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The Age of the Feed-Based User Interface September 13, 2010

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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?

Can Apple Build a Real Social Network? September 6, 2010

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Or maybe the question is, “Does Apple want to build a real social network?” Last week, at its usual September iPod product refresh, Apple rolled out Ping, a collection of social networking services tied to the iTunes Store. Much was written about how Ping did or didn’t integrate Facebook. The term “walled garden” came up.

As it stands now, Ping is explicitly about selling music on the iTunes store. Om thinks it foreshadows the future of social commerce, but how far could Apple take Ping, and other initiatives like the Game Center services soon to be built into iOS? Could Apple build a social network that could challenge Facebook and Twitter?

What Makes a Real Social Network?

Social networks are challenging the web portals of the ’90s (Yahoo, AOL, MSN) as the dominant content and communications paradigm. They’re permeating mobile communications, affecting enterprise collaboration and even taking a shot at television. Let’s take a quick look at what makes a social network, and how Apple measures up:

  • User Profiles house information about the person and collect identification and authentication services. Ping profiles have very limited information about users’ music preferences. Ping uses Apple ID, which enables credit card authorization and check-in, although almost exclusively to Apple — rather than third-party — products and services.
  • Social Graphs map the relationships between profiles and the activities of the user, and offer potentially powerful marketing and advertising targeting. Ping users explicitly make music recommendations to their friends and followers. Apple was using collaborative filtering and favorite-watching to create recommendations and playlists before Ping.
  • Platforms offer APIs and services so developers can build applications. Social networks also work as distribution channels — viral or otherwise — for those apps. Apple certainly knows platforms, but iTunes and its App Store aren’t very social yet, and Apple hasn’t revealed a Ping API strategy.
  • User Interfaces and user experience are elements Apple practically defines itself by. Modern social networks have replaced the profile page with a stream of real-time information. Ping’s UI mimics that approach, and features Apple’s classic simplicity and elegance, but so far offers none of the charm or serendipity of iOS. Ironically, Apple hasn’t contributed anything to social network UI; even its iPhone integration of third-party social networks is unexceptional.

Air and Electricity: Services or Applications?

Some analysts describe social networking as air, but perhaps the more relevant metaphor is electricity. In that view, companies and sites tap into social networking to create applications or experiences. Right now, Apple is treating social media as electricity to fuel its own shopping and communications applications.

Apple makes its money by selling products and “renting” its distribution channel. It likely won’t hire an advertising sales force, and Apple Me.com is a weak collection of fee-based services. I suspect Apple’s more comfortable creating social networking features that enhance its products and marketplaces, rather than building out a free-standing social network.

Competitive Implications

Standalone social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn probably won’t face Apple as a head-to-head competitor for their audiences, advertisers or what they deliver as their core user experience. Apple doesn’t appear to be interested in building a general-purpose social network, a short message broadcasting service or a professional connections network. MySpace is way ahead of Apple in gathering artists’ pages and a social music audience, but Apple’s ability to drive sales makes it a fierce competitor for label attention.

Those companies, and others like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, who aspire to provide social media APIs, services and even infrastructure, should cultivate, rather than compete with Apple, especially if they want to reach Apple’s customers. That means they should license or, if Apple’s in its usual DIY mode, integrate their own social networking technologies with Apple’s. By the time you read this, Ping users may be able to find their friends via Facebook Connect.

Related Research:With Ping, Apple Builds a Social Network Inside a Walled Garden

Question of the week

Could Apple build a social network that could challenge Facebook and Twitter?