Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Is ad blocking immoral?

The FT reported last week that mobile operators plan to block online ads, with one - unnamed - European operator planning to switch on adblocking before the end of 2015. Given that the software it will use was developed by Shine, an Israeli company back by Li Ka-shing's Horizon Ventures, it would be unsurprising if it turned out to be the operator 3.

Martin Bryant, editor of The Next Web, responded stating "Adblockers are immoral... proud ad-blocking folk out there are happily starving sites (that they rely on for information and entertainment) of vital income." How can anyone argue with the need to compensate those who provide us with the information - and other content - we consume?

And yet...

When my reading of an article is so severely impeded by advertising, I find myself with two choices, either I stop reading that content or I block ads. That example, from nearly a year ago, is relatively innocuous compared with some of the more recent display formats. So my question for publishers is: do you want to lose revenue because your readers can't abide the awful experience and walk away; or because they block your ads?

I mostly consume text media on my phone and I don't run an adblocker on it. Instead, when I find a publisher repeatedly using overly intrusive advertising, I stop reading, unfollow them on Twitter and permanently abandon them. That means publishers with better user experience policies get more attention from me. Am I the only one who does this?

As Martin Bryant says, advertising fuels much of the web. Much of the work I have done in the past ten years has relied largely on advertising revenue. Yet the "give-and-take" of which he speaks too often is not correctly set. Ads should at most feel like passing through security but sometimes feel like a trip to the back room and an unwarranted cavity search.

Readers should not block ads; ads should not block readers.

The Next Web has apparently been working on developing 'ads so good you want to share them'. Says Martin Bryant:
We’re still perfecting the format, but I’m proud that the company I work for is trying to create ads that people won’t want to block in the first place.
As I said last week, user experience is a source of competitive advantage.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Experience as the competitive advantage

User experience, customer experience... these mean different things in business but for the consumer - the individual, the person - who encounters a business, it's all just the experience of dealing with your company.

I received an email today from the Cheap Energy Club, part of Martin Lewis' Money Saving Expert. This is how it started:

You asked us to tell you when you’re paying too much on your energy bills

About 7 seconds later, I was looking at a list of energy companies and the amount I would save, compared with what I pay today, as well as other bits of information.

Crucially, it also told me what other Cheap Energy Club members were saying about aspects of their experience when it fell outside the norm, either good or bad; or if the provider had too few customers for a reliable reading.

There is a good piece by Seth Godin today about becoming unsubstitutable. Put simply, if there's no discernible difference between what you and someone else is offering, the customer will opt for the cheaper. However, when you're in the business of providing a commodity like gas or electricity, you can only compete on price up to the point where you aren't providing a worthwhile return on investment. So the trick is to differentiate, to stop being a commodity. I switched to Ovo Energy a year ago, when I moved home, not only because it was cheaper than the alternatives but because consumers rated the experience highly.

Today, as I looked down the list of cheaper alternatives, the decision was easy. I was not prepared to give up the excellent experience of buying energy from Ovo in return for a cheaper price. Effectively, I'm prepared to pay something like 10-15% more for it, so that I don't have to deal with the problems of other utilities:
  • "in recent months our users have reported major issues with its switching process and customer service."
  • "difficulties contacting by phone or email and in some cases it has not completed requested switches"
So whether you're responsible for the handling of calls or the design of an app, you are today fundamentally implicated in the long term value of your customer.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The EC Digital Single Market Strategy and the British Television Industry

Today, the European Commission published its strategy on the Digital Single Market. As was to be expected, there was both abundant support and vehement opposition to the idea.

As I scrolled through Twitter looking for reactions I came across these two items:
The European Commission absolutely believes that content available online in one EU country should be available in all. The first article, with commentary from a leading law firm, implies that it would be unfair for UK licence fee payers to subsidise access to the BBC iPlayer for other EU citizens. The second states that the BBC supports the strategy and is beginning work on how to implement it.

However, the Digital Single Market could benefit the BBC - and deliver further revenue, so that the iPlayer is, in fact, subsidised by EU viewers outside the UK. Today, in the UK, watching the iPlayer is free of advertisements. There is nothing in the EC strategy document that suggests that for other EU viewers, the BBC couldn't generate revenue from ad placements. Meanwhile, clearly UK citizens will benefit from access to content from other EU countries.

The objectives ('Pillars') of the Digital Single Market strategy are:
  1. Better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe.
  2. Creating the right conditions and a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish.
  3. Maximising the growth potential of the digital economy.
Whether you support or oppose the idea, in the end, it's really a question of outlook. Do you seek opportunity when there is change? For British business, the Digital Single Market will deliver rewards to those that eagerly embrace it.

The strategy contains 16 initiatives. For the TV industry, there are two that are particularly relevant. The Audiovisual Media Services Directive underpins much of the law concerning linear broadcast and on-demand streaming. The Commission will consider how to adapt the rules to new business models for content distribution. The Satellite and Cable Directive will also be reviewed to consider the inclusion of broadcasters' online transmissions within its scope.

