How evolving technology drives an intuitive user experience

Think about the term “intuitive experience.” What does it mean? In the context of using technology (which for most of us is our day to day lives), intuitive should mean that the enabling technology becomes invisible. It just works; we don’t even notice it, but we do notice that suddenly we’re more productive. Our jobs become more interesting or rewarding because technology is not only not in the way, it actually accelerates our efforts, enabling us to focus on core requirements (e.g., how to improve a process, build a better product or service, etc.).

The sad part is that we spend too much time grinding through poorly designed interfaces to accomplish our work, rather than focusing on what we were really hired to do. Presumably we are all experts at our jobs (hopefully), but how much time is that expertise truly unleashed, and how often is it hampered by a poorly designed interface?

I am fortunate enough to have been active in the workforce during a time when information technology really became the core driver of productivity across a broad range of industries. Telephones suddenly became mobile, making us far more accessible and therefore productive. Shortly thereafter the internet became consumerized, opening up a vast global potential, and shortly after that, mobile devices became web-enabled, and we suddenly had anytime/anywhere access to infinite knowledge.

During this process, a new class of workforce developed: the information worker, now an integral part of a new global digital ecosystem. The challenge is that something this vast develops organically and unevenly. A lot of the technology we take for granted is wildly complex, both in terms of what the user sees, and in what the application is trying to access.

The initial response to this complexity is known as “the consumerization of IT.” Initially driven by Apple’s iPhone, the trend started with everyone wanting to take their shiny object to work. But the main reason consumerization took off the way it did was that it offered what people really wanted: an intuitive experience. The consumer space for intuitive apps exploded, and shortly thereafter the enterprise space began to line up as well.

The challenge in the enterprise space is that the apps required to do our jobs don’t work like Angry Birds (unfortunately). They need to tap into a continuous stream of complex data housed in systems that were never meant to be accessed by thousands of portable devices. Navigating this framework requires two elements: an intuitive and compelling front end, and access to an industrialized back-end that should offer the same level of ease of use to IT support personnel that their business counterparts are enjoying.

This is one of the core elements now being introduced by BMC. We stepped into an intuitive business user interface with an elegant application called MyIT, which has had a staggering rate of adoption on a global basis (as a well-designed app should). We are now extending this experience deeper into the organization with the launch of Smart IT, which is effectively the consumerization of the industrial back-end.

Why does this matter? Because our presence is global, most of the world’s largest corporations run on our solutions, and anything we do has a broad and pervasive effect. It has been particularly gratifying to see large numbers of customers actually demanding the product, and when combined with MyIT, Smart IT provides an intuitive experience that can drive high speed innovation across the entire gamut of technology, from mainframe to cloud to mobile, while optimizing IT performance, cost, and productivity.

Fully mobilizing rich media through content management

Mobility trends are clear and undeniable, it is not just that the global market for mobile devices is now measured in the multiple billions, but also that the next generation of mobile devices has gained traction at a remarkable rate. While smart phones only account for slightly more than 15% of mobile devices worldwide, that’s 15% of several billion, which is itself a pretty respectable number. In the long run, it will be interesting to see the dynamics between terminal devices with access to SaaS applications, vs. smart phones that provide processing services on the device itself. In both cases there is a significant content play since the main use of a smart phone or SaaS feature phone is data-centric, rather than voice-centric applications. Content not only needs to be mobilized, it needs mobilization across a broad range of media deliverables. The whole point of a content management system is to control complex information resources (including integration into back-end systems), and deliver the right information at the right time, and more often than not, to a mobile device. For field service personnel that require access to complex rich media information, this implies the content system needs to manage virtualization (doesn’t matter what the access device looks like, the information should always look and act the same), and synchronization (the fact that I’ve accessed and perhaps changed my files while on a mobile device should not result in multiple versions of the same file). This, of course, is in addition to baseline mobile requirements such as security, compliance with IT governance, etc.

The fact that information resources can be meta-tagged and categorized via some form of vertical ontology (that is, tagged and bagged), and have this done independent of the media type, means that when a field worker looks for information, the content management platform becomes a mobile enabler. It doesn’t (and should not) matter what the media type is; video can be tagged and bagged, just like text documents, graphics, .wav files, essentially any resource that has relevant information can be organized and stored at the component level, and assembled on the fly in response to a query (e.g. “what is the proper procedure for replacing the armature platter on an MRI Scanner?”). Having a medical/technology ontology that categorizes tagged and bagged information resources means the field worker receives a full blown rich media response to this query: this can include a text description of the procedure, a video tutorial, graphics that can be exploded and rotated, a voice walk through, and so on.

In this context, a component content management system become a mobilization platform for rich media enterprise applications, and this can also be expanded to include supply chain partners that may feed information resources into an assembled product field guide. The combination of mobility requirements and the drive towards rich media is breathing new life into the content management domain across a broad range of vertical markets.

