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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

AI Is the new printing press. Here’s what that means for online publishers

January 18, 2019 | By Jon Shalowitz, CEO—LiftIgniter @jonshalowitz

Ever wonder why web pages look the way they do?

To answer that question, we need to look to the past—1440 A.D., to be exact. When Gutenberg created the printing press, it was suddenly possible to print and distribute thousands of copies of written material, all typeset so that the letters lined up perfectly every time.

Since then, the way we read text—including online—has changed very little. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved at all.

When I was living in Japan in the 90s, for example, everyone read the newspaper on the train. Japanese newspapers, unlike the papers you find in the U.S., are designed to be folded in half as you read because the trains are so crowded. You couldn’t open a Wall Street Journal arm-to-arm on the train in Tokyo because there simply wasn’t enough physical space.

But today, the way we consume content is not restricted in that way. We’re much more likely to read the news on our smartphones and laptops.

Instead of holding the physical paper in our hands, we scroll away on phones or tablets. But we’re still attached to some old-school tactics that make less sense today. Things like above-the-fold, which is a vestige of newspapers that were folded once they hit the stands so that only the top half of the paper was visible to the passers-by. This basic format remains the same for digital content, but it no longer serves much of a purpose.

Since the advent of the printing press, technology has enabled us to deliver more content more quickly to more people than ever before. As digital technology continues to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace, it’s time authors and publishers rethink how we present digital content. Just as a Japanese newspaper was designed to create the optimum experience for reading on the train, we have to evolve the way we present online content to give users the best experience.

Your users live in a digital world. Here’s how to meet them there:

It’s time to ditch trees, categories, menus, and the like.

Navigation is among the most important elements of web design.

The original navigation favorite was the tree structure, which was popularized with the explosion of Yahoo and its original navigation. It presents a hierarchical view of information, in which each item (or “branch”) leading to a number of subitems. Any branch can be expanded to reveal subitems, or collapsed to hide subitems.

However, with the rise of mobile devices, the once common tree structure is falling out of favor. Designers are creating new and improved ways of navigating websites. They have stopped. forcing users to navigate a tree, a giant list of categories, or even think of search terms. Instead, they are thinking of ways to create a digital user experience that is responsive in real-time.

Just as Google’s search engine rendered Yahoo’s original navigation approach obsolete, AI is pushing out traditional web navigation. An AI-driven site design that can pick up on and infer user signals and direct them accordingly is much more user-friendly. Before long, all websites will be creating menus, landing pages, and content generated dynamically in response to user understanding.

Ideally, prebuilt navigation should be as streamlined and minimalist as possible. When done right, it allows users to open your website or app and find what they’re looking for instantly.

Otherwise, users will become frustrated and sign off—and that’s the last thing you want.

User engagement is at stake.

Today’s consumers are less patient than ever.

According to a 2015 study from Microsoft, the modern American brain loses concentration after eight seconds, a result of our increasingly dependent relationship to technology. “Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli,” the report read. And they’re “more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.”

Today’s customers expect instant gratification. They want to be met where they are, with an article or product recommendation that’s relevant for them at that exact moment, regardless of the channel or device in use. Real-time customer engagement requires knowledge of past purchases, specific preferences, and situational context to make instant recommendations.

Without it, your customers will go elsewhere.

Data shows that modern real-time companies that embrace this type of real-time responsiveness see double or triple level of user engagement. If it’s a content site, that means up to three times more people watching videos or reading articles, or becoming paid subscribers. On a product site, it means tripling the number of people buying your stuff.

If you’re not leveraging AI to give users a better experience already, you’re leaving money on the table and users in the dark.

Environmental cues

Soon, it won’t be enough to just show users a few options based on past purchases. The next iteration of digital experiences is content presented based on behavioral and external cues.

Rappi, or what I like to call “the Uber Eats of Latin America,” is a great example of this next generation UX and a customer of my company, Liftigniter. The app determines what you’re interested in eating and delivers it to your door—whether it’s a four-course meal prepared by a restaurant, fast food takeout, or ingredients delivered from a grocery store for you to cook on your own.

They use our AI engine to make individual determinations based on such signals as users’ behavior in their app. It understands what devices they’re using, where they are, and what time of day it is. Using this information, they can make behavioral and environmental inferences. This allows them to determine whether you’re interested in something healthy or comforting, quick or slow, fancy or casual. When it’s cold out, they’ll suggest even suggest a warm holiday soup.

If you can create a website or some sort of digital experience that can determine the user interests without them telling you, why wouldn’t you? The only conceivable reason is habit. It’s natural—and easy—to cling to the status quo.

However, the printing press no longer reigns supreme. And it”s time online publishers shake off the vestiges of an archaic user experience.

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