Leaning towards a better way to gauge consumer media interaction

The media business is long overdue to replace the prevailing framework we use to describe consumer interaction with content with one that better reflects current devices and activities.
The current lean-forward, lean-back paradigm, conceived by Jakob Nielsen, was popularized around 2008 and yet (amazingly) it’s already showing its age. Consider that it predates the widespread use of touchscreen smartphones, the current dominance of tablets — the entire second screen phenomena — and even the widespread adoption of on-demand streaming media services like Netflix and Spotify. The world has turned in the past 5 years, and yet this framework remains a popular if not standard convention for analyzing data consumption in the media business.
It’s time advertisers, marketers and content creators had a more accurate, more nuanced and granular system to describe how consumers interact with their digital content. The result would offer better opportunities for everything from UX design to monetization and marketing.
Following is a two-fold system that, unlike the lean forward/back shorthand, breaks apart the physical and mental attributes involved when we consume content. When we analyze them this way in their component parts, a clearer, more targetable picture of consumer interaction emerges.

Body: Physical attributes

When we interact with today’s four major screen types — TV, PC, mobile, and tablets — we exhibit common physical attributes along two dimensions: session length (how long we view) and physical posture (literally). Other physical variables, such as screen size, viewing distance, and viewing environment (home, office, transit) highly correlate to those two.
In the below grid, PC, TV, and mobile can be seen to occupy mostly discrete quadrants. However the newest platform, tablets, overlaps all of them and so is the most versatile. Its portability, screen size, and reliance on a large number of native apps have made it a viable stand-in for many users for all of the others. This flexibility is reflected in the continued, massive growth in tablet shipments, which IDC expects will exceed total PC shipments in 2015.
Physical attributes
Note: The Session and Posture dimensions above, and the corresponding ones in the below chart, live on a spectrum. The items plotted on the grids are intended to be directionally accurate.

Mind: Engagement style

A year ago, software designer Craig Will proposed a different approach to succeed Nielsen’s Lean Forward/Back paradigm which he thought too simplistic and vague. He instead divided engagement style into absorption and activity levels. Think of absorption as representing retention resulting from focus, while activity is the frequency of user input.
The below table plots the most common consumer digital media tasks on an absorption — activity grid.
Engagement style
Like the Physical Attributes grid, certain tasks gravitate toward their own specific quadrants. For instance Recommendations (such as Netflix’s automated viewing suggestions), often appear by default for users and so are a Low Activity experience. But then another form of discovery, search, is a far more active endeavor. Communication about and curation of content ranges from creating music playlists and reviewing books to tweeting about TV shows and “liking” movies. These activities require our full, albeit fleeting, attention.
Consumption — the task of reading, watching, listening, and playing — demands various degrees of engagement, depending on the content and context.


Taken together, these two interaction models present a far more complete and real world accounting for how consumers interact with their media. Employing it could help the industry address some of its most stubborn problems. Here are just a few examples.
The connected-TV movement, exemplified by the variable smart TVs and Google’s recent entry, Chromecast, is poised to deliver a far greater amount of Web-native content to television sets. The long-anticipated Web invasion of the living room will require though that content and its design are optimized for the Physical Attributes above.
Charging consumers for many forms of digital content still continues to be difficult as well. Indeed, books and video games, as illustrated in the above grid, are digital content types consumers value enough to purchase.
Marketers seeking to reach highly engaged consumers are well advised to direct their advertising dollars to the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid. For example, fans watching live sports on television and calling up stats on a second-screen iPad app are a highly valued advertising target.
This proposed model describes today’s digital media landscape, but of course we are still crossing over from our all-analog past to the all-digital future, when consumers will be able to access any content on any device, anywhere, at any time.
David Justus is a principal at contentcurrents.com, a digital media consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @ContentCurrents.