Always On: Why The Product Is Now The Ad
(Reprinted from Modernista’s Blog.)
Some agencies steeped in decades of mainstream media may be locked in to a mode of thought in which they see their primary “product” as making ads. Of course, we all know what ads are, but I can’t resist a penchant for defining things, so here goes: It’s a compelling, memorable mini-experience in audio, print, or interactive form that interrupts the channel you’re engaged with, influences your perceptionB, and motivates you to take action. The only people who think of ads as “products” are the people who create them (agencies) and the people who work with agencies to create them (clients).
But with the digital disruption underway and still in its infancy, agencies are starting to move beyond thinking of ads as products, and shifting to the idea that digital and social media products, and the user experiences they offer, represent a new form of embedded self advertising. Some examples:
- The Kindle, with its built-in Whispernet connection, provides a great e-book reading experience, but also contains within it an always-on “advertising” and sales channel right back to Amazon’s entire inventory of e-books (725,000+ and growing).
- The iPhone contains an incredible ad for its own App marketplace.
- Adwords and adsense are deeply embedded into Google’s search product, in which search is advertising and advertising is search.
- Facebook understands that your social network and the recommendations and actions of that network are a dramatic new form of advertising customized by your social connections.
Since these devices contain embedded marketplaces and storefronts, they need not interrupt the channel experience. Today’s great products approach design and technology with the understanding that a great user experience advertises itself and sells itself.
Some core skills of great agencies are well-suited to this new landscape: incredible creativity, layered storytelling, deep understanding of design, strategic capabilities, and brand-building chops. But a focus on interruptions rather than destinations, and a focus on external third-party channels rather than ones baked right into product and platform experiences, can be an Achilles’ heel.
The self-advertising that product thinking represents requires new approaches that put the user’s experience of utility and value first. The experience can support users and enable them to opt in to embedded purchase decisions at their own pace. The experience itself needs to be designed with acquisition, ongoing engagement, and retention in mind. Today’s best digital devices and Web-based products and platforms represent an always-on channel. This mode of “advertising” has the longest shelf life possible: It lasts as long as people remain engaged with the experience itself.
Workflow 2.0 Design: Five Principles
How Well Does Your Product’s Workflow Work?
We’re all familiar with workflow systems that don’t work. Bad workflow systems cost employees, business partners, and customers efficiency and productivity. But with Web 2.0 principles in mind, there are many ways to create or redesign workflow tools to make them work right. Here are some guiding principles based on many years of experience in workflow design:
- 1. Be User-Aware. Don’t just show a random table of records and force the user to find the right “needle in the haystack” record each time; design the system logic so it knows which records are relevant to each user, and serve these up first.
- 2. Be Event-Aware. Important events, such as approvals, reviews, problems, etc, get lost in the shuffle of tabular design. Events should be bubbled up directly to users in an event/news stream, and these events can then help users perform triage and prioritize their time.
- 3. Be Context-Persistent. Too many systems make users re-find their record-context evey time they switch business activities. Smarter systems let users set and keep a client/record context across activities. They can then clear it and shift context whenever they need to.
- 4. Be Decision-Aware. Old workflow systems keep data separate from supporting intranet/extranet content materials such as powerpoints, how-tos, email steams, etc. Smart workflow systems create visibility from the workflow out to these “decisional” resources, which users can then easily access right at the moment users are making key decisions.
- 5. Be Attention-Aware. Smart workflow systems use Web 2.0 ui design principles such as staying on the page, inline interactions, expand/collapse tables, rather than forcing the users through a sea of tabs, tables, second windows, pop-ups, and page shifting. These approaches respect the user’s attention and focus, and let them work in a more efficient way.
And remember that even incremental changes in your product’s workflow can greatly improve the end-user experience.
Top 5 Reasons Why IA Still Matters
Information Architecture has not been in fashion of late; the argument has been that it should no longer be seen as a discrete discipline. Instead, it should be seen as simply interaction design, or user experience design, or ui design. But there are many great reasons why IA is now more important than ever. Here are a few of them:
1. A Path To Domain Knowledge. Understanding complex domains and their associated work practices remains a tricky business. IA practices teams get up a ramp quickly and understand the domain.