It seems highly likely that the Digital Single Market strategy will force the TV industry to change the way rights are bought and sold across the European Union. The implications are not trivial. For instance, the rights to sporting events, which are sold on a country-by-country basis will have to change, if viewers across Europe can access television broadcasts from anywhere within the EU. The cross-border portability of copyright-protected content services is a stated aim of the strategy, as well as to boost cross-border access to broadcasters' services in Europe.

So, if we are to have in the UK an 'in-out' referendum on EU membership in 2017, will the Digital Single Market strategy encourage the British people to stay or go?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Secrets of St Pancras and UX revealed

Last week, while exploring the theme of proximity at MEX, my group went on a little field trip to St Pancras. While related to the theme of location, the concept of proximity is a subtly different beast and deals with the user's relationship to an object, space, location or event with regards to 'nearness'.

As we observed people in the station, one of the notions that came to mind was that the station was merely a stage in the approach to, or retreat from, some other destination. And yet, within the context of proximity, the passenger arrives at, passes through and departs from it, in its own right. So, while there is ample space to pass quickly through it, some careful thought has been given to the architecture and furnishing of the station, which correspond with the activities of its visitors, however transitory.

A broad passage leads through the station to allow quick entry and departure. Along the sides are a number of retail outlets, including several caf├ęs that are always packed, and some clothing, luggage and souvenir shops that are slightly less busy. These wide, glass shop fronts sit about a metre behind a colonnade, that separates the idle window shopper from the rapid pedestrian thoroughfare. Escalators and electronic information panels are placed centrally and offer the opportunity to alter the flow around the concourse.

By now, Londoners will be familiar with the pianos in the station, and elsewhere around London. That the pianos at St Pancras, after so much time, remain largely in tune, suggests a careful maintenance and, therefore, value to their continued residence. For many passengers moving through the station on their way to or from continental Europe, the pianos offer surprise and delight: they also create the opportunity for social interaction.

Our conclusions from our research, exploring interactions with a range of objects and places in differing contexts, led to the development of six design principles to draw people emotionally closer to their physical environment through the use of technology. In the refinement process, a lot of material and thought is forcibly discarded. However, it is fascinating to review this material after the event and notice how much insight is evolved in such a short space of time.

Amongst the ideas that found their way to my phone's camera roll via scribblings on a flipchart, one derives from the pianos in St Pancras and I suggest here an additional principle: mitigate linger time in transition by offering unobtrusive elements for distraction and delight.


Friday, 13 February 2015

Tapping, swiping and consistency in the language of user experience

I bang on about the language of UX. Most people refer to it as 'conventions' but for me, it's a language. The motions and interactions that a user has with a device to execute commands is a language, in the same way that we talk of programming languages.

Languages, of course, evolve. The same is true of UX languages. New commands come into play as the operating systems gain new functionality. For example, on a phone, tapping a picture magnifies it to fill the screen. This is true whether you're looking at socks on eBay, fish on Facebook or houses on Rightmove. Likewise, Twitter. It's the equivalent of a green light on your traffic lights. It's a universally applied command. If your spouse says, "Take out the rubbish!", you don't load the washing machine.

But closing a picture hasn't had a universally applied language. Historically, coming from the world of non-touch PC screens, a little cross in the corner of a picture was a prompt to close it. Actually, some people didn't know that and Facebook, for example, changed the little cross to a 'Done' button. But this is the world of touch screens, where physical interactions - taps, swipes, shakes etc - are prevalent and intuitive. Intuitive, that is, until one service breaches the rules of the language. And Twitter was the culprit.

A little like saying "I went for a run tomorrow", meaning "I will go...", Twitter was - as far as I know - the only service that used tap both to open and to close a picture. Facebook and the rest followed a different rule: tap to open, swipe down (or up) to close. Once open, tapping enabled the user to show or hide text overlay or written commands.

Yesterday, it seems, Twitter came into line. Tap open, swipe closed.

Why does this matter? Because if we go back to the question of "eliminating distraction and restoring focus to digital media consumption", which was explored at the last MEX, minor inconsistencies in UX language disturb the user from enjoying an immersive experience.

There's a term I learned from reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a psychological principle known as "stimulus response compatibility". Essentially, it means that a cue suggests a certain behaviour. Like the green traffic light. Kahneman talks about the expectation that a door handle triggers the response "pull" but this is violated by architects time and again. How often do you find yourself pulling then pushing a door because there's a handle. I did it two days ago at a conference in the Shard. To confuse things further, one set of doors required a pull; the second, a push.

Whether opening a door or looking at pictures, we should not be required to switch to slow thinking. Maintaining consistency across stimuli should be a goal of the developer, so that the user can more fully engage with the content: the device and the app should become, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

So, thank you, Twitter, for making the change. I can no longer use your iPhone app as an example of stimulus response compatibility violation.