Predictability needs to be cool

I don’t think I have met anyone who wants to be predictable. All of us nurse hopes that we are special, different or, at least, noteworthy. Some of us are convinced that we are unique and our daring originality should be constantly celebrated. None of us, though, want to be ordinary. Neither do we want our work to be exactly what was expected. We are human after all and these ambitions are the energy of progress and imagination.

This energy causes problems, however, when it comes to digital products and the content that fills them. Digital products, like the stock market, are at their best when they are predictable. When they do what we expect them to do (repeatedly) and respond to our commands in expected ways (repeatedly) we are happy with them. When they are capricious and require attention to operate, we are frustrated and anger swiftly. I don’t believe I am the only person who has tossed my phone aside, vexed beyond repair at a poorly designed tool or app.

It is possible that we try too hard or in the wrong ways in our attempts to engage our users. Engaging experiences are the promised land of our digital world and we rightly try and offer them. I wonder that we are trying to engage at the wrong points. I am not sure that product design should be engaging. It should just be usable. Cunning design is less welcomed than simple design. Anything that requires though to be used is not working well.

In learning services, I have a hunch that problems arise when instructional design and product design bleed together.The convention of simplicity can be lost and users are left to figure things out for themselves. The content controls confuse the experience and then spoil the content itself. Or worse, tricks are introduced to draw the attention of the user beyond their interest in the topic or its treatment. The desire to engage can lay waste to the predictability of the tool and users are lost.

Standards are a great aid to predictability. Standards are not boring or old fashioned. They free the audience to enjoy the service on offer. Mental energy can be focused on the activity itself not on the journey to it. Thus, templates are our friends. Templates for courses, for content pages, for content itself and for the actions users are expected to take. They aid predictability for users and reduce design energy spend on utility. Standards and templates are our friends and we must love and respect them accordingly.

Books are quite predictable experiences and very reliable. They are standard content discovery and consumption devices. They are also as varied as the imagination that fills them. The stories in books can be wildly unpredictable but the books themselves are wonderfully easy to use.

Maybe our digital design needs to be more authorial? Focused more on the stories and less on the tools. There are many examples of great digital tools where the utility has been solved for us already, leaving us free to try and tell a  good tale.


(Relevant) content is king

Many years ago now I joined a conference panel discussing the impact of search on news and publishing businesses. I was representing Ask Jeeves (you may need a certain maturity to recall this). At this time, power of search rankings had many incumbent businesses rattled. Google was really beginning to flex its muscles. There was a widely held view that search ranking was a barrier to content quality as amateur bloggers and minor content owners started to find an audience. Or, to be more accurate, there was a perceived barrier to established brands and incumbents in a given category. 

Add to that, the snakes and ladders effect of a change in the algorithm and some content owners could become very upset. On the panel, I was accused of disregarding heritage and quality and disregarding the apparently obvious benefit of editorial tradition. The establishment was seeking the justice of the status quo.
Relevance is still the key to search prominence. The most useful link rises to the top as the closest match to a query. Not necessarily the most familiar. The signals of that relevance are the links to that page and the source of those links. Well regarded, genuine links win out and dubious spammy links are punished. 

This is becoming the norm in social media too. Well shared, favourited and commented content will rise to the top of a well managed news feed. Those which favour the most recent posts alone miss the powerful signals of relevance. Facebook is becoming frighteningly effective at this. I think Flipboard are responding too.

Meanwhile in the world of corporate social tools, there seems to be no hint of this kind of awareness. The signals of relevance are secondary to a piling up of features and tools for the sales force to demonstrate progress in their arms race. A well managed feed is managed on behalf of the user whose feed it is, not the owner of the system or the organisation that pushes content into it. 

The content owner (or publisher) needs to earn the relevance in the contextof the user not assume relevance as the buyer of the system. With the free and open access to the plethora of content on the web, us content commissioners need to take care to listen to the signals and to keep listening. As always, the threshold for a good experience is set by consumer web products who spend all of their time and effort on solving this problem. Many learning content publishers are assuming relevance when it has not been earned. They are reminiscent of that grumpy established conference audience all those years ago. 

LinkedIn, the Economic Graph and Skills

I had a very interesting conversation today. One of an increasingly large number, as I tend to my network more purposefully in preparation for leaving my current employment in the new year. (Incidentally, I highly recommend this, if for nothing more than stimulation and intellectual energy).

During this conversation, I was introduced to the concept of the Economic Graph which is the energising force and mission of LinkedIn. (It was new to me and poof that getting out more is a good thing). Jeff Weiner, CEO summarises it pithily in this video:

As any good mission should be, it is dramatic and (almost breathtakingly) ambitious. It also clearly defines the direction of the individuals who make up the global workforce. This is becoming a body of people who are increasingly aware of their value and of the potential to match their own aspirations with those of relevant organisations. A job, in this scenario, become a step on the route to fulfilling that, or those, goals.

The skills required are both requisite attributes of the journey and signals of progress, where they have been acquired. Crucially, Weiner describes a profile (a LinkedIn profile, of course) which is the domain of the individual as the record of that activity and that the individual, as owner, can share it or parts of it as they see benefit in doing so. That learning record and the use if it is the property of an individual not an organisation. The value of it must satisfy that individual at least as much as the organisations who support or enable the learning and acquisition of skills. It is not a corporate training record.

Whilst this is a long journey, it is under way. The purchase of by  LinkedIn signals their intent to weave learning and learning content into this story. It should also signal a wake up call for the big box systems vendors as the value of the learning record needs to be housed elsewhere – either entirely or in addition to corporate systems.

There are many juicy topics in this field and I hope to return to them shortly.