Content discovery and consumption – delivering the virtuous circle

23 May, 2014     / /

The main challenges for online audiences of the future (and content publishers) isn’t finding content, it’s finding (and recommending) the right content. The homepage is dead. Or perhaps now every page is a homepage. But what does that tell us? This post is about three stages of the user experience – content discovery, consumption and continuation. In online experiences, discovery leads to consumption which sets the user off on a trajectory. How might we re-think content discovery to facilitate ‘more rewarding’ consumption and exploration?

The start of the conversation…

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Discovering a thing is only ever part of the story.

A lot of what a UXA cares about and creates is designed to facilitate content discovery. We create architecture to occupy the space between user intent (interest) and content consumption (satisfaction/engagement). If we’re able to connect interest with the right content, we can power experiences. Content discovery is the means to arrive at the right content.

Consumption of content is the end that justifies that means. No-one wants to invest in information architecture for its own sake, except maybe a few IAs. And its hard to argue that information architecture has anything other than instrumental value. Content is arguably the real connection between us and our audience. The BBC is brilliant at the surface layer of content – our articles, guides, programmes, clips and coverage is excellent. Content can be inherently meaningful once you’re consuming it. But in most experiences there come moments of choice where consumption is replaced by another type of activity. And as the web has evolved this switch in mode has become more tightly entangled. A mindset that treats ‘discovery’ as a separate stage in an online experience is no longer valid.

Experiences only last for as long as they are motivated. An IA that has focused on the beginning of a conversation, and an editor who has focused on the middle can be sure of only one thing – the end is nigh. There is only one thing worse than not thinking about content discovery as the start of a conversation with the audience and designing for it, and that is designing it as only the beginning, and missing the important role that discovery has in creating onward journeys.

Intent and keeping our promises – new beginnings

Experiences on-line live or die by their consistency and coherence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Google’s success was built on the back of a single, straight-foward, describable experience. Google delivered search results. Most of the time Google’s were among the best results, but this wasn’t the only reason we loved it. Google excelled in offering predictability. The search page was uncluttered. Their results page was similarly clean and easy to use. For many people Google was the internet. They began there. People still use it as a virtual, personal information shopper, returning to this ‘front-door’ to get to a deeper level of whatever they wanted. They treat Google like Mr. Ben’s changing room – it’s the same beginning and it leads you on magical journeys.

But beginnings are shifting. The homepage is dead, we’re told. And then it’s resurrected in the assertion that every page is a homepage.

We’re not all Google, but perhaps Google makes every page a potential beginning.

The familiarity and reliability of a homepage breeds trust and reliance. But we now need to find patterns to create the predictability of the ‘homepage’ while exploiting the adaptability of the future web. Homepages and indexes used to be the solid landmarks that gave users a space for discovery as well as safety. But the web is changing.

Consistency still matters. When sites make even relatively minor changes users often feel aggrieved. Tim Berners-Lee proclaimed that the internet is for everyone. He could have equally said that the internet belongs to everyone. People feel ownership of the sites they visit. They react badly to change. Yet their expectations have risen. They want personalised experiences. At the same time, change is becoming one of the most prevalent features of the new information spaces we’re creating. ‘Streams’ as their name suggests are constantly flowing, changing and evolving. Recommendations change and adapt to your behaviour. When we get our design and IA wrong the web can feel like a malevolent maze, a series of twisty little passages, constantly shifting, sliding and diverting.

The endless adaptability and flexibility of the internet poses problems. How do you ensure consistency and coherence on a web that can be all things to all men? How do you exploit evolving technologies that make the internet less about ‘broadcast’ and more about endless adaptability? How can you move beyond just offering and supporting transactions to creating richer interactions that can be the basis of long term, trusting relationships? We need patterns with the reliability of the traditional homepage with the adaptability of newer web technologies.

