Think web browsing has hit a wall? Futureful’s design-led approach proves otherwise

Late last year I visited Helsinki and discovered a new iPad(s aapl) app called Futureful, which promised an updated take on what StumbleUpon tried (and to my mind ultimately failed) to provide: a truly serendipitous way to browse at leisure through the web, without seeing the same content twice. It was interesting for its approach to suggesting and blending topics, as well as for the machine learning technology behind the scenes.
As I said when Futureful officially launched in January: “There’s a nugget of something powerful here, and it needs to develop in its own way.” Fast forward 6 months to June, and the second version of Futureful came out with a drastically revamped user interface and support for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I confess I only got round to installing version 2 yesterday, after Futureful put out an update with new features such as the ability to save pages to Pocket, but now that I’ve played with it… wow.
Futureful screenshot 1
Gone is the topic ticker at the top of the screen, an interface I found slightly unintuitive. Topic selection now takes up the bulk of the screen, with a purple-backgrounded interface based around floating green topic bubbles. Tap one and it turns white, with a relevant webpage at the bottom of the screen, ready to be swiped up for reading, and with related topics clustered around it in green.
Futureful screenshot 2
If you don’t like a certain topic bubble, you just flick it off the screen or wait for it to leave of its own accord – the bubbles gradually fade in and out of existence if you leave them. If you don’t like the page being suggested at the bottom, you swipe it down and another one appears.
Tap one of the related topic bubbles and – if there are webpages relating to both terms – the two bubbles will fuse into a white blob and new related topics will cluster round. So far I’ve managed to combine a maximum of three topics. Pages about Japanese robot fish, anyone?
Futureful screenshot 3
What I love about this approach is that it feels like a soothing game – even if I don’t like the page being suggested, changing the topic parameters is fun. As Futureful co-founder Jarno Mikael Koponen put it, the idea is to provide something more akin to a personal journey than a linear web-browsing experience:

“At first we had a linear ticker on the top, but then we thought, how can we really support exploration? In the longer term, we can still improve the personal journey aspect and we have some very interesting prototypes around that.”

Personally, I find value in the idea of smart content suggestion that isn’t mediated by my contacts – I follow more than 2,000 people on Twitter for that, and even at that scale I find a certain homogeneity in the subject matter I see.
The Janus Friis-backed Futureful team has deliberately avoided including a social layer beyond the ability to share pages on Twitter (a handy way to promote the app, of course), focusing instead on learning from the individual user and the user base as a whole. Thankfully, this removes the need for sign-in or linking Futureful to other accounts – an unusual pleasure for the privacy-minded among us. It works for Futureful too: Koponen noted that drawing on contacts resulted in really noisy data.
That said, the nature of Futureful’s early adopters means topic suggestions still skew towards tech, science and design. That suits me just fine, but mass-market users might want something a bit broader – and to that end, Koponen said, there’s an element of human curation going on behind the scenes too.
As for what’s coming up, Koponen suggested we will see new ideas around the personal-journey theme, such as perhaps background colors that change as the browsing progresses (the purple background was deliberately intended to “make people react”, by the way; personally I’d like to see others). The team is also pondering ways to render web content for mobile devices that don’t conform to the original layout but that also don’t just break everything down to text on a blank background.
“One thing is making the experience even more visual,” Koponen said. Given that Futureful has already disabused me of the idea that web browsing had gone as far as it could go, I’m keen to see what the team comes up with next.
We’ll be delving into experience design at our RoadMap conference in San Francisco on November 5th and 6th.