Monday, February 24, 2014

Mobile Interfaces Moving Upstream

As mobile usage on the web grows towards the traffic tipping point, user interface design for both mobile and the desktop is going to undergo a significant change and we think it will surprise you which way it's likely to go.

To date, most design for the web has naturally started on the desktop and migrated to the mobile browser in the form of either a mobile-specific site or a responsive design. By design and requirement, these versions are frequently subsets of their desktop progenitor.

However, as web traffic shifts to toward smart-phones and tablets, we are starting to see design and content decisions and conventions move back upstream from mobile to desktop. And it is likely we are going to see more new site designs moving this way. 

The reasons for this are easy-to-understand for anyone that has been in the planning meeting for a new site design or redesign. In those meetings three groups hash it out for ultimate supremacy:
  • Marketing/product/sales factions fighting for primacy in the main navigation and home page
  • Designers arguing for the value of user-centered UX and white space
  • Producers arguing for simplicity in the design - especially looking to increase the number of shared elements for the different versions of the site (web, mobile, language/region-specific)
These conflicting agendas are exacerbated further in mobile development which, like transistor/chip development before it, is required to do more with less space. As a result, like chip designers, mobile interface designers have become very adept at miniaturizing important elements and creating new conventions that handle a lot of the heavy lifting in the tiny screen space.

A prime example is the 3 horizontal bars indicating a drop-down menu - you've seen it on responsive sites as well as mobile apps.
Inter-site navigation icon
Click on the bars and a panel slides out or down offering navigation and feature options. Click on an option and the panel slides back in and you are off to your new destination. 

"Flyout" navigation elements have been used to save space while allowing options to be easily accessed are nearly a decade old, but never before have they hid nearly the entire navigation under a single icon. But along came the tiny screens on mobile devices and issues of space and usability forced a new convention to be born.

Content sites like Gawker, Slate and National Journal have already started using this convention on their desktop version and it's just a matter of time before we see other ecommerce, content and B2B sites taking this lead.

While it may take a bit longer with the big e-commerce sites like Amazon, (Unbridled Brain client) Walmart, and Target, the smaller, more nimble e-commerce and content sites will quickly adopt these conventions to provide themselves with more of that valuable header and home page real estate.

What this means is UX and UI designers will continue to evolve a common visual vocabulary that works across multiple devices and screen sizes - saving needed space on phones, and opening up new content opportunities on the bigger screens of tablets and desktops.

Eventually - likely in the next year or two as mobile traffic becomes the majority for most sites - the current design process will be flipped on its head. Mobile will be the starting point and the desktop will benefit from the extra space as a secondary consideration.

All of this means, the next time you are in a meeting about the redesign of your site the UX or UI designer will be able to make far more of her internal constituents happy without sacrificing the needs of their external constituents for a usable and consistent site experience. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Customer or Product?

"Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker." 
- Mike McDermott in Rounders

With that single line at the start of Rounders, 1998's seminal poker movie staring Matt Damon, Damon's character Mike McDermott sets the equation immediately - there are winners and losers, takers and givers, predators and prey.

On the web, the comparable line goes something like this:
"If you're not paying for the product/content/game/etc…, than you are the product" (

By this point, most web users understand that ads are part of the price we pay for all the free content we insist on. We tacitly, and rarely explicitly,  agree to the tradeoff: they give us content, we view their ads - some more intrusive than others, but they are ever-present on just about every site we visit.

And because we aren't required to click on these ads to get the content we came for, we may come to believe we are in the winner/taker end of the equation - flipping another time-honored tradition - "no free lunches" - on it's head!

However, as some very illuminating new tools point out, web users are "giving" a lot more than they realize, and quite possibly more that they'd be comfortable giving if they had a better idea how much they are giving.

An Example
Last year I was heading to Las Vegas to support a client at their conference at the Venetian. I needed a room so I did a quick Google search and took a look at the Venetian and Palazzo web sites.

