Exchanging Digital Contact Info Is Still Awkward

I opened a Quora thread about why someone hasn’t built a dominant product or service in the digital business card space. And earlier today I read about how Bump is narrowing its product to focus on contact and photo sharing. I’ve been using a bunch of other products for digital business cards. Some of them, like Cardflick, have really nice design and look great. Others, like QuickCard are barebones but efficient. Some, such as Hello from Evernote, have really great concepts around helping you keep track of people you meet by taking advantage of some of the features on your smartphone (for a good read on Evernote Hello, read this article on RWW). But none of them have taken off in my network or become terribly dominant in my everyday business and social interactions. But there’s so many reasons I wish things were better – I’d like to go all digital if I could for the following reasons:

1. You never run out of digital business cards – no more “I’m out of cards at the moment” incidents.
2. A smartphone digital contact sharing service can take advantage of info on your phone (particularly location and your calendar) to annotate information about the context in which you meet someone.
3. By going all digital, you can more quickly get that person’s contact information into whatever digital system you use, taking out the step of scanning or manually entering contact info.

I’m convinced the reasons this hasn’t happened are more socio-cultural, not technical. A few thoughts:

1. Exchanging paper business cards works well because the protocol for exchanging them is well established – it’s a ritual. One really awesome thing about paper business cards is that the global protocol for exchanging them is well understood. Put aside any cultural differences about how cards are presented or handled – nobody is shocked when you start a business meeting by exchanging paper-based contact information with the other people in the meeting.

None of the digital alternatives I’ve tried have that feature. Some of them, like Evernote Hello, suggest taking a picture of the person with whom you’re meeting. Sorry, that’s kind of awkward. Also, there is the fear of embarrassment around asking someone to exchange contact info on a service that he or she does not use. In many ways, trying to introduce a tool that that is foreign actually breaks the flow of getting a meeting started or facilitating a quick exchange of contact info. It introduces friction into what could otherwise be a frictionless process. And the more people in the meeting or room, the more friction you have in trying to get everyone on the same platform.

2. There is so much digital information about people out on social networks that the synchronous part of contact exchange should be short and the heavy lifting should be done in the background. The one benefit of digital contact exchange is that you can use all of the information on the web to augment contact information. For example, if I add someone to my contact list via email address, why not go out and figure out if that person has a LinkedIn account, Twitter handle, etc – Connected does some of that already and I find it extremely useful. Some services seem to miss the point that contact exchange should be quick – the more typing or data entry I need to do synchronously (as in when I’m meeting the person), the more friction you’re introducing. Just get me to share / exchange the minimum amount of info needed to seed the system.

I remain optimistic that someone will crack this nut and crack it soon. And when they do, I hope the market tips in favor of something that most, if not all, people use.

As always, you can leave comments below or follow me / message me on Twitter @chudson.

  • Gavin Peacock

    It worked with beaming on the Palm Pilot. Jeff Hawkins had first suggested to me that we should exchange business cards by bumping the devices together. But that seemed like it would be a bit awkward across a table. Infrared is an ideal technology for this since it is short range and directional. You just point and shoot. The receiving side just needed to be on and pointed in the right direction. Directionality is very important. It was a natural experience for most people. I used Frank Dawson’s VCard format from the start so the the data could be exchanged freely. I worked with the major cell phone manufacturers to ensure it worked across different devices.  My first trial was in my son’s pre-school class. I figured if they could use it, then everyone could. It can be done, and it has been done. It can be done again.

  • Charles Hudson

    Gavin – I think you all had one major thing right with Palm – you baked the contact sharing into the OS itself. It took care of the awkward “do you have this app?” question that comes up today. If iOS or Android had a default / standard way for sharing this info it would remove a lot of the social friction.

  • I think that’s what makes it most difficult – it’s tough to see the path through which a startup could accomplish this – it has to be baked into the platform/device, and the companies behind these are larger, slower-moving, and bound by complicated end-user license agreements.

    Another challenge is sharing different contact information with different people – people make these decisions on-the-fly everyday, by choosing to give out just a business card, a card plus a phone number, etc. Then you get into personal contact info sharing which has even more behavioral layers.

  • I agree with the points from the post. Todays biggest problem is that using such apps adds friction to the whole process and doesn’t make things easier.Having to find a compatible app to exchange info is not too practical, and gets in the way. I am trying to figure out what would be the best solution to go digital without getting in the way.It seems that in some circles (not just the high-tech) QR Codes on business cards are catching up. Some use it for vCard download, URL to their website…I figured what about linking to a lightweight mobile profile, a website which renders perfectly on every screen, and displays basic info, enables quick phone dial, email, vCard download, links to other accounts (twitter, LinkedIn …) and a photo. So when somebody tries to connect with you, they can do it easily without any specific app needed.This seems to be working pretty well. I actually have such a page, and a QR code to it on my card.I would like to take this one step further by capturing all the relevant information about somebody i’m meeting and let the app (webapp) send the info to me.I am experimenting with this idea of letting the user who scans my card enter his email address and send him info about where/when we met (it can figure out the place based on geolocation), maybe it’s a conference/networking event/game night. Also was thinking about letting him enter notes after the actual meeting.The whole idea is not to get in the way, but to provide means for easily connecting.

  • I don’t think we should expect it to be built into the OS. There are a lot of distributions and a lot of companies don’t ship with the basic Android for example (see Samsung, HTC). They have their own distributions and they might come up with something that works across their devices. Apple does the same with iOS, and we’ve seen it with BB. And coming up with standards that everyone follows never was easy (see web development and browser adaptation). A good solution would be something that solves the problem across all platforms.

  • I agree that this exchange is still a bit awkward as we’re moving from the ritual paper exchange to the digital, however I have noticed some great new trends emerging.

    “The synchronous part of contact exchange should be short and the heavy lifting should be done in the background”

    Exactly.  While it’s not focused directly on a “bump exchange”, there is an interesting company working in this field in Paris called Kwaga.  Their app Write.That.Name automatically updates gmail contacts via semantic analysis of email signatures.  They have beta testing on outlook now too.  Been using it for a few months now and highly recommend.

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