Analytics and the mobile consumer

One of the key drivers that defines how consumer-oriented businesses interact with both customers and prospects is the level of understanding of what motivates a consumer to do business with one e-commerce site vs. another. There are a number of mature technologies in place that can provide a transactional view of consumer behavior on a website (for example, clickstream analysis or collaborative filtering), or provide a long-term view of a customer’s relationship with a vendor (transactional analysis tied to historical customer behavior). In an ideal world, these types of analyses can be tied to profitability models defined by product classes, as well as to outbound operational systems used by marketing.

If you look at the claims made by analytics vendors, it would appear that their corporate customers have a complete and fully integrated view of their consumers; everything is working perfectly, the results are spectacular, everybody is happy, etc.

The reality is that most companies have a very thin, rear-view mirror perspective of their customers; there is a one size fits all approach to marketing, segmentation is at best a nascent science (the best example of which is the direct marketing industry trying to claw it’s way back up to a 2% response rate—otherwise know as a 98% failure rate), there is little or no integration across operating units that touch the same customer (for example, sales, customer support, billing, etc.), and there is absolutely no integration of the vast amounts of transactional data into a modeling framework that provides a genuine, holistic, and actionable view of the customer, and puts that information in the hands of the people who are in the best position to drive both top and bottom-line revenue.

This situation is further exacerbated by a genuine lack of understanding of consumer motivation. Companies know who their customers are, what they’ve done, when they’ve done it, how they did it, but the key piece they lack, the one element that holds it all together, is why they did it? What drove a consumer to site A vs. site B? What drove the consumer to choose product C vs. product D? The why of consumer interaction is a huge gap in understanding the dynamic of customer relationships, and is one that does not appear to be moving towards any sort of resolution.

The net result of all this is consumers who are frustrated, clearly misunderstood, and able to switch vendors with the click of a mouse, coupled with vendors who are struggling wildly to hang onto their customers, about whom they have almost no understanding, even on a historical level, much less a real time view of what is going on and why. And just to keep things even more interesting, the underlying technology infrastructure and it’s usage are moving at a far faster pace than even the most nimble companies are able to manage; two year ago no one had heard of Twitter, now they dominate the consumer technology landscape, and in spite of this if you ask your average B2C business what their Twitter strategy is you’ll get a blank look. And Twitter is just one small example, there is the whole rich media landscape that needs to be navigated, the stunning rise and dominance of social networks, and all of this occurring in the context of a mobile operating framework which is very different from the old school internet.

Setting the value of content

When mobile services were first introduced on a global level, one of the deployment issues that received a lot of attention was whether or not to charge for enhanced network services (that is, anything above basic connectivity). Most carriers at the time were looking for rapid adoption, and were adamant about giving everything away. I worked as a consultant at that time, and my consistent push back was no, you have to charge something, even if it’s only a symbolic amount. If you create an initial mindset that enhanced services are free, you’ll never be able to charge consumers for anything in the future. And now, several years later, the on-line and mobile content space is having the same conundrum.

There have been a lot of business models developed and deployed over the years to try and commercialize the vast amounts of on-line content that is continuously generated by professional authors, the news media, and consumers. Most commercialization models are either ad hoc pricing (popular with the analyst communities), subscription pricing (popular with the news media), advertising based content delivery (also media as well as User Generated Content), as well as, of course, free content (like this blog).

One of the core challenges content creators face is driven by the need for utility, uniqueness, and monetization. If I’m a market research professional with a large organization, and I need a report on a very specific topic in a hurry, I can trot over to an analyst site and cough up $3000 for a copy of exactly what I need. The information has high utility, it is unique, and I have the means to purchase it. However, if I’m doing research for myself, then that $3000 is coming out of my own pocket, and given the opportunity cost of $3000 (for example, a 65 inch LCD monitor), I am much more inclined to take my time and try to find a free version of the same material. If I’m lucky enough to find the free version, it doesn’t matter if it’s supported by advertising; clicking on the ads are optional, the important thing is that I’ve found what I want at a much lower price point.

This utility/uniqueness model works when the information is a reflection of extensive research and analysis done by experienced professionals. The problems facing the news media is that most of what they cover is current events, with limited analysis. If you want a quick and dirty overview of swine flu, you can find unlimited sources of information without having to pay a penny; therefore anyone trying to charge for it is one click away from being out of luck. They have utility, but they lack uniqueness.

User generated content faces an even higher hurdle; the barriers to entry are essentially flat, the rate of content generation is staggering, and as I’ve mentioned in prior blogs, very little of the information begin created is organized or tagged, and is therefore going to be very difficult to find or syndicate. This ecosystem is then further muddied by folks who are trying to create device specific readers such as Kindle, or the recent announcement by News Corp that they are looking to create a delivery device specifically for their own content. The default access device for any network based content is going to be a smart phone; you can build devices like the Kindle, but if you can get the same content on an iPhone, why bother with a new device that only serves a single purpose?

