By Frank Spillers

Clock

One of the interesting developments in content delivery for the Web is what's being called the "real-time" Web. The implications for user experience design are substantial.

In my recent social media customer experience seminar, I alluded to the fact that the real-time Web has really heated up this year especially with news delivery. The Guardian and Huffington Post have advanced real-time content deliver recently by integrating Twitter like real-time updates, daily blogs of event coverage and Facebook friend integration with 'social news'.

Research (August 2009) is now showing 60% of consumers use social media to vent about a customer experience,
and 74% of consumers choose brands based on the customer experiences
their peers share online.

What's driving the real-time Web user experience?

Users! The proliferation of smartphones (e.g. BlackBerrys are owned in the US by average people now) and iPhones promoting real-time social networking behavior mainly Instant Messaging, blogging, Twittering and Facebooking. I have a good friend who uses her iPhone to post to Facebook daily, and exclusively knows the Facebook interface from the iPhone app version (apparently easier to use than the website). 

Events that require real-time story telling, such as the election in Iran, are a turning point for the move toward a Real Time Web. Technical users (IT professionals in particular), want real-time content, real-time searching (Google is peddling hard to deliver here), and simple short content sharing. It seems this is causing many sites racing to explore how Twitter can be integrated into their user experience.

On the technology side, it's new protocols like Google's PubSubHubBub project that acts like a lightening fast RSS and Atom feed (real-time delivery).

Defining the Real Time Web

Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read Write Web recently wrote a great 100 word summary in a run up to October's Real Time Web Summit. A user in the comments section 'translated' it for the person on the street:

"Real-Time Web = the internet pushing information to you as soon as
it's available - no clicking, checking or updating anything - like a
perfect 'information butler' that sends you stuff you want or need
without you asking.
It's not a product, but is being enabled in many different technologies
- social networking, search, news, and more. You interact with the
Internet more like a giant Instant Messaging application. For
businesses, this can spark innovation and deliver benefits like
increased user engagement ("flow") and decreased server loads.
Real-time Web information delivery will likely become the norm in the
near future".

Posted in user comments by: Guan

Benefits and Challenges for the Real-Time User Experience:

Benefit: Increased user engagement or "flow". Read Write Web, big supporters of
real time Web trend spotting, cite "flow" as a key benefit. Flow is a one of the most important usability and design challenges of any product. See my research paper submitted at Design and Emotion 2008: “Synch with me”: Rhythmic interaction as an emerging principle of experiential design.

Challenge: Relevant content needs to 'fall like fresh fruit from the tree' otherwise users may be showered with rotten fruit or "noise" on their Web page or viewing device experience. This can result in a sub-par "information overload" user experience.

Benefit: Exclusiveness does not have to wait. The idea of being first to know becomes the default. 

Challenge: Users want everything now, like a demanding two year old child. If it's not real-time is it worth searching for? Or is real-time the trigger to help you refine your information searches and add depth to your user experience? I suspect so...the next year or two will tell.

Benefit: The Web shows a living breathing side with instant visibility into the nature of "push and pull" information. In addition to revealing the benefit of essential services like RSS (an essential artifact of Web 2.0 sites ), the Real-Time Web adds a personal, social touch by being connected to someone or something doing the pushing/pulling (from sources like blogs, Facebook, Twitter).,

Challenge: Being able to publish so instantly may have personal, social and even political ramifications. Anil Dash recently cited user experience as one of the biggest concerns for the Real-Time Web with this problem in mind. This USA Today piece (published today!) explores the negative side of social networking in real-time.

Benefit: The Real-Time Web gives in-the-moment context cues about what's happening around you or someone else- not limited by geography. Real-time is very much or can easily be a cross-cultural global phenomenon if occurring on your site. Mix this with new developments in mobile user experience like Augmented Reality (see previous blog post) and you have environments that are living and breathing with information.

Challenge: As pointed out in my Augmented Reality post, content and privacy may become serious issues as content providers struggle to tailor just-in-time content to the stream of consciousness their user is inhabiting, at that point in their user experience, sensitively and delicately.

Parting Thoughts

There is no doubt that real time information can enrich your user experience, help point out what might be of interest and communicate a sense of excitement.
Experiencing real-time content can have a powerful effect on its
recipient. Real-time information also allows you to track, follow or
join in the "flow" and rhythm of an event (e.g. emerging news story),
person's thoughts (e.g. updates on a personal or business experience),
or companies activities (e.g. brand events or scavenger hunt).

As the technologies and approaches to Real-Time architecture shape and mold the Real-Time Web, it will add new challenges and opportunities for enhancing and optimizing the user experience so that people's experiences with real-time technology synch with their social, emotional, intellectual and environmental needs, constraints and desires.

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS