The Age of the Feed-Based User Interface

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Last week, Google dramatically changed its core search user-interface with Google Instant. Instant search results look like a news feed and change dynamically as the searcher types. In moving toward a more feed-like UI, Google is following the trend established by Facebook and Twitter. Other feed-style UIs, meanwhile, appear on a broad range of applications and services, including Apple’s new Ping music social network, Box.net’s cloud-based content management system and Salesforce.com’s Chatter enterprise collaboration platform.

With the trend of feed-like UIs continuing to gain momentum, it’s worth taking a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages, as well as how businesses can implement and add value to them.

Pros and Cons of Feeds as UI

In contrast to a “seek, search, consume” model of content discovery and consumption, a feed presents a more passive approach for a user to gather information. Some feed UIs, like Facebook’s news feed, contain algorithms that fine-tune what could otherwise be an overwhelming flow of information. In contrast, without such customization, Twitter’s bare-bones approach defaults to a real-time stream from everyone you follow. That only works for Twitter users with relatively few followers.

Not all information, however, benefits from being optimized for passivity or immediacy. For instance, most online shoppers aren’t just passively browsing, at least not until they put some parameters like product, price and color in place. Most news consumption benefits from categorization and importance, whether judged by professionals or by popularity. And although Google Instant feels like a mobile app, network bandwidth and latency currently prevent it from being implemented for phones.

Who Benefits?

So what kind of applications or services might next adopt feed-like interfaces?

  • Television. Years ago, I saw a Canal+ demo of a carousel of picture-in-picture images of what was playing on other channels. I’ve seen similar items from TV middleware companies.
  • Shopping. How about a stream of product thumbnails? Seesmic has a Zappos plug-in.
  • News. I’d welcome an editorial hand to feed me prioritized news stories with graphical cues, though I’m not sold on social curation as the only organizing principal.

Adding Value

When properly enhanced, feed-based UIs can deliver great user experiences. They feel “modern” to web and mobile audiences, in contrast to static blocks of content. Many — if not all — information streams do benefit from being current. And there’s a natural tendency for a user to re-visit them frequently, and to engage with them in a social fashion.

Feeds can be implemented as an RSS stream or API, making them open to mash-ups and plug-ins. Companies that offer information or communications services and are looking to implement feeds as UIs should offer the following directly to users, or as behind-the-scenes optimization tools:

  • Aggregation. This isn’t new, but Twitter clients like TweetDeck and Seesmic allow users to pull in multiple feeds from micro-blogging tools or status updates, and to post to multiple destinations. Box sucks in information from Salesforce.com and NetSuite into its feed. Seesmic just re-implemented its desktop client to accommodate plug-ins for other feeds or functions, e.g., local information from Foursquare. There’s opportunity in promoting and pre-packaging collections of feeds to give users different views of information.
  • Filtering. Facebook prioritizes the default view of its news feed via the user’s prior behavior and the network activity around items, among other things in its algorithmic secret sauce. Trending topics is a popular device for exposing users to information that might come from outside their network. But ceding active control of filtering, sorting and searching to the user is also powerful: That’s what made TweetDeck the choice of Twitter power users.
  • Other utilities. In the spirit of Tufte, I’d suggest there is opportunity in offering features that better present quantitative and qualitative information atop of feeds. Color-coding or boldfacing feed items based on popularity or importance would be simple, but there’s probably something like TheBrain that would illustrate relationships between items better than a threaded conversation does.

Related Research: Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Question of the week

Where’s the best place to add value to real-time feeds?

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