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    Keeping up with the times (and your users)

    Posted by Luis Serpa on June 15, 2009 - 8:32 AM

    Everything changes all the time; it’s just the nature of our modern world.  The real problem is not how fast things change but how out-of-control we usually feel for not knowing where all these changes will eventually lead. We are all afraid of missing the boat for the next big thing.

    Social Media, Netbooks, multi-touch devices, mobiles, streams, waves, web2.0, cloud computing, the Wii and motion detection, not to even mention all the new startups with crazy ideas bringing even more new ways to see and use the internet.  As an early adopter of technology of all kinds, I know more than 90% of those new ideas will be dead in less than a year, but any single one that survives will change how we experience the internet in ways that we cannot even try to predict.

    Why does that matter?

    Because even though we cannot keep up with technological evolution, we can (and MUST) keep up with users’ expectations and that will give us an insight on developing behaviors.

    A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (@ginidietrich) wrote a blog post on the “Death of the Corporate Web site” based on another post from Mashable (Is Social Media Making Corporate Websites Irrelevant?) that created a lot of debate. All of this got me thinking that the key point here is not whether Corporate websites are going to die or not, but how they will need to evolve to catch-up with these new developing user behaviors and expectations.

    What WILL change?

    1. Information Streams – In the next few years, users’ online behavior will quickly shift from “surfing pages in a website” to “surfing streams of interconnected information.”

    It might look like it is the same thing, but it changes drastically how users experience the web and navigate through sites. Traditional information architectures, that guide users through your site’s in an orderly fashion (sequential) will not be capable of predicting or controlling the user’s navigation. Users will come from anywhere and land anywhere in your site.  All pages will be landing pages and will have to fully support the user’s objective, lead them to a call-to-action and, probably, be customized to tell a consistent story every time.

    A site will become more than just a collection of pages under a URL. It will encompass every digital manifestation of your brand and services wherever they reside in cyberspace (Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, posts, comments, reviews and maybe even emails if Google has its way with the new “Wave”).  With this behavioral shift, Homepages may lose most, if not all, of their importance.

    2. Multi-Touch – Touch-screen wireless devices (including netbooks and tablets) will change the way people interface with the computer, which eventually will change the way people interface with websites.

    If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, I bet that at least once you accidentally tried to repeat the same gestures/finger movements on a regular phone from a friend out of habit.  After playing a Wii game, you certainly have the sensation being a bit “limited” when you have to use a regular joystick.  The reason for that is simple: whenever you find an easier or more natural way of doing something you adapt to it almost immediately and going back to the old ways is like trying to unlearn how to walk… You just can’t.

    In the following years, more and more devices will be touch-sensitive and there are already companies trying to adapt the iPhone “experience” for netbooks, tablets, laptops and even desktops.  Soon, the way we interface with a webpage or navigate through a site will be impacted by the use of such devices and systems.   Users will get used to these experiences and will demand sites to act in a similar way.

    3. Augmented RealityAugmented Reality (or Enhanced Reality) will eventually eliminate the need of physical devices or accessories and the internet will be more ethereal than ever (a real web of dispersed information).

    This is not science fiction. A couple of years from now we will be taking pictures by looking at things, receive detailed information about objects (and people) directly from the internet while we handle them, all without looking at a computer or cell-phone screen. There are ongoing studies on how to use the internet to “enhance” our perception of the world around us without the need of physical equipment or accessories.  A group at MIT even created an amazing prototype using readily available materials under $350. When the internet is no longer something you see through a display in some device, today’s website will be seen as just a collection of information about an entity without full context to what you are doing at the moment. At this point, the concept of a website in the way we experience today will become a distant memory of how we did things in the past.

    Ok, Now What?