For the next month, even though (or quite possibly because) I eventually booked a room, I saw ads for the Palazzo on many of the sites I visited. My visit had created a series of behind the scenes connections that led right back to my browser in the form of ads that target me, or more specifically my interests as expressed by my web behavior.

This sort of 'implicit' personalization has been around since nearly the beginning of the web as site owners and ad networks have striven to take advantage of the more dynamic and fungible nature of web pages, especially when compared with more traditional media like newspapers and magazines.

Now, using a Mozilla plug-in called, aptly enough, Collusion (, it is possible to see the connections being made in the background every time you visit a new page or site.

Tracking the Trackers
After installing Collusion in my Firefox browser I ran the same scenario that I ran through last year to find a room, i.e. Google search, click the link for The Venetian, browse around the site a bit.

Figure 1: Before starting the search, blank window

Figure 2: After browsing the Venetian site

Using Collusion to take a quick look at the companies tracking my visit reveals companies like:
·         Google/DoubleClick
·         ValueClick Media (display advertising network)
·         Right Media (advertising space aggregator/exchange),
·         interclick (which promises that they can: "pinpoint the most responsive digital audience amid the chaos of online data.")
and a half-dozen others.

It's pretty easy to see how my interest in the Venetian was captured and played back for me repeatedly on every site I visited for the next month - there were more ad networks watching my visit to the Venetian site than there were people watching the premiere of the animated Napoleon Dynamite.

And that was just on a simple hotel site - they aren't in the business of maximizing the ad space on their own site, they are tracking you solely for the purpose of finding you again on the web to market, and remarket later.

To see these tactics at their optimizing, targeting best, you need a visit to a major media site, like the San Francisco Chronicle's online arm SFGate see how that kicks off all manner of tracking:

Figure 3: After browsing the SFGate site
This graphic illustrates two key points:

1) The connections that enable the targeted advertising - there are several between the Venetian site and the SFGate site - including Quantcast, Google Display Network/DoubleClick and Meebo

2) The amazing number of networks and 3rd party companies tracking you once you go looking for the "free" content found on major media sites like the SFGate and NYTimes sites

Aggregating vs. Personal Tracking
For the most part these sites aren't really learning all that much about you personally. They are not, for example, noting that Terry Hickman is interested in rooms in Vegas.

Instead, they are noting, by use of dropped cookies, that the browser of an unnamed, unidentified, but closely tracked web user went to these sites and that it is likely that that user is interested in Vegas hotel rooms and by extension flights to Vegas, shows in Vegas and restaurants in Vegas; to name just a couple of the ancillary businesses that might buy into the ad networks looking to market to someone that showed in interest in Vegas.

When this happens, your browsing habits are aggregated with others that have shown similar browsing interests and sold to the ad buyers looking for just the right audience for their ad buys.

Sites offering these highly-targeted and targetable ad networks are able to offer their ad partners access to that most coveted of audiences - one that has already shown an interest in your product or at least your product category.

While nobody at the Venetian (or at their ad networks) was looking at a database with my name in it, they were using my browsing habits to target their ads to increase effectiveness. Because this is happening across multiple networks, it can result in an almost creepy affect where you feel like you are being followed around by these ads.

Now What?
So, what to do with all this new-found understanding about what's going on every time you click a new link or visit a new site? We've looked at this from a couple directions and even found a tool or two that might help you block or manage the tracking going on behind the scenes (we'll put those out in a follow-up post).

For now the bulk of what we are seeing in the background falls more into the "what the hell" or possibly "creepy" rather than the "alarming" or "panic and leave the internet altogether" categories.

As most of you know, while content may want to be free it most certainly isn't - writers have to eat, programmers have to have their Red Bull and the marketing and ad types need their Patron. None of that comes free and so far very few people are handing over their credit cards to get behind pay walls, so for the foreseeable future the tradeoff seems to be eyeballs (yours) for content (theirs).

And maybe, just knowing that's going on moves the equation from hustler v sucker to something more like an equal footing - just maybe...