Why the World Will Beat a Path to Path

12/20/12Follow @wroush

Part of me is reluctant to write about Path, the mobile-only social networking app. The place feels a little like your favorite backwoods hot spring right before it’s been discovered by all the travel magazines. Or more to the point, it feels like Facebook back in 2005, before it was open to everyone. It’s where the cool kids are hanging out online (some of them, anyway)—and I’m a little afraid that if it gets really popular, it will lose its village-like charm.

On the other hand, Path has features that help to define it as a virtual anti-Facebook. By design, the networks people form on Path are far smaller than those they build on Facebook—usually a few dozen people at most. So even if hundreds of millions of people were to join Path and start sharing photos and other types of moments from their lives, it might still feel like an archipelago of small networks. We’ll see.

What drives me to write about Path, in the end, is that it’s a service more people should know about, and probably will know about in the coming months. It’s by no means small right now—the five-millionth registered user joined on Dec. 7. But other social apps in its cohort have grown much faster, notably Instagram, which launched at roughly the same time as Path in the fall of 2010 and passed the 5-million mark just six months later. Despite the semi-celebrity status of co-founders Shawn Fanning (ex-Napster), Dave Morin (ex-Facebook), and Dustin Mierau (ex-Macster), Path is more like a sleeper hit.

If you ask Morin, the CEO, about user numbers, he’ll explain that he deliberately designed Path’s business model so that the company wouldn’t have to grow at the same rate as Instagram and other social networks that are ultimately either advertising-supported, or plan to be so. “If you are in the advertising business, your job is to get as much audience as possible and as much attention as possible,” Morin says. “We don’t want to take all of your attention. We want to add the most value to your life.”

A Path moment: My Dec. 11 visit to Path HQ

A Path moment: My Dec. 11 visit to Path HQ in San Francisco.

And that’s what it does. To lay my own cards on the table: I’ve been a member of Path since the very beginning, and an enthusiastic daily user. For that very reason, I haven’t written much about the company before now—I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring my usual objectivity to the telling. But when you see a product just get better and better, and when you see design thinking being applied in such clever and effective ways, it’s hard to keep your mouth shut about it.

Yes, Path has had its missteps. Around Silicon Valley, a lot of people seem to think it’s yesterday’s news; some observers say Path doesn’t have enough users to be interesting, while others say its mobile-first strategy is backfiring, or that it fatally undermined the trust of its users in the “Addressgate” kerfuffle back in February (of which more below). “Path is an application you do not have and will not use,” quips the rambunctious smartphone blogger Brian S. Hall. To put it in the hype-cycle terms used by research firm Gartner, the San Francisco-based startup has probably passed the “peak of inflated expectations” and is now somewhere to the right of the “trough of disillusionment,” but is still short of the “plateau of productivity.”

I have two reactions to all the skepticism about Path. As a user, I’m impassive. Path is fun to use and it keeps me closer to many of the people I care about; that’s more than enough reason for me to engage with it several times a day. As a journalist, I’m incredulous. I think that Path has a great story to share, and that it could turn out to be one of the defining startups of the early years of the mobile revolution. Anybody who checks out Path and says “meh” hasn’t looked at the company closely enough.

Last week I sat down with Morin for an in-depth interview about Path’s founding, the principles of design and social psychology at work behind the app, and the company’s own path forward as it readies offerings that could generate its first serious revenues. (Just today, the company introduced a new search feature that helps users find past moments in their timelines.) You can read the full 10,000-word interview with Morin here. Below is the Cliffs Notes version, summing up some of the themes that, in my eyes at least, make Path is such an interesting and emblematic company.

Path is Social But Private

As a habitual documentarian, I’m drawn to technologies that help people capture and save important moments in their lives. Path (which is available for iPhones, iPads, and Android phones) makes this fun and simple. The tools that let you take a photo, report your location, jot down a thought, or let the world know what song you’re listening to—or what movie you’re watching or what book you’re reading—are never more than a couple of taps away.

But that’s only half of Path’s formula, and if capturing information is all you’re interested in, there are plenty of other more specialized tools to choose from, such as Evernote. The key thing about Path is who sees your data when you post it. In contrast to Facebook, which has a 5,000-friend limit, your network on Path is capped at 150 people, and most users have far fewer. Morin says Path is really built for sharing between family members and close friends—and that as a result, people share images and other posts that are far more personal and meaningful than what they’re putting on Facebook or Instagram.

