A while back I wrote a post about distributed and destination thinking as a way of framing not just an approach to content but also a more ‘digitally-native’ way of looking at the world. Distributed thinking relates to content and interaction that lives out there, away from your domain, in the stream, so your job is about how you can best (in the words of The Guardian) ‘weave yourself in to the fabric of the web’. This may happen through spreadable content, people talking about what you’re doing, embeddable content and embedded services, or APIs and so on. This often involves a key shift in thinking since we are far more used to (and like the greater control of) traditional destination thinking which is about bringing people to your domain to create rich experiences, keep them there for as long as possible (what was once called ‘sticky content’), to enable engagement, monetisation or transaction.
The truth is that we need both destination and distributed content and interaction, but whilst ‘digitally-native’ companies are typically already very good at managing this combination, legacy thinking can sometimes be a blocker. It requires marketers or anyone involved with customer interaction to think about both stock content (destination, builds value over time, subscribed to, episodic or refreshed, user context of seeking inspiration or information) and flow content (in the stream, sharp spike of attention, transient, user context of browsing, sharing, interacting).
Who was it who said that as technology gets better it disappears? Matthew Ingram maybe? Or Jack Dorsey? Whoever originally said it I’m a big believer in it. But perhaps instead of disappearing completely it will become (at least in transition) what Tom Goodwin (in this trends piece) calls the ‘thin’ internet - a ‘more seamless, more pervasive, personal and even predictive’ layer spread thinner in more context specific layers across more devices:
“We used to search the web, we used to go deep in, and navigate...in the near future the web bubbles up to a surface that we glance at, in more places and in less deep ways. It becomes key contextual information.”
I’d argue that we need both shallow and deep, but the analogy is a good one and the key question, as Tom says, is ‘how your product or business can move into this layer and become a contextual nudge or key information at the right time’.
That reminded me of this Paul Adams piece (found via Fraggl) from a couple of weeks ago talking about the end of apps as we know them. Paul creates a compelling argument that having a screen full of siloed, independent destination apps is making less and less sense and the idea of apps sitting in the background pushing content to a central experience of some kind (perhaps like the current notification centre or a version of Google Now) is making more and more sense. We’re already, says Paul, seeing significant movement towards this as notifications shift from being signposts to go to other places (like open a particular app) towards being able to take actions directly within the notification. A key part of this shift is the fact that cards are rapidly becoming a dominant mobile design pattern, but this is ‘not cards as a simple interaction design pattern for an apps content, but as containers for content that can come from any app’.
The implication of this is that the notification can be the full experience meaning that you don’t need to open a destination like an app at all in order to interact with it or use its services. So rather than having screens full of icons that create isolated experiences, apps might sit in the background and act as publishing devices. The notification layer could well expand (as it is already) towards separating notifications into independent cards that allow full product experience and interaction but which might then be stacked below each other, grouped, or even re-aggregated together into a stream (‘Comment on the Facebook post. Retweet the tweet. Buy the item on Amazon. Check in for the flight. Share the news story. Add the reminder to your to-do list. Book the restaurant. Swap the fantasy football player. Annotate the run you just finished. Pay the bill. And on and on’).
Cards become the highly portable atomic unit of apps that can come up on any device informed by context or optimised for situation. Cards might even incorporate another embedded card (’child cards’) meaning that you don’t need to have the app installed in order to interact with it. Again, as Paul points out, this is already happening with Twitter cards supporting Stripe payments for example. And from there its not so difficult to imagine how cards might come from other sources (like physical spaces and objects).
Paul is keen to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of apps (like him, I’m not a fan of binary thinking and in fact Apps are currently doing very nicely in comparison to mobile browsing for time spent - figures from mobile analytics firm Flurry for example suggest that in the US over 80% of mobile connected time is via apps). But it may well be the end of apps as we know them - a screen full of apps as walled destinations makes less and less sense, and apps become more like (as someone suggested to me the other day) ‘wrappers’ that set up and run other programmes. Already the walls are crumbling. Google recently developed app indexing which indexes apps just like a website and enables deep linking into apps (from search for example), and Twitter have ambitions to embed themselves into every app.
For me, these layers are perhaps what the ‘thin’ internet is all about. Paul finishes with some big yet-to-be-answered questions such as at which layer (notification, app or OS) this will happen, whether it will be one or multiple streams, and who will own/control/enable/benefit from it. Add to that Tom’s question about how your business can move into this layer. So what are the atomic units of the product or service or stuff that surrounds it? What will that look like? How can we design and build apps as publishing systems as well as destinations:
'In a world of many different screens and devices, content needs to be broken down into atomic units so that it can work agnostic of the screen size or technology platform. For example, Facebook is not a website or an app. It is an eco-system of objects (people, photos, videos, comments, businesses, brands, etc.) that are aggregated in many different ways through people’s newsfeeds, timelines and pages, and delivered to a range of devices, some of which haven’t even been invented yet. So Facebook is not a set of webpages, or screens in an app. It’s a system of objects, and relationships between them.'
It seems like we’ve been talking around some of this stuff for a while but this feels like it might just be the way in which it could finally happen.