The Evolving User Paradigm

June 19, 2010

We're evolving in our use of technologyIn 1961, a high school track coach moved into the house next to mine and introduced my younger brother and me to track and field events like the high jump and pole vaulting. We had a big open field behind our house, which served as a buffer for the C&O railroad tracks that ran through the neighborhood. Soon we had built a sawdust "pit" for our jumping activities. We brought home long bamboo poles from a rug store a few miles away, and soon we were pole vaulting. "Coach" eventually got us the first fiberglass pole in Grand Rapids, and we certainly felt special.

I was on the high school track team as a pole vaulter, but I wasn't very good. That honor went to my brother, who went on to great things as a vaulter. There are probably many reasons why he was so much better than I was, but one thing is certain: by the time he got to high school, he'd been vaulting for several years. Experience impacts ability, and it's the same thing with most human endeavors.

In the digital world, for example, the amount of experience a user has changes the very nature of the transaction between user and software, and this is especially true online. It's what's so maddening for traditional media companies trying to react to change, because what's hot today is obsolete seemingly overnight. You can make a few bucks at something next week, but what will you do the week after that?

old AOL CDI call this the evolving user paradigm: the longer users use the Web, the greater the acceleration of the disruption they create. AOL was its first victim. America Online experienced growth so staggering that it served as the poster child for the bursting bubble that followed. Everybody was on AOL, or nearly everybody. Like Facebook today, it was THE gathering place in the 90s, a walled garden of wonders for those who were eager to explore this new thing called the World Wide Web.

The problem was that the longer you used AOL, the more you wanted to see what was beyond its walls. After a year or two, users wanted more, while AOL wanted to keep the money tree blossoming forever. So AOL became known as "training wheels" for the Web, and those with experience moved on. Broadband didn't destroy AOL; it was the evolving user paradigm.

Users of the Web get smarter with experience, which means their wants and needs evolve faster than our ability to keep up. It drives innovation and punishes those who wish things would just sit still.

In his wonderful book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger notes that no organizational system for information can possibly compete with a system, like search, that organizes information "on the way out." Instead of wandering through the mall looking for something, you simply stand at the door and let the mall know what you're seeking, and, presto, there it is. No information portal that the human mind could conceive can compete with search, and that simple proposition is the fruit of the evolving user paradigm. Why? Because after you've "navigated" the various levels of any website, you begin to realize that the time it takes to do so could better be spent doing something else. Anxiety produces discontent, because we know intuitively that there has to be a better way. That demand drives innovation, and before we know it, there is a better way.

Novelty wears off. It's the evolving user paradigm.

"If I had it to do over, I wouldn't have done this (or bought that)." This, too, is the evolving user paradigm, for technology never simply stands still, and the people who use it grow in their understanding of it and of its unintended consequences.

Media companies are ongoing victims of the evolving user paradigm, because we spend our efforts trying to duplicate the money machine known as order-taking advertising. We mistakenly think that the established equilibrium of the past will, sooner or later, come to fruition online, and that is impossible when people who used to be our audiences are evolving faster than we are. We pay no (or little) attention to the user experience, because we're too busy multiplying the number of page views we can tout to advertisers. The cost of interaction that users must pay with us should be our most important metric, but it's often not even on the page. Hell, if we can shift six page views into seven, why not?

Steve Jobs is an expert at the timing necessary to keep users of his products coming back. Each iteration of an iDevice evolves with user experience and expectation. By the time competitors "copy" anything Apple does, iDevice users have already moved past what's being offered as "new." In the device development war, it's not so much who delivers better bells and whistles as it is who can match the pace of the evolving user paradigm. Apple does this brilliantly.

But in his zeal to create the perfect experience, Jobs is making a tactical error that could be costly. By running everything that makes it to an iDevice through his iTunes store, Apple is betting against the evolving user paradigm, and its archenemy, Google, has to be pleased with that. Google's core competency is to enable evolving users, and when users eventually run into the walls that Apple is building, Google will be there to take them forward.