2. Mapping Above The Page. A non-IA design approach often starts by tackling a homepage, and then looking at second-level pages. But most software design needs a higher-level of abstraction. IA help surface issues of flow, aggregation, roll-up, break-downs, variant issues and invariant patterns and get up above the page-by-page approach.
3. Matching The Solution To The Challenge. The rise of excellent canned UI code libraries, including Yahoo UI, jQuery, Moo Tools, etc, has created a mistaken industry impression that UX and usability problems are mostly pre-solved and the only challenge is code execution. But the biggest challenge, framing the underlying user task and context appropriately, and matching it to the right solution, remains. IA practices assert that you need to roll-back user issues to the underlying challenge at-hand and then identify the best UI/UX solution from either existing or custom UI elements.
4. Team Facilitation. Because IA focuses on the intersection of information and user context, IA practices often equip a team with a shared language and a shared logic for working together. This is especially important in agile practices where UX issues, if not tended to, can wind up reduced to the role of “fit and finish,” ie, UI polish. Used appropriately as part of Stage 0 sprint, IA gives the team a map and a shorthand that accelerates velocity and team-decision making.
5. Attunement to Content and Containers. With the rise of social media and issues like hashtags, permissioning, data feeds, we can see that it’s increasingly hard to separate containers from the underlying content. IA focuses on understanding the content structure, content consumption, and content workflow first; these are issues that a purely visual or purely code-driven approach are not well-suited to solve.
These are the thoughts of one IA and UX veteran; I welcome yours.
Moderated Usability Testing: Mastering The Secret Art of the Redirect
If you have invested in conducting a usability test of your product, no doubt you are ready, willing, and eager to interact with your current and prospective users. As your users interact with your product, they are bound to have a number of questions for you. For example:
- ”How would I save my information here?”
- “Could I customize this?”
- “What would happen if I click on this button?”
- ”How is this supposed to work?”
There is an essential piece of advice I can offer about how best to initially answer these and many other questions: don’t. Or rather, artfully redirect the question so that you have an opportunity to understand the user’s perceptions and goals before you lose that opportunity by providing too much information. Here’s an example of some artful redirects. You can start with “that’s a good question,” and from there:
- ”How might you try to answer that question if you were exploring this product on your own?”
- ”What would be your expectation of how that would work, based on what you see here?”
- ”Let me ask you to explore the product further to see if the experience answers your question.”
Why The Redirect Is An Essential Tool
The user’s initial question provides a pinpoint clue into an area of your product’s user experience that, for a range of possible reasons, is not crystal clear. The reasons could include poor labeling, issues with the UI design hierarchy, problems in the information architecture and flow, mismatch between the tool and the user’s existing way of working, missing contextual information, and more.
By close observation and interaction with the users, you’re hoping to find out where the disconnect is, so you can close the gap between the product’s design and their user’s reality. You’re hoping to amplify the gap and get more information about it so that it comes into view. If you answer the user’s question rather than redirecting it, the user will become “artificially” knowledgeable about the system, and it will be harder, if not impossible, to gain further insight into this gap. If you allow the user to move forward on their own, and succeed or fail to answer their own question, you can then double back with a follow-up probe: what might have made that clearer for you?
Resisting The Urge To Explain
What usually happens in tests like these is that you may see the very same issue occur with other users. As your test proceeds, you can progressively optimize your line of questioning, and see whether the nature of the confusion is the same across multiple sessions.
If you’ve been working on your product for some time, which would mean months or even years, it’s a natural impulse to want to explain all the ins and outs to users in your testing conversation, especially if you find yourself frustrated by their confusion. Yet it’s key to the success of your test, and of getting good information, to let the product succeed, or fail, to speak for itself on its own.
When you inform your test subjects of your intent, they become less like outside participants and more like internal members of your own team. The reason you brought them to the test in the first place is because they could help you understand how the product would be received in the open market, without the benefit of your in-person explanation. So have the confidence in your usability process to let problems surface. That way, you and your team will be equipped with great information to solve them.
