The Age of the Feed-Based User Interface

Last week, Google dramatically changed its core search user-interface with Google Instant. Instant search results look like a news feed and change dynamically as the searcher types. In moving toward a more feed-like UI, Google is following the trend established by Facebook and Twitter. Other feed-style UIs, meanwhile, appear on a broad range of applications and services, including Apple’s new Ping music social network, Box.net’s cloud-based content management system and Salesforce.com’s Chatter enterprise collaboration platform.

With the trend of feed-like UIs continuing to gain momentum, it’s worth taking a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages, as well as how businesses can implement and add value to them.

Pros and Cons of Feeds as UI

In contrast to a “seek, search, consume” model of content discovery and consumption, a feed presents a more passive approach for a user to gather information. Some feed UIs, like Facebook’s news feed, contain algorithms that fine-tune what could otherwise be an overwhelming flow of information. In contrast, without such customization, Twitter’s bare-bones approach defaults to a real-time stream from everyone you follow. That only works for Twitter users with relatively few followers.

Not all information, however, benefits from being optimized for passivity or immediacy. For instance, most online shoppers aren’t just passively browsing, at least not until they put some parameters like product, price and color in place. Most news consumption benefits from categorization and importance, whether judged by professionals or by popularity. And although Google Instant feels like a mobile app, network bandwidth and latency currently prevent it from being implemented for phones.

Who Benefits?

So what kind of applications or services might next adopt feed-like interfaces?

  • Television. Years ago, I saw a Canal+ demo of a carousel of picture-in-picture images of what was playing on other channels. I’ve seen similar items from TV middleware companies.
  • Shopping. How about a stream of product thumbnails? Seesmic has a Zappos plug-in.
  • News. I’d welcome an editorial hand to feed me prioritized news stories with graphical cues, though I’m not sold on social curation as the only organizing principal.

Adding Value

When properly enhanced, feed-based UIs can deliver great user experiences. They feel “modern” to web and mobile audiences, in contrast to static blocks of content. Many — if not all — information streams do benefit from being current. And there’s a natural tendency for a user to re-visit them frequently, and to engage with them in a social fashion.

Feeds can be implemented as an RSS stream or API, making them open to mash-ups and plug-ins. Companies that offer information or communications services and are looking to implement feeds as UIs should offer the following directly to users, or as behind-the-scenes optimization tools:

  • Aggregation. This isn’t new, but Twitter clients like TweetDeck and Seesmic allow users to pull in multiple feeds from micro-blogging tools or status updates, and to post to multiple destinations. Box sucks in information from Salesforce.com and NetSuite into its feed. Seesmic just re-implemented its desktop client to accommodate plug-ins for other feeds or functions, e.g., local information from Foursquare. There’s opportunity in promoting and pre-packaging collections of feeds to give users different views of information.
  • Filtering. Facebook prioritizes the default view of its news feed via the user’s prior behavior and the network activity around items, among other things in its algorithmic secret sauce. Trending topics is a popular device for exposing users to information that might come from outside their network. But ceding active control of filtering, sorting and searching to the user is also powerful: That’s what made TweetDeck the choice of Twitter power users.
  • Other utilities. In the spirit of Tufte, I’d suggest there is opportunity in offering features that better present quantitative and qualitative information atop of feeds. Color-coding or boldfacing feed items based on popularity or importance would be simple, but there’s probably something like TheBrain that would illustrate relationships between items better than a threaded conversation does.

Related Research: Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

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Where’s the best place to add value to real-time feeds?
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David Card

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3 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. The major flaw with real-time feeds in my opinion is the ease with which you can “miss” content. Take Facebook’s “top news” vs. “recent updates” division. In one setting you’re likely to miss items from your regular contacts that you’d like to see, but in the other you miss out on the opportunity to discover old friends you’d like to pay more attention to.

    I’d love more axes along which to filter my “feed” content. I think user-facing analytics is one solution for users like me who are willing to work for it: Google Reader is actually a wonderful product in that regard. You can see which feeds you keep up with, what percentage of stories in different categories you’re reading, which days you read the most, etc. Helpful for identifying gaps in what you’re seeing and remindinding yourself of other feeds you’ve neglected.

    But for services or moments or whatever where you want to be kind of lazy, perhaps you can also add value by creating “seeded” feeds — think Apple’s Genius playlists instead of shuffle. The “sort by magic” feature on Google Reader is a good example, too. Some old, some new, some relevant, some surprises. Pandora does this too — it replays songs you already said you liked, but mixes in new stuff you haven’t rated, and let’s you exclude both songs and artists on a station-by-station basis.

    So, in summary, maybe my answer to the question is: more real-time feeds that give users an optimal mix of things they know they like, and things they don’t know anything about yet. Music might be an interesting industry to draw on for ideas.

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  2. I put my Facebood “friends” in different groups for sorting, but I suspect most users hate to do much work. I like the idea of a mix of pre-determined and observed characteristics for filtering. Indeed, music genre stations tweaked with your favorites have long been a Pandora staple.

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