“The analogy I find fits best is, if Twitter built the news network and Facebook built the cities, then Path is trying to build the homes,” Morin says. “When you think what a home is like, it’s a trusted place. The conversation that you have around the dinner table with your family is a much different conversation than the one you would have out in the public square or in the workplace or on a news channel. So we really try to focus on creating that kind of sense of very personal, very intimate environment where people can trust that the information they share … is only going to be going to the people they trust the most and care about the most.”

Morin says Path has two predominant types of users. The first group he labels “premium Internet users,” the sort of people who have tried every social networking system ever invented (BBS, ICQ, IRC, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, etc.) and just want a minimalist way to share experience with a select group of contacts. That includes “quite a few celebrities and journalists and CEOs, venture capitalists, people who are very privacy-conscious and they have a public life and a private life and they really want Path to be the thing for their private life,” Morin says.

A Path search feed on an Android smartphone

A Path search feed on an Android smartphone

But equally important is the “family user”—the person who has family members dispersed all around the country, just as Path’s co-founders do. (Morin is from Montana, Mierau is from northern British Columbia, and Fanning is from Massachusetts). These members use Path mainly to share mundane, everyday moments.

“We call it celebrating the ordinary,” Morin says. “By doing that together as a family, the whole family becomes closer. It brought our families closer together from the first beta, the first version, so we knew that use case would be very powerful. I get an e-mail probably every day from somebody who says ‘I never had anything in my life that has brought my family closer together than Path. Please never let it leave the world.”

Path’s Founders Really Care about Design

In a world where there are 700,000 iOS apps and an equal number of Android apps, there are a lot of horribly designed apps. It’s inevitable, because good design is costly and time-consuming. When Apple screens apps for inclusion in the iTunes App Store, it clearly isn’t trying to impose its own design sense, or else it would approve far fewer of them.

Path, by contrast, is a gem of good interactive design. And it’s not just me saying that. Fast Company nominated Path as a finalist for its 2012 Innovation By Design awards, and the app won in the Best Design category of TechCrunch’s 2011 “Crunchies.”

I interviewed Morin in his personal conference room at Path, which is filled with books by designers like Dieter Rams, prints by artists from Jasper Johns to Hugh MacLeod, and famous artifacts of industrial design from the Polaroid SX-70 instant camera (1972) to the first iPod (2001—the one with a scroll wheel that actually rotated). I asked him how long he’s been thinking about design. “Oof, I don’t know,” he answered. “My whole life?”

Morin says his grandfather, a longtime executive with the International Ski Federation, went on frequent trips to Switzerland and Germany and often brought back presents like Leica cameras, Swatch watches, toy Porsche cars, and Braun clocks. “So I was exposed to designers like Dieter Rams really early on when I was a kid,” Morin says. “I think that that spurred a lifelong interest in design and design thinking and just trying to understand what makes a product not just beautiful but functional.”

Morin says he and Mierau wanted to start a company that had “a true appreciation and respect for design, and making decisions design-first.” Eight years into the Facebook era, Morin says he doesn’t see a lot of this kind of thinking in the world of Web-based social networking, with its focus on keyboard- and mouse-mediated interactions. “If you look at the personal computer revolution, eight to 10 years in, we were still using DOS,” he says. “So I think we fundamentally believe that we are still in the era of social DOS right now.”

Smartphones, with their touchscreens and sensors and the new modes of interaction those allow, offer a way past “social DOS,” in Morin’s view. Path’s radial menu is one example of the way his team has tried to apply design thinking to the new medium. The menu resides in the lower left corner of the Path home screen, where it can be activated with a tap of the thumb. Five smaller circles pop out, allowing users to take a photo; record a location; post a song, movie, or book title; write a text “thought;” or indicate that they’re going to bed. (Sleep and waking notices are the third most popular type of content on Path, Morin says. Photos and thoughts are the top two.)

The radial menu is the product of a painstaking effort to figure out the best way to squeeze all five options into one button. “We knew we wanted to provide very simple interfaces for these key things that people were doing all the time,” Morin says. “If I were to say to you, let’s make a new app that has the ability for you to capture five different types of posts and post them to a feed, your initial thought would be, let’s put them in a grid. Let’s have a menu on the top that slides down and let’s have an icon for each one and let’s put a title next to each one of them, so that people understand what they are.

