The future of content navigation

Let’s forget business models and monetization — just for a brief moment. Instead, we’ll focus on one key issue: the interface, the way you access, browse, spot, save relevant information. The interface is pivotal. A good one will allow you to rope in your readers / viewers, and make them loyal to your brand, your contents. Pouring money and resources into an editorial effort, striving to get the best out of your team, buying the best contributions, pictures, multimedia features available… All of this is pointless without an effective interface. With this in mind, let’s see what’s lies ahead of us in the interface world.

Last week, I spent a couple of days at Microsoft’s Redmond campus, near Seattle. I was part of a small group of foreign journalists given access to Microsoft Research scientists and top engineers. Every year, in Redmond, they hold their Techfest reunion, a private, by invitation only gathering. This is the venue where they show off their work and exchange their findings.
In a way, Microsoft Research functions more like a university where a group of 900 PhDs is encouraged to publish in science journals or to speak at conferences. These are not product people, they’re more like scholars in disciplines such as oceanography or molecular biology. Those fields can be quite far away from Microsoft core business – even though the proportion of hard core computer scientists is significant. Engaging such people in discussion is an exhilarating experience. I’ll come back to it in an upcoming Monday Note.

Of my many meetings, a notable one entailed a visit to the Microsoft Live Labs. The group aggregates about 80 people, two thirds of them engineers, on the 12th floor of a building in Bellevue, ten minutes away from the Microsoft campus. The Live Labs are a kind of intermediate layer between research people and product teams. They focus on transformative web experiences (read their manifesto, here). Their work stems from three technologies : Photosynth, which allows the user to stitch digital photos into 3D models; Pivot, a stunning way to organize large collections of data (to get an idea, watch this excellent TED’s talk by Gary Flake, Live Labs founder). The third pillar is Seadragon a technology acquired by Microsoft in 2006 and refined into an actual product now integrated into some Microsoft services, something anyone can play with.

The most spectacular integration of Photosynth and Seadragon can be seen on the latest version of Microsoft’s Bing Maps (if you connect from the US). As I visited with the Bing Maps group in Seattle, they showed me its newest features: a mash-up with the huge Flickr digital photo library and, even more spectacular, the prospect of integrating live video into the navigation experience. Go to this newly released TED presentation by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, mind blowing.

Let’s go back to our topic du jour: new ways to navigate news contents. Note that I’m merely discussing a browsing experience here — exactly as you do when you flip through the pages of a publication, in a random, non sequential fashion, which is actually the best way to graze our daily information fix.

Seadragon is based on a simple concept: infinite zooming. To jump from one element to the next, instead of navigating through links and pages, you zoom in and out. To grasp the power of Seadragon, just look at the image below.

This is called a gigapixel image. While your digital camera typically captures a 10 million pixels image, this one is 2.6 billion pixels big, 260 times larger that the one you’d shoot staying at the same Sierra Nevada vantage point. Translated into the physical world, obtaining such resolution (i.e. being able to see the white Jeep) would require a 25 meters wide image. More

The web’s design problems

Applied to news, the web doesn’t suffer from one, but three flaws. Let’s call these the Rectangle, the Bottleneck, and the Diversion.  These flaws got built into the system from the very beginning and, now, their impact has become harder to deal with. For new sites, these unforeseen aftereffects have grown to become real obstacles to reader engagement and monetization.

Let’s have a closer look.

1. The Rectangle issue.

This is the main absurdity in internet design. It goes back to the web’s early days: a text tool,  brilliantly designed to organize scattered pieces of information — that was Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 original work.  Understandably, he used the page as his metaphoric vector; that was the world he lived lived in. For news, since journalists controlled how the concept got implemented, the paper mentality, and even the vocabulary percolated down to the young generation of web designers. They still refer to “the fold”, pretty obvious for a newspaper (better have your story above the fold than below). On the web, the fold points to the part of the screen below the first scroll. This brings us to the main contradiction.

I’m writing this on a 13 inches MacBook. OK, I have attached to it a 24″ Apple Cinema Display to allow multiple windows, but, for a simple measurement, let’s stick to the realistic 13″.

For a selected list of websites, here are the numbers of scrolls required to go to the bottom of the home page:…3…3…4…4…4…4…5…5…6…8…12…16…21…23

Graphically, it looks like this :

Well, there are many theories about the size of scrolls. Advocates of long pages pitch the following advantages: better referencing; more impressions for banners, more transverse navigation.  Opponents retort: for referencing, you don’t fool Google for too long by serving large chunks of your site over and over. For ads and for transversality, suffice it to say you lose readers real fast if they need to scroll down; the probability for a banner to be viewed decreases exponentially: 10 scrolls divide the probability by 100 or more. As discussed in an earlier Monday Note (see  Measuring time spent on a web page ), a full 24% of all banners are not seen at all; a placement on the footer rates as low as 10% of what the header gets. More

The Internet Creative Deflation

When LG, the cell phone manufacturer, started work on far-reaching future concepts for handset, it had two choices. The most obvious one was setting up a competition between world-class design firms, getting a stampede and a bidding war as a result, and picking one firm to work on its concept-phones. The Korean electronics giant took another path: crowdsourcing.  LG Mobile Phone teamed-up with CrowdSpring, a marketplace for creative works, to organize a contest, with the following pitch:
“Predict what’s next. What do you think mobile phones should look like in 2, 5, or 10 years? We are asking for your help. We’re NOT looking for a long list of specs or phone ideas that already exist. We’re looking for a cool new concept or “big idea” supported by usage scenario illustrations”. More