The only area that is a solid bet for direct monetization is high value information written by experienced professionals (utility and uniqueness). User generated content and news can generate revenue through advertising, but it s a secondary effect (that is, people are not paying for the content directly). Content creators in this group will still make money, but it requires a much broader reach since the click through rates are a small percentage of people who view the content. The more interesting challenge is how to apply monetization schemes to the 7th mass media channel (see the post from 3.3.09 for more detail). I will address that in my next post.

The Mobilization of Rich Media

The mobile internet has been defined as the 7th mass media channel. For those unfamiliar with the expression, the prior six mass media channels are print, recordings, cinema, radio, television, and the internet, which is distinct from the mobile internet. What makes this particularly interesting are the usage numbers; 900 million personal computers in use at the end of 2007, 1.3 billion internet users, but over 3.3 billion mobile subscribers (including 798 million WAP users- the mobile version of the internet, and 2.4 billion people using their phones for SMS texting). Not only the usage numbers for mobile internet far larger, they are growing far faster than the numbers for the traditional (PC-centric) internet.

Why do these numbers matter? Because they indicate a permanent shift in how people receive and send information. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that if you’re reading this, you have a PC somewhere, which you access frequently. It’s an ironclad assumption you have a cell phone, which is always with you, and always on. Is your PC always with you and always on? Unlikely, even if it’s a small laptop.

In addition to the always on/always with you convenience of mobile devices, the other core influence for the mobile experience is the size of display real-state on a mobile device; the small footprint forces efficiency in visual communications. Combine that with text limitations of 140 characters per SMS message, and you have literally billions of people who are evolving to a lifestyle where they only receive information in bite-sized chunks.

Because mobile devices are now the dominant information tool for the mass-market, there is also a corollary shift underway in how information is created, managed, and delivered. This is one area where rich media component content management systems are actually ahead of the curve; these systems were designed against standards that demand a minimalist efficiency (such as DITA), and are set up on the assumption that fast access and pithy delivery are the key drivers.

Similar to the social sites need for a hierarchical rich media content management infrastructure, the mobile internet requires structured access to broad stores of information, but delivered with a more condensed payload, a faster cycle time, and lots more potential for re-use and syndication. Traditional CMS systems are going to find themselves in a world of hurt with this new model, while component content management vendors are going to be facing a near Greenfield opportunity.

Rich Media and Categorization Standards

One of the good news/bad news developments playing out with social networks revolves around the vast amount of data being created and uploaded every minute. On one level the model works; sites like Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, etc. are pulling in members at enviable rates, but more importantly, the members are active users of a broad range of rich media technologies. User generated content is the key driver for success for social networks, and it is being generated in staggering volumes. That’s the good news.

The not so good news is that this content is poorly organized; the vast majority of people uploading rich media files onto social networks haven’t got the slightest idea of what metadata or vertical taxonomies are, much less how to classify what is being uploaded. While taxonomies or metadata may sound like wonk-speak to most people, they are a core requirement if anyone plans to find anything on a social network website.

By comparison, most content generated in a corporate setting is created by professionals who categorized the information, either manually, or using applications delivered by content management systems. This works because most corporations have a vertical taxonomy that is specific to their use of language; pharmaceutical companies, chemical manufacturers, medical device manufacturers, etc. all use language that is specific to what they do. The information is categorized according to the organizational rules for that taxonomy, on the assumption that easy access is the key deliverable for any content generated.

This model works fairly well for text-centric content in a structured corporate setting, but less so in an unstructured social setting, and even less so for rich media such as videos, audio files, ad hoc web pages (think of anything on Facebook). The social scenario is further exacerbated by the fact that users create rich media content, upload it to their computer, then upload it again to a (e.g.) photo site like flicker or photobucket, where is then shared far and wide across a broad range of applications and networks, and/or is subsequently syndicated.

So the challenge here is how can rich media be categorized in a semi-automatic fashion, using tools that are easy enough to use that any Facebook user will intuitively start categorizing their data, ideally without even knowing they’re doing it? And this only covers the search angle within the first place the data lands after it leaves the user’s computer. How about all those folks trying to syndicated videos, where there are multiple layers of use and re-use? Using distribution tools like RSS feeds to syndicate data across a broad range of integrated social networks is like firing into the dark.

And finally, who is in the best position to drive the development and implementation of a standard to define categorization of rich media? It won’t be the end users; they’ll just move on if things don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Standards bodies are a viable choice, several like OASIS are already driving initiatives across a broad range of content schemas like DITA; this would be a natural fit for them. However, the sector that really has its neck stuck out are the social networks; the development of categorization standards for social networks goes beyond basic exchange of information (for example, Open Social), and needs to focus on core value deliverables such as search and syndication. Social network’s value is in their content, that’s the whole point of the network. If millions of users can’t find anything, and can’t find a graceful way to distribute what’s been uploaded across all the multiple social sites to which most of them belong, the entire thing will eventually collapse under its own weight.

