9 Comments

Summary:

With so many of our habits, likes and dislikes easily collected online, it’s astounding how little of our web experience is meaningfully, usefully personalized. The next era of the web will employ active design to revolutionize user experience.

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Almost everything we do – from driving to work to calling our families to ordering a sandwich for lunch – creates millions of pieces of useful data about our likes and dislikes. So web sites should be serving us a uniquely tailored set of content, right? Yet for the most part, the experience for users has remained static. While there are exceptions, much of the personalized element of most online content is the advertising (oh, and weather).

Consider the following: My grandmother in Florida and my buddy in Tel Aviv see the exact same site when they visit USAToday.com (except for the ads). Why is that? Both my grandmother and my buddy bring dozens of pieces of data with them to every site they visit. Our current-generation technology is capable of giving each of them a more personalized, contextual site experience, yet most web publishers don’t utilize this capability.

In the near future, I believe they will, finally, with the adoption of active design.

Moving past responsive design

For the past five years, the content creation industry has been focused on the radical shift from print to tablets and phones. Publishers and advertisers adapted to these changes with ever-smarter advertising solutions and mobile-responsive design. It’s a good short-term solution for many, but doesn’t yet take context into account.

Consider that every Facebook user has a uniquely personal Facebook experience. That’s because Facebook smartly uses the contextual data it collects around every user to deliver users their most relevant social content experience. And every Foursquare user has a similarly personalized experience.

These dynamic experiences are useful, but they are only the beginning of a far bigger transformation.

The rise of active design

Active design is the dynamic expression of the content experience – contextualized and personalized to a specific audience and geared toward motivating a desired action. The growth and proliferation of social, mobile, digital video, wearable, and user-generated content are creating increasingly rich data profiles of ourselves and the world around us. For example, Cir.ca is pioneering a new generation of dynamic content by recommending content to subscribers based on articles the user has already read on the same topic. There is just no reason anymore readers should have to read the same story twice.

Active design leverages the wealth of contextual data around every visitor – and their on-site/in-app behavior – to deliver the optimal experience to each individual user. Active design is the future of user experience design.

Transformation of social norms

The rise of big (and personal) data is what’s fueling the potential for active design. In the near future, data will be working for us in more novel new ways, and we’re starting to see examples in our everyday use of the Web.

Take one example: More than half of all online searches go through Google, and millions of us trust the company for our calendars, documents, and email as well. Thanks to Google’s massive market share, its every move is closely scrutinized. Yet, as Jeff Jarvis observed, something remarkable happened when Google rolled out Priority Inbox for Gmail. Priority Inbox used machine learning and ranking to meaningfully predict which emails were the most important for users and segregate them automatically. Instead of an outcry, Gmail users accepted this new feature because it allowed them to instantly understand, visually, what their data could do for them.

The lesson is that consumers accept personalization when there is clear value for them – and, importantly, trust in the provider.

Early signs of active design

Active design is slowly beginning to appear and change the world around us, but it’s nowhere near its potential. Sure, Google Now knows that in a few minutes I will be leaving work, and is currently showing me the fastest routes home. And yes, Pandora and Cir.ca are dynamically building my content experience.  But, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  I expect that soon, other content publishers will recognize how much more can be done . And as they come to realize how it will ultimately drive engagement, they’ll integrate marketing automation with dynamic content solutions to personalize and contextualize the user experience.

We are still in the early stages of a massive transformation from a world of access to a world of context. This transformation will not happen overnight. But if you keep your eyes open, you’ll be amazed at the future we are building.

Jon Burg is director of marketing for Conduit’s Wibiya, a web software developer. Follow him on Twitter @jonburg.

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  1. In the near future, I hope they will, finally, recieve no personal data at all.

    1. This is Jon, the author of this post. Most readers don’t realize that they are paying for free content with their data and eyeballs on ads. Once the sites have this data, wouldn’t you rather get something out of it – such as a better on site experience?

  2. @guest
    Unless the scrapers pay us for it. The supreme irony of all online commerce is that consumers are,for the most part, unaware of the vital cognitive asset they control – their purchasing intentions.

  3. crystalrichard Monday, July 15, 2013

    This was great. Thanks Jon.

    Our agency recently started using a platform by Evergage to add dynamic messaging and behavior-based personalization to our website. Not only have we noticed an increase in conversion rates – the retention rates have spiked too. It’s not surprising that website visitors want a unique, personalized experience. I really hope more brands/websites start adopting the active design approach. It’s not only better for the website owners – it’s better for the users.

  4. “…Cir.ca is pioneering a new generation of dynamic content by recommending content to subscribers based on articles the user has already read on the same topic.”

    Getting information you want to see and getting the truth can and often are two very different things and tailoring content to a user’s predilections comes at a cost.

    For example, if a search engine only presents research or news stories that the software parses as results that align with the user’s current opinions, then the user might begin to think that those ideas, no matter how incorrect, are the truth.

    For some situations (getting flight information) this is a moot point, but for others (scientific or religious issues, etc.) it is not.

    Hopefully as this technology matures and becomes more adept at figuring out what we users are all about, it will not be the used to filter information from us in such a way as to simply create echo chambers of our own opinions.

    1. JC, I totally agree. At the end of the day, context is more about filtering out than filtering in. Each experience designer or site editor must with with their algorithms to determine the extent to which users/readers should be presented with consenting or conflicting points of view.

  5. Deanna Lawrence Sunday, July 21, 2013

    Reblogged this on Pallino1021…The Blog and commented:
    Soon! Looking forward to sharing more about our start-up. FOMO solved as well as our desire for relevance. Data and privacy working together.

  6. All data collection and info customization should be opt-in, not opt-out. No one should be forced to work for their privacy.

  7. Hey, thanks for taking this opportunity to chat about this. I enjoyed your distinguished way of writing the post. You have made it easy for me to grasp.

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