Path's radial menu

Path's radial menu

“And we did all that. We actually did like 20 different versions of that interface. And it just felt like we were getting in the user’s way. We kept going after, how do we reduce this down to something that’s more simple, more ergonomic, more sensible from a touch perspective”?

The solution was the radial menu, which also includes some nifty animations that lend what Morin calls a more “human” feeling. When you close the menu, the five icons bounce a bit and start to spin before they retract. “You see this used in animation and cartoons all the way back to Disney and the Road Runner,” Morin says. “We actually got some cues from people we know at Pixar on how to do this.”

But while the animations are cute, the main idea behind the radial menu is just to “get out of the user’s way,” Morin says. “We found that giving users multiple buttons just doesn’t work. I think it’s probably kind of the same reason Apple does a single button for going back Home on the iPhone.” (There’s another fascinating design story behind the floating Swiss clock that shows the time stamp for each post on Path. For that, see the full transcript of my interview with Morin.)

Path Is Mobile-First

I’m not one of those people, like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who think the Web is dead. (It better not be, since I’m writing for it right now.) But I still have a lot of respect for companies that decide to go mobile-first or mobile-only, if only because of the courage required. The up side of mobile is that you can build cool touch-driven interfaces like the radial menu; Morin says that was a big part of the reason he was drawn to smartphones after leaving Facebook. But the down side is that product development is way more difficult on mobile platforms—so you need to really believe in what you’re doing.

Learning to develop for mobile has been “an excruciatingly painful process,” Morin says. A lot of the pain relates to the slow pace of iteration when you’re writing software for distribution through the Apple or Google app stores. “Most of us came from the Web world,” Morin says. “On the Web you were able to move things forward really quickly. If there was a problem you could fix it overnight. At Facebook we would ship every day.”

But in the mobile world, he says, app makers can ship new code every two weeks at the most, which raises the stakes enormously. If there’s a flaw in the code, “you risk two weeks of your users having a buggy experience, which can reduce your app-store rating, which reduces your distribution.”

Other seemingly small things, like introducing new users to an app for the first time, also turn into big challenges in the mobile world. Morin calls this the “new user experience,” or NUX. It’s “immensely hard on mobile, for a very simple reason [that] everyone comes into the app in a totally new state. When you first open up the application we have no idea who you are, where you came from, why you are there, no friends, nothing. So it’s not just hard, it’s impossible to personalize the experience for you when you land on the first screen.”

Path has built “hundreds of iterations” of the NUX to help users understand quickly what the app is for, Morin says. “We tell the user this is a place for family first, close friends second. And we’ll help you find those people, and if they’re not here we’ll help you invite those people.” If that step fails—if the user doesn’t get connected to anyone—there’s a nearly 100 percent chance that Path will lose them. If they find only one friend, there’s an 80 percent likelihood. Not until a user has 10 friends in the system, Morin says, is there a good chance they’ll stay.

But the beauty of a mobile social app, once users are hooked, is that it’s with them almost all of the time. “The sheer volume of time that people have their phones with them is much higher than you ever had on a computer,” Morin says. That means there are many more opportunities to pull users into the experience throughout the day.

This is partly thanks to the notifications that pop up on users’ screens when friends post new items, and partly just thank to the nature of smartphones, which are great for capturing ordinary moments. About a quarter of Path’s users are like me—they open the app daily, if not more often. “Users are opening applications many, many times a day, which is pretty amazing, and spending pretty long session times each time,” Morin says.

I asked Morin whether Path would ever consider adding more Web components—for example, allowing users to view or add to their timelines from a regular Web browser, Facebook style. He was doubtful, arguing that it would change the nature of the Path community.

“If we can find a way to do that with the Web that is similar to what we’ve been able to achieve on mobile, then we might do it. Right now we don’t think that we can,” he says. “A big reason why is actually because this [phone] is not just a consumption device, it’s a creation device. Everyone’s got a camera. If you think about it, if we were to shift a big percentage of our user base over to computers, they would basically not be contributing to the network the same way.”