WebApptitude: The Rise of Web Apps and Web 2.0
The day of the Web Apps has arrived. Everywhere one looks these days, real live desktop-style applications can be found online. Word processing. Calendars. Spreadsheets. Image Editing. And it’s all storable, tagible, editable, shareable, and thanks to new technology approaches like AJAX, good to use. Google is of course leading the pack, but there are many other innovators, including Salesforce.Com, Netflix, and many more.
It all means that the Web is not just for Web sites and Web pages any more. Like a desktop, a Web “page” can be an information space with clickable, dragable icons that can perform a kind of magic. And the Webtop is making major inroads on the desktop as the central stage of computing and, in fact, of global culture.
What marks the evolution from the Desktop to the Webtop user experience? Well, kids, here’s a quick history lesson. Desktop computing, pioneered by Xerox Parc in the 1970s, went commercial in 1984 with the Apple Macintosh. It went global with Windows in 1995 (yes, it took MS more than 10 years to catch up to the clickable, graphical operating environment.)
But around the same time, the World Wide Web stepped onto the scene thanks to Mosaic, the first Web “browser,” which put a graphical overlay on the Internet, a shared hypertext environment originally launched by the Pentagon in 1969 to help government and university scientists share information. The principals behind Mosaic commercialized it in Netscape, and throughout the 90s, Web 1.0 rose at incredible speed.
At that time, though, the Web was viewed as primarily a digital publishing medium and a place to send e-mail. For serious things, you still had to go buy your boxed software, and then install it, read the manual, troubleshoot it, and pray that it didn’t get into a fight with another piece of software already on your desktop ecosystem.
Fastforward to today: 2007. Over 20 years after desktop computing, Webtop computing is coming into its own, thanks to many factors, including: shared standards, separation of design from function, better bandwidth, cheaper storage, increased interoperability, and the demands of the new networked society for easier and better ways of working.
Webtop computing means that end users can avoid losing time constantly fighting with the complexity and software conflicts of their own computers and the stage-hogging antics of their operating systems. And the capability you see today is just a small sign of the things to come.
The Mediumlessness Is The Message
We live in times of accelerating change and major technology disruption. Thinking through the implications of the changes underway can help us feel positive about the future. One of the biggest changes is the absorption of many media into digital technology. The rising capabilities and capacities of the microchip make it the ultimate mimic.
Today, content formerly housed in containers called books, records, film, CDs, etc, is transposed into digital 0s and 1s and reconstituted for instant transmission and consumption over the Internet. What do I mean by container? It’s a concept so obvious that’s it’s somehow hard to see:
- A book is a container for storing and sharing pages and word
- A record or CD is a container for storing or sharing sound and music
- A DVD , Videocassette or film reel is a container for storing and sharing moving pictures
But the container matters much less, other than as an artifact, once these content types are transposed into digital files (bundles of 0s and 1s, much like software) that can be played on a digital device.
Not just content types but devices themselves are being consumed and reconfigured by digital technology. A friend recently commented how remarkable it is that today one can take pictures and send text messages with a phone. But perhaps the confusing element there is the word “phone.” Substitute the reality — computer — and it becomes clear. In other words:
- We make calls on a portable computer that we happen to call a phone.
- We take pictures on a portable computer that we happen to call a camera.
- We print pages and pictures on a computer that we happen to call a printer.
- And increasingly, we move around in a computer that we happen to call a car.
These names help us try and keep a connection to our pre-digital analog world, and surely they help us tell our computers apart. But in reality, digital tools, files, storage, and transmission are the order of the day. Microchips and the devices they power have become the mega-medium capable of replicating and refashioning an analog world in a digital representation.
These devices and containers used to represent different media, but today there is really one mega-medium. We differentiate through the old names and concepts. And the actually fluidity, dynamism, and speed of this medium — once appreciated — becomes something akin to mediumlessness. Such is the hall-of-mirrors effect of the digital age.