    If you ask me how this new website structure or concept will look like in the near (or not so near) future, I’m not certain I know the answer. There are only 3 things I can say for sure:

    1. Your customer experience (or at least your user experience) will be fast, ephemeral and dispersed.  People will be (they are already) assaulted by information from all directions presented to them in quick bursts and ever smaller chunks. People will suffer more and more from information overload and the capability of capturing and retaining one specific message will decrease (there are even studies showing how the new generation brains are adapting to handle the speed of the digital life). To stand-out from their stream of information, you will need to have a consistent digital strategy, comprehensive understanding of all your customer touchpoints, strong branding and, above all, be able to CONNECT and ENGAGE with your customers on a personal level.  It is the ultimate one-to-one relationship for mass-consumption.
    2. What you see today as your website will become just an end, not the means.  People will get there to consume and convert, not to browse, since its navigation will have no boundaries. It will require a more flexible information architecture where every piece of information (or page for lack of a better term now) can stand alone when pushed into an information stream and still lead the user to other in-context information and call-to-action.
    3. No matter how traditional your customers are they will be affected by changes around them at some point and won’t be able to tell you before it happens, because they won’t see it coming themselves.  Survey and Market Researches are useless to predict behavioral shifts because these behavior changes occur on an unconscious level and users only start to rationalize how much their needs and expectations changed a long time after it’s happened. This is why innovative companies like Apple avoid asking their users for what they want in a product; instead they observe their behavior to understand what they need without knowing and only ask their opinion after the product is almost ready to market (e.g., the iPhone).  If you don’t adapt to your users’ future needs and behaviors, your digital strategy is doomed.


    So traditional websites (like most corporate sites) WILL die… we just won’t notice!  They will be replaced with something new and better suited for this different perspective and expectation. We will look at them and believe they have adapted and evolved.

    Maybe that’s all the same thing anyway…

    But the real question here is: will you keep up with times and allow your digital strategy to evolve or will you hang on to what you know today until everything around you has changed? Are you going to keep up with the times or forever chase your own tail while trying to keep up with the Joneses?

    It’s totally up to you[r users].

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    5 Responses to “Keeping up with the times (and your users)”

    1. Great post, Luis! Insightful as always. I think the most important thing to note here is – just as with any evolving technology and its resulting effect on user experience – this phenomena will force businesses to focus more than ever on WHAT do they want their experience to be and WHY is each component important. It is obviously vitally important to meet the user halfway in his expectation of communication (or mental model), but it’s equally important to not setup any roadblocks or bumps in the experience getting caught up with the latest “shiny object” by putting too much emphasis on the HOW to communicate. It’s always a delicate balance between the two and with the individual low-cost of introducing a lot of these technologies it will be easy for companies to get lost and waste time/money in deciding which ones to use effectively. If you can remember to always listen to your customer and not let them get drowned out by the ever-shrieking voices of marketing, IT and other biz departments you’ll be just fine.

    2. I’ve read this a couple of times and want to focus on how you talk about the fact that we’re all going to go into information overload like we’ve never known. Your point, “your ability to CONNECT and ENGAGE with your customers on a person level is the ultimate one-to-one relations for mass-consumption” is RIGHT ON!

      As human beings, we are (by nature) social creatures. We want to have access to people and the companies in which they work. As technologies evolve even more quickly, it is important to remember it’s about relationships, not about the social networks or the blogs or the forums. If you build the relationships and use the technologies to help you reach your customers on a personal level, you will win.

    3. Luis Serpa says:

      That’s exactly the point, Gini! We can’t always predict the future of our online experiences and we can’t always predict future changes in user behavior, but we definitely CAN build strong connections and relationships with our customers that will ultimately survive those changes and help us evolve our strategies along the way.

      Thanks for highlighting it on your comment!

    4. Mark Ramsey says:

      This is really terrific.

    5. The disruptions you have pointed out have a profound impact on the Media companies – it is a game changer for them:
      – No boundary between advertisement and sales
      – Content decoupled from deliver mechanism
      – Merger of time based & space based ad
      – Impact of CI on brand

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