Path Isn’t Out to Exploit Its Users

The hullabaloo this week over the proposed revisions to Instagram’s legal terms underscores a truth that’s easy to forget: Free services have to make money somehow, and they usually do it by selling users and their attention (and sometimes their data) to advertisers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—it’s the foundation for incredibly valuable services like Google and Facebook and, yes, Instagram. But it’s a waste of breath to feign outrage every time the curtain is pulled back on the commercial side of these arrangements. If you’re looking for an online business whose interests are fully aligned with those of its users, find one that isn’t supported by advertising—-and be willing to pull out your wallet.

“One of the core principles at the founding of Path was that we want to be in business with the customer first and principally,” Morin says. “We don’t want to say we’re in business with you but actually be in business with advertisers. We actually want to be in business with you.”

Paid photo filters on Path

Paid photo filters on Path

Path’s only business, up to now, has been selling access to a selection of five 99-cent photo filters from its camera page. Every photo app from Instagram to Flickr (and now even Twitter) includes filters, so this isn’t terribly innovative. But Morin says the company has some more interesting (and likely more expensive) services in the works.

“Spotify, Evernote, Hulu—there are a bunch of businesses that are building a premium brand in addition to their core offering,” he says. “We want to be much more on the Evernote, Dropbox, consumer premium services side of the game than we do on the advertising side.” There’s also a clear parallel to mobile gaming, where companies like PopCap and Rovio make good money by giving their games away to a huge audience, and monetizing the most hardcore players.

Morin won’t be pinned down about what a premium version of Path might look like, but he says it will be aimed at the first group of users describe above, the “premium Internet” crowd. “Those are the same kinds of users who have converted over entirely to Path as their social network,” says Morin. “They’ve got a lot of friends on Path, they’ve posted a lot of content, they’re using all of our filters. Their thirst or desire for Path-related content and services is very high.”

New features aimed at this group will arrive in 2013; the company is also in the process of opening up its service to third-party information such as running maps and exercise data from the Nike+ GPS and Nike+ Fuelband devices.

Having raised a comfortable $41 million treasury from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Index Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, and a panoply of famous angel investors, Path isn’t under pressure to deliver revenue immediately. But thanks to Fanning’s history at Napster and Morin’s history at Facebook (where he led the development of the Facebook Platform, now called Facebook Connect), the startup is definitely under a spotlight—and sometimes a microscope.

Morin’s response to the “Addressgate” episode this spring revealed a lot about the company’s character, and if you ask me, it came out looking okay. The controversy started when a developer in Singapore noticed that the Path app, in the process of helping users find or invite friends to connect with, was uploading the address books on users’ iPhones to its servers without offering an opt-in screen. This was standard practice in the mobile sector—there was hardly a social app that didn’t do the same thing—and it wasn’t prohibited by Apple’s interface guidelines. But Path got called on it first.

Users found the practice to be creepy and invasive. Journalists blasted the company: sucking up address data without permission was “somewhere in murky waters between identity theft and overly aggressive marketing tactics,” wrote TechCrunch’s Alexia Totsis. Morin responded to the criticism almost immediately by issuing an apology and deleting all existing address data. Shortly thereafter the company added an opt-in screen and started encrypting all address book data coming into its servers.

I asked Morin whether he felt Path had a greater responsibility to respond to users’ concerns because of the high expectations that have surrounded the startup from the beginning. “Because of the spotlight, maybe,” he said. “But greater responsibility because of our values, yes. We are building a personal social network for your private life, so we really deeply care about privacy here.”

In the address book case, Morin says, “We were doing something that was a best practice, and it was one of those things that we stepped on a land mine and we didn’t even realize it. Because that value matters so much to us, we can go out, we can apologize, we can say we really didn’t mean to do this, but to us actions speak much louder than words. So we went and we deleted everything and now we’ve encrypted everything. You can say things, but you have to do in order to really communicate, I think.”

Only time will tell whether Path can live up to the values Morin professes, and whether it can find a way to earn real revenue without getting into bed with advertisers or degrading the quality of its service. But building a base of passionately committed users, while pursuing design innovations that make the most of the mobile platform, is a good way to start.

“If I can’t figure out [how] to say ‘Something we have made is worth your dollar,’ we haven’t done our job,” Morin says. “That is what we are shooting for. And look, we are still a baby company. We have barely started walking. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. But that’s our dream.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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