From transactions to interactions – content discovery

Homepages are perhaps the best example of a transactional model for the types of experience on offer. The homepage offered a selection of links – pick one and get a resource – the rules were understood. But as the importance of the homepage evolves we can move to richer types of interaction. Rather than transactions, we can reward users with experiences that have an accumulation of reward. If we design our IA and interfaces carefully we can move beyond 1:1 transactions. We can build rich, evolving, personalised interactions. Intent and motivation can be the binding force that transforms a content discovery mindset browsing/finding) into a content exploration mindset (consumption and continuation).

In tents

We need to design products and services that have clear signposting, matching the expectations and intent of users. We need to be able to anticipate, generate and fulfil latent needs of the audience. Like those little brown heritage signs on the roadsign that try to capture passing trade, IAs should be working to expose users to relevant content that will satisfyingly extend their experience. If Google really has made every page a potential beginning, it’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t become an ending. Our designs should both satisfy and extend user need and intent.

We should be making content discovery elements that form the virtuous circle between discovery and consumption.

So how do we discover intent? User actions are the most-often used and probably easiest method – you can also use social evidence and past behaviour. But lets try to generate intent by motivating users (which is what adverts and marketing do). Let’s borrow the lessons we’ve learned from the homepage. A homepage both initiates and satisfies need.

The limitations in technology and attention mean that we’ve historically built ‘smallish’ structures and placed content into these, based on some ontological properties of the content and the user intent it is able to meet. But I think we need to move beyond this. Homepage thinking, traditional menus, these structures remind me of straight lines. They get a user from A-B. They encourage hieracrhical, linear thinking. But I suspect there might be more potential in a different kind of shape. I’m sure that effective information architecture can create virtuous circles.

Imagine a family travelling to a festival. They travel on the motorway. Along the route are junctions. Junctions afford the opportunity to change route, divert or change the destination. Motorways are built to keep you on track and deliver you to a destination quickly. Follow the sign, keep on the road and you’ll reach your destination. But they also offer moments of choice. Signposts highlight these. Junctions enable decision-making and diversion. It’s a reliable, repeatable interaction pattern that doesn’t movement through a space, but introduces interstitial places that can enable course correction and reflection on progress.

I think metaphors aren’t just useful because they help us explain an idea, they also help us interrogate one. I started thinking about the motorway metaphor as a way to describe intent, discovery and deviation in online experiences. But as I extended it, it revealed more about ‘content discovery’ and user behaviour. Motorways provide opportunity to change direction – a network of intersecting roads connect them. Just like content on the web, the supporting infrastructure gives the user choices. Interestingly, road designers use the same basic design pattern for joining and leaving a trajectory – the slip road. And once a user leaves the motorway they’re often met with a roundabout. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe these provide the model for the virtuous circle I’ve been looking for.

A roundabouts the original virtuous circle? And what’s a digital equivalent?

Most of our onward journeys are suggested at the end of the content – but why? Once you’ve reached your destination would you be interested in recommendations? This is a stop-start world. We’ve been thinking about a world of beginnings and endings without enough attention to enhancing the middle. I’m looking at design patterns that can bake information architecture into content. I want to use content as navigation. I want to create reliable areas of page designs that offer suggestion. I want to create a symbiotic relationship between elements in a design where information architecture enhances content consumption, rather than just begins it.

I’ve typed these thousand or more words on a QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard isn’t designed for speed. It’s designed to slow you down. Originally this was to stop typewriters from jamming. But I suspect the slower pace is helpful. Sometimes a creative pause or a moment of reflection is what’s called for. Roundabouts offer a similar experience – they slow us down and offer us a chance to change direction.

I don’t think the homepage is dead. But I don’t think the continual diversions of backward and forward across content and index pages is the best we can do. I think we can take what we’ve learned from this A-B thinking and create more organic experiences, a new type of content discovery and deeper, richer experiences of content consumption. No-one wants to make information architecture for it’s own sake. But I think paying more attention to information architecture is probably an important means to an end.

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