Almost everything we do – from driving to work to calling our families to ordering a sandwich for lunch – creates millions of pieces of useful data about our likes and dislikes. So web sites should be serving us a uniquely tailored set of content, right? Yet for the most part, the experience for users has remained static. While there are exceptions, much of the personalized element of most online content is the advertising (oh, and weather).
Consider the following: My grandmother in Florida and my buddy in Tel Aviv see the exact same site when they visit USAToday.com (except for the ads). Why is that? Both my grandmother and my buddy bring dozens of pieces of data with them to every site they visit. Our current-generation technology is capable of giving each of them a more personalized, contextual site experience, yet most web publishers don’t utilize this capability.
In the near future, I believe they will, finally, with the adoption of active design.
Moving past responsive design
For the past five years, the content creation industry has been focused on the radical shift from print to tablets and phones. Publishers and advertisers adapted to these changes with ever-smarter advertising solutions and mobile-responsive design. It’s a good short-term solution for many, but doesn’t yet take context into account.
Consider that every Facebook user has a uniquely personal Facebook experience. That’s because Facebook smartly uses the contextual data it collects around every user to deliver users their most relevant social content experience. And every Foursquare user has a similarly personalized experience.
These dynamic experiences are useful, but they are only the beginning of a far bigger transformation.
The rise of active design
Active design is the dynamic expression of the content experience – contextualized and personalized to a specific audience and geared toward motivating a desired action. The growth and proliferation of social, mobile, digital video, wearable, and user-generated content are creating increasingly rich data profiles of ourselves and the world around us. For example, Cir.ca is pioneering a new generation of dynamic content by recommending content to subscribers based on articles the user has already read on the same topic. There is just no reason anymore readers should have to read the same story twice.
Active design leverages the wealth of contextual data around every visitor – and their on-site/in-app behavior – to deliver the optimal experience to each individual user. Active design is the future of user experience design.
Transformation of social norms
The rise of big (and personal) data is what’s fueling the potential for active design. In the near future, data will be working for us in more novel new ways, and we’re starting to see examples in our everyday use of the Web.
Take one example: More than half of all online searches go through Google, and millions of us trust the company for our calendars, documents, and email as well. Thanks to Google’s massive market share, its every move is closely scrutinized. Yet, as Jeff Jarvis observed, something remarkable happened when Google rolled out Priority Inbox for Gmail. Priority Inbox used machine learning and ranking to meaningfully predict which emails were the most important for users and segregate them automatically. Instead of an outcry, Gmail users accepted this new feature because it allowed them to instantly understand, visually, what their data could do for them.
The lesson is that consumers accept personalization when there is clear value for them – and, importantly, trust in the provider.
Early signs of active design
Active design is slowly beginning to appear and change the world around us, but it’s nowhere near its potential. Sure, Google Now knows that in a few minutes I will be leaving work, and is currently showing me the fastest routes home. And yes, Pandora and Cir.ca are dynamically building my content experience. But, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I expect that soon, other content publishers will recognize how much more can be done . And as they come to realize how it will ultimately drive engagement, they’ll integrate marketing automation with dynamic content solutions to personalize and contextualize the user experience.
We are still in the early stages of a massive transformation from a world of access to a world of context. This transformation will not happen overnight. But if you keep your eyes open, you’ll be amazed at the future we are building.
Jon Burg is director of marketing for Conduit’s Wibiya, a web software developer. Follow him on Twitter @jonburg.
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