Monetizing Rich Media

There is a shift underway in how Facebook users communicate with each other; specifically with the increased use of one-to-one, or one-to-a-few video communications. Video as a base concept has already received strong traction on-line, but as anyone who has killed time on YouTube knows, the model so far has been one to many. This is effectively entertainment video, which is not the same thing as communications-centric video. A good corollary would be the introduction of enhanced network services on the wireless network a few years back, the most obvious example being integrated voice mail that is part of the service delivery of any wireless carrier. Voice messages are not left for entertainment purposes (most of the time), but to provide specific information to the recipient. The increasing use of video within social networks is likely to follow a similar pattern, with the exception that because there is an additional, significant dimension, the overall behavior of users is likely to shift. As an example, sit down with someone and ask them a few simple questions, then do the same thing with a video camera pointed at them. People are way more self-conscious when on camera, and as a result they behave and communicate differently.

I think once people become acclimated to transactional communications in a video format, the self-consciousness will start to ease, and this will just become another evolution in network based social communications. Now of course, the real question for the folks who provide the technology and enabling infrastructure is, how do we make money at this? While YouTube has been wildly successful in terms of usage, the company is still struggling to monetize its vast content repository, and this is likely to be even more the case for one-to-one video communications, since it is not entertainment oriented (does anyone want to watch a video of my wife telling me what to pick up at the grocery store? Heck, I don’t even want to watch it.).

The value of any network based service is driven by how many people use it; hotmail is a great example of this. The value of any one hotmail user to generate revenue is limited, but the value of the aggregated hotmail installed base is worth millions or billions. For social networks like Facebook who are sticking out their neck and offering video messaging, the same thing applies; don’t worry about the monetization aspects yet, instead focus on delivering an intuitive, high-value service. If Facebook (or others) can create a vast network of transactional video communicators, it will become worth multiple billions within a (relatively) short period of time.

Information Equipoise

For years the content and data worlds co-existed in relative isolation from each other. Content was the province of authors, reviewers, editors, people who were responsible for communications in written form. The data analysts, architects and developers operated in their own little esoteric world, and rarely came in contact with the content folks. The sudden rise of the internet triggered a fundamental shift in the content model, which has accelerated with the expansion of integrated rich media applications driven by meta-data management. Because of the increasing prevalence of application frameworks such as XML, the content world is finally catching up to the data world in terms of creation, distribution, and manipulation of their operational models.

Data-centric models have always had a huge advantage over content-centric models because of the level of granularity and manipulation they afforded end users. Now that content can be reduced into snippets that still maintain context and relevancy, these content elements can be stored in an object database and manipulated by ontology-driven tools. It appears the content world has finally caught up to the data world in terms of developing a fine-tuned grasp of it’s underlying information.

The implications of this are significant; for decades the advertising and marketing industries have been limited to a one-size-fits-all consumer outreach model, even now the best alternative offered by behavioral targeting firms is a cluster than numbers in the thousands and still only manages a response rate of less than 2%. Content needs to be architected, just like data; this has nothing to do with the narrative or creative process, it has to do with how information will be managed so that it can be reused, repurposed, and targeted to a much finer level of execution. When the content folks finally figure out what the data folks have know for years, you’ll start to see response rates on marketing initiatives climb steeply, because the customer experience has become much more relevant, or as I prefer to say, we can now target a cluster of one.

Two steps ahead

Following up on the last post, if it is indeed possible to include advertising in any format that conveys information, then the baseline delivery model becomes contextual-centric. Regardless of what you’re looking at, information from relevant vendors can be served up as part of your information experience. The key to acceptance by the end-user is (as mentioned previously) relevance, and for the most part relevance is defined by whatever information is under consideration at the time the “ad” is created and delivered. The real trick, however, would be to not only deliver a relevant experience, but actually anticipate the end-users likely requirements before they know it themselves. Is this even possible? I think so. Continue reading “Two steps ahead”

Ads everywhere?

When does it make sense to have an ad included in something you’re reading? If the ad provides access to useful information in context, it probably makes a lot of sense. So the question then becomes how far into information deliverables can this type of model be applied? People have become well used to having ads served up any time they ask for information on-line, and the ads themselves are getting closer to serving the end-user’s need for relevancy, based on improvements in the underlying algorithms. So where can this model be taken? There is a land rush going on right now to get contextual and location specific ads served up to mobile devices, the other area that is probably ripe for the plucking would be product-centric information deliverables. Continue reading “Ads everywhere?”