As anyone with siblings knows, competing for attention is a tough business. Take that competition online and situate it within an ever-expanding and rapidly growing competitive landscape, and “tough” starts to sound like a euphemism. When someone starts to think about how to spend their “free” time, the thought process is no longer, “Which show will I watch? Will I tune into ABC or FOX?” Instead, a user’s “media consumption diet” has expanded widely to include choices among news, music, video, social networks, games, ecommerce, etc. — and within each of these categories they are sub-choices in platform and device preference that reflect a mode of engagement. Think Miss America, on steroids, with millions of judges and no schedule (read: glorified chaos).
Couple this cut-throat competition with the exponential rise of available information and data online, and you’re looking at a landmine explosion of choice, which can be tyrannical as The Economist argues.
From a user perspective, managing information and content online is no longer just about smart or customized curation (although this is still a pain point). For many, it’s about identity formation — “you are what you eat” or, “you are what you browse, who you follow and what tools you use.” I recently, and finally, set up my Google Reader and nearly had an existential crisis.
For information businesses, there remains a huge opportunity both to help users comfortably manage information overload. And a lot of the opportunity is in user experience design. Compare Twitter (information network) and Quora (high quality Q&A community) to Flipboard (sleek iPad app that lets users view their social and news content in one system). At their core, these services are essentially information aggregators with varying inputs. Their interfaces could not be more different, though.
Twitter and Quora
Twitter and Quora have taken a newsfeed approach, where reverse chronology is the organizing principle, populated by topics or people a user chooses to follow:
Although “hot off the press” has been the historical underlying philosophy of news and information services, “new” is only one way to cut the pie. A second and crucial layer is topic, genre or source, which is currently only enabled by search (or the underutilized Twitter lists). For Quora, the newsfeed approach works well for now — but what happens when the service explodes beyond the early adopting tech community? I personally don’t want to mix tech, food, art, politics, science and a host of esoteric randomness that I’d love to sprinkle in every now and then.
Visually organizing different data sources in a customized, personalized manner is one viable solution, and the path that Flipboard has taken with portlets. (Tagclouds are another system for such visualization, but the personalization factor was quite low).
Flipboard’s value proposition is it’s visual design and information management capabilities. Their product is beautiful, easy to use, and intuitive. They also understand that social and branded information do not need to live in separate silos — indicating the source of content can suffice. If Twitter, Quora, or other information networks could do what Flipboard did for the iPad online, not only would they likely have much happier users, but they could also own a larger part of users’ time (which translates into $ when executed well).
Now that the services exist, user experience innovation can serve as one way to improve or incentivize the “Media Consumption Diet.” Layer that will seamless, useful tools (login, calendar, commerce, location, etc.), and you might start channeling Heidi Klum.