As users evolve, they demand more from their experience, because they begin to understand how everything works. If technology won't help them work around the barriers they encounter, they'll simply move along, because they are hip to manipulation and, frankly, don't like it. This growing understanding of how it all works is perhaps the most disruptive element of the evolving user paradigm, because users increasingly are able to create their own experiences as technology becomes easier and easier to use. That's why Google is such a threat to the status quo.

YouTube logoAs users of any particular software become more able, the software must evolve or run the risk of losing those users. Nobody understands this like Google and its immensely popular offshoot, YouTube.

You can browse YouTube's channels or libraries and follow those that suit your taste, but the engine that drives YouTube is search. It's the world's second largest search engine, and a necessary part of anybody's business that can tell a story using video.

YouTube is the playground of what JD Lasica first termed "the personal media revolution" in his seminal 2005 book, Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation. The deep, dark secret of all media — and I apologize to those I'll offend here — is that it's just not that hard to make. Of course, there are levels of quality involved, but those, too, are being challenged by everyday people armed with inexpensive, but high quality equipment. This is especially true in the world of video media, and it's here where the evolving user paradigm is being played out for everyone to see.

Talent rises to the top, just like it always has, but YouTube offers an outlet for talent that's outside the scope of the traditional overseers. People like Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco are making six-figure incomes by producing regular shows on YouTube, with Dawson's program being viewed 35 million times each month. That's bigger than the audience of, say, the finale of American Idol. So popular is Dawson with the junior high school crowd that Hot Topic carries Shane Dawson T-shirts.

Have you been to YouTube lately? It's evolved far beyond the world of bloopers, and with GoogleTV now waiting in the wings, YouTube is going to become an even more significant player in the media world. Michael Wesch, the Kansas State University anthropology professor who produced the profoundly insightful video Web 2.0... The Machine is Us/ing Us, now offers a new video — a remarkable presentation of the evolution of YouTube (An anthropological introduction to YouTube) — that's well worth the hour it takes to watch it.

JD LasicaJD Lasica is still deeply involved in the world of personal media, and he told me that the evolving user paradigm will continue to disrupt the status quo.

The tools have become cheaper, more accessible and easier to use across a range of media. When I go to conferences now, I see lots of people whip out their Flip or Zi8 recorders to capture a moment or conduct an interview — something they never would have considered doing a couple of years ago. I tuned out of YouTube for a long time because of all the noise and fluff, but it's gotten serious about serving the public interest (while continuing to monetize the dog-on-a-skateboard videos). Look at the YouTube Reporters Center and YouTube Direct, a service that makes citizen reporting easier. I'm especially fond of sites like RockYou, Slide, Stupeflix and Animoto that give us new ways to tell a story beyond traditional photos or video. (Wrote about it here: Mash up a visual story for your nonprofit)

More people are taking up the tools of citizen publishing, too, through free platforms like WordPress.org. With thousands of free open source plug-ins, citizen publishers essentially have a global army of developers working for them -- for free. Amazing. So blogs and grassroots media are becoming not only more powerful and pervasive but professional, too.

Given all this, you might think that studying early adopters is path to success, and up to a point, that's true. However, a big chunk of all early technology adopters are the people who create technology, those lovable folks we call geeks. Their wants and needs are somewhat different from the average user, although I would argue that the gap is closing, because our educational system is cranking out more people with tech street smarts.

Web development and media creation are regular electives in most high schools these days. We have that "on the way up" meeting increasingly easy-to-use tools "on the way down," so I expect the evolving user paradigm to continue its disruptive ways for many years.

As Gordon Borrell says, "The deer now have guns. What do you do when the deer have guns? Get into the ammunition business." That's Google's business, and it should be ours, for the more users evolve, the less tolerant they become of anything we do that attempts to manipulate them to make a buck.