience I’m also taking a critical eye and learning what I can.

When Path launched last year, it seemed the right thing at the right time. Facebook was in the midst of yet another privacy dust up, and Path arrived with Facebook talent but a model emphasizing close-knit ties and easy to understand privacy. While generally well-received, uptake and continued use were muted. And time went on.

Then last week Path v2 launched. The update has been praised for a beautiful aesthetic design and some novel interactions and data display. I’m finding more than just another app to check out in Path, and wanted to share what I’ve found during this little honeymoon.

The interface is warm, textured and inviting, and features are revealed with care not only to keep the focus on the content, but also to keep the experience from being too quick to demand learning from someone new to it. iOS conventions are followed for the most part, but with some extras.

Feature disclosure is well-paced and their revelations are jazzed up a bit to reward the exploration. The most talked about of these delightful touches is the prominent red plus icon, the central call to action, which spins out six smaller buttons for selecting post categories. Give a novel UI feature a weekend, and it will be reproduced entirely in CSS 3 as open-source code. Path’s designers should be flattered.

Path's pretty menu

Contacts and primary navigation are reached via conventional top bar buttons, but the return trip to the central screen happens by way of a horizontal swipe on the lingering strip of that central screen.

That overlapping panel approach was pioneered by the Twitter iPad app, and is extended by Path to allow reaching secondary areas (Contacts and Primary Navigation) with a swipe on the central page, but only after those areas have been accessed by button. I'm unsure if this is by intent, but it's an interesting experiment to provision an advanced navigation method only after it's accessed by conventional means.

That observation turned out to be false, it’s just a bit delicate on detecting the swipe. After another week of use I’ve gotten the hang of it.

Comparing Twitter and Path swipe for navigation

While I like the blend of familiar and unfamiliar navigation, it’s a tricky balance that Path is trying for and I’m unsure if it’ll sustain as more people get into the app. What’s most important is that the unconventional navigations are properly situated for more daring or advanced uses, and the conventional means are still front and centre.

Features

Where Path 1 focussed on sharing life moments with photos, Path 2 expands the palette to music you’re listening to, locations you visit, free form text posts and its most novel innovation that we’ll talk about later.

Photos have been built out to include filters, which don’t do much for me beyond black and white, but are sensible concessions to the meteoric rise of Instagram. It’s frustrating to a filter-curmudgeon like myself that Path defaults to one of these photographic auto-tune settings for photos taken by the app, with no respect for the last filter used. I hope that’s corrected in an update because for now it’s taxing my experience using the app to take any picture.

The location check-ins and free form text posts, which can be combined with any other type of post, begin to eat from the plate of specialized apps for Twitter and Foursquare but don’t add much beyond being able to identify friends with you. Music posts from friends begin to produce a built-in recommendation service, from which samples can be heard and a link (undoubtedly hooked up to an affiliate program) to buy the song is close at hand, but not pushy.

I don’t know of a social app that provides for sharing more types of content other than Facebook, but Path doesn’t let that coverage create a feeling of sprawl.

Social

Like Facebook, where some of Path’s core team came from, Path has a strong and unconcealed interest in personal storytelling through mobile devices and digital media.

But they diverge sharply over how big your network can be, and over how exposed you should be. Path has a hard limit of 150 reciprocal contacts (meaning that both parties must agree before the connection is made, unlike Twitter where following can happen in one direction), but that wall is not airtight:

While none of these are particularly bad in themselves, Path doesn’t make it obvious which threads they’re using to pull a network together travel outside of the circle of friends. And if Path wants to truly create a space for more intimate contact and sharing, making the boundaries clear will be important.

In general, for people not on your friends list, your Path posts can only be seen if you post them to other services like Foursquare or Twitter. Rather than trying to construct an outward-facing destination, they leave that to other services focus inward. That focus, along with the 150 friends cap helps Path feel like a safer place to be social. If Facebook feels like a city and twitter a busy square, Path has found a new scale of neighbourhood, and it’s a scale I really like.

Storytelling

Where some apps lend themselves to storytelling without explicit features or nomenclature to support it, Path’s mixed media approach presents a nice opportunity to make a story of daily life through selected moments. As it turns out, posts in Path are called moments.

Scrolling through moments, you’re followed by an animated clock moving its hands to show when each post happened. It’s one of those sweet little interaction moments that softens the feel of hard data and adds a more human-scale perspective. Threads re-emerge as new comments are made, but the higher order elements of storytelling like themes and arcs are absent.

Those are hard things to pull off, but they’re important in how we tell our own stories. It would be interesting to see ways for users to augment the story all those moments tell, to connect the dots in ways a database can’t perceive.

That One Special Thing

Here we get to my favourite feature of Path, for both novelty and clever psychology.

The last type of post that can be made is to gesture when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Going to sleep gives a gentle animation that turns the screen into a timer and the current moon phase. Waking up makes a note of how long you slept and a report on the current weather. Both moments are added to your timeline for friends to see.

On the third day I used Path I found this from the night before.

Sleep mode in Path

There’s a little feeling of communion with my friends in Path on seeing that. I know they sleep, but knowing we were sleeping at the same time is a warm bit of unintentional contact, like when you discover otherwise unknown commonalities of place or time with others.

The sleep/wake moments are a light form of gamification. The impulse it speaks to is our inclination towards completeness, in this case having sleep-wake pairs in your activity stream. The weather reports and lighthearted comments from the system (the only place the system comments on your behaviour), constitute a little reward. The challenge is to be consistent in building sleep-wake pairs, so you try to remember to log sleep and wake moments in Path. From that it becomes routine and positions Path at significant milestones in your day. The day that Path would love for you to share. On Path.

Novel, and clever, indeed.

How Far Will Charm Get You?

Where Path v1 was interesting in the ways it bucked social media, especially Facebook’s, approach of maximizing content creation and exposure, Path 2 retains most of that intimacy and becomes a lot more fun and interesting.

Twitter killer? FourSquare spoiler? Facebook challenger? Nope. But I do think it has found a new niche in a scale that feels like a neighbourhood.

Knowing that less can be more, Path could end up becoming a player by skimming activity from a number of dominant social platforms. Where incumbents are doing something poorly, Path can sneak in to become the preferred posting interface without pretensions of toppling a leader.

But I don’t think that Path will go mainstream, at least not in it’s current form. It feels very complete, whole yet ready to grow. But it also feels a bit too clever, a bit too pretty to be a mainstream thing. Indeed, Path might be looking to build itself on not being mainstream, just as neighbourhoods can form identity around being distinctive within a greater whole.

Not being mainstream doesn’t mean it’s not viable. Small hooks to monetization, like the iTunes links, can bring diversified revenue and lessen the pressure to live on ads, though ads do seem inevitable. Once again I find myself falling for a social experience and wondering when ads will start making it suck. Once again I find myself wishing I could pay for safe sharing that’s well-designed and has no ads.

It’s rare to find an app with beautiful visual design, clever and useful interactions and a value proposition come together so well. I find it unlikely that Path will go mainstream, but maybe it doesn’t need to. For now, I’m enjoying my time a design achievement that stands out as the best I saw in 2011.