Solving the Content Challenge Will Move the Web Forward

The magazine industry is running a new campaign that declares that people surf online, but “swim in magazines.” On the one hand, it’s a rather obvious way to distinguish the (in some circles) questionable future of magazines. On the other hand, the ads are right.

The experience of reading is not the same online as it is in a serious magazine or a book. Take, for example, The Atlantic. Reading The Altantic is highly stimulating. Each 5,000 or 10,000 word essay is dense with ideas. Writers effectively share knowledge by carefully unpacking ideas, laying them side by side, and deciphering their import for the reader. The linkages and interconnections that are so obvious to the thinker need to be painstakingly parsed for the reader, to ensure that they can follow the natural flow of the concepts.

(Granted, sometimes it’s cloying, as if the author wants you to believe that they are incredibly pithy all the time. They seem to say, “See how I can pull in disparate references to the success of anti-feudal 12th century city-state experiments and Meryl Streep’s It’s Complicated character standing for a new breed of female empowerment – all in the same paragraph?” And, the pressure it puts on regular conversation is tremendous. Because, naturally, Atlantic readers start to think that all conversation should be as stimulating and engaging as one of these magnum opi, with insights coming at the rate of about 6 per minute, and a grand unifying theory concretely developed by about the 10 minute mark in the conversation.)

Online, the experience is absolutely the opposite of this. The user is put in charge of their own path. Often, this means that they are guide-less in the jungle of information, related links, search results, crowd-sourced Wikipedia, and gads of uninformed opinion.

Reading a long magazine article or book  is so completely different from online reading, it’s really a different type of activity. Maybe the UX concept of information foraging should widely replace the term “reading” online.

Writing online is largely about collecting information. It’s not about sharing knowledge.

Now, I’m not denying the importance of access to information. When Wolfram Alpha can tell you in 2 seconds if you could save 15% on your car insurance, that’s a net gain. It’s a clear win for everyone.

But, information does not equal intelligence. And access to information does not mean understanding. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses how flitting from one site to the next, without destination, without signposts, and without context, ultimately leads to poorer recall of facts, and lesser understanding of concepts as a whole.

And this is one of the central challenges of user-centered design. Everything is focused on task-completion success. “What is the user trying to do?” “Are they able to get what they want easily?” Certainly, that’s a helpful model for an e-commerce site. But, if you’re trying to impart  understanding, pathing and breadcrumbs don’t help much. After all, how is the user expected to know where to start, if they don’t know anything about the subject matter?

Enter resources like Demand Media, which churns out thousands of new pieces of content every day. eHow fills a gap in information, by outlining in the broadest and least knowledgeable ways, how something works. If you want to learn how to make an apple pie, Demand Media’s solution might look like this:

  1. Locate a recipe book that contains a dessert section.
  2. Find the recipe for apple pie.
  3. Follow the recipe to completion in order to successfully make a pie.

But, really, you don’t learn anything from this. If you were an alien, this might be a helpful framework. But, no one is empowered to actually make a pie at this point.

So, the user returns to their search box, and looks for “apple pie recipe.” Now we are getting somewhere – millions of pie recipes populate. Still, these are unlikely to get a delicious pie made. The recipe and instructions likely contain instructions on making a crust, like:

“spread out the flour, and slowly work in the room temperature butter, adding a slight bit of water at a time.”

This is correct, but still doesn’t give the user much information about how to be successful. Pie crust is supposed to be flaky. The way to get flaky crust is to have the whole crust barely held together, so the bonds of the water are so light that it causes natural breaks in the sheet of dough to allow crisping on multiple layers. But, without explaining that to the user, there is no way for them to know how good of a crust they were making. Or how to tell when it was just barely held together enough, so they should stop mucking about with it.

Information on making pies is easy. The knowledge of how to make a good pie is difficult to give to someone. That’s why pastry chefs can charge $10.00 for one slice of really great pie – it’s hard to make a good piece of pie. And it’s extremely difficult to make a great one.

To solve this problem, we don’t need more data. We need a better system of moving someone from low knowledge to high knowledge. In short, we need to figure out how to be better teachers.