Give up Control or You’ll Lose it Forever: Experience Designers Beware – Web 2.0 Interfaces Change Everything

For the most part, designers can’t control experiences because experiences are subject to the user. Just as we can’t know the mind of another, we can’t truly know what they’re experiencing. We can, however, create tools with which users can have experiences. Sure, these tools (otherwise known as interfaces) can help tremendously, but more and more we’re seeing that users will use them or bypass them in ways that we cannot control. So don’t be surprised or dismayed at your lack of control. With Web 2.0 (the web as platform), we’re giving permission for all this to happen. And it’s happening at the speed of the API.

There is an undercurrent to all the writing I’ve done lately, both here on Bokardo, on UIE.com, and at Digital Web. The undercurrent is that users now have control of content much more than they used to, especially in cases where we’re providing them an RSS feed containing semantic markup and basically saying “do with it what you will”.

Though a cause for slight trepidation, I believe this shift is a positive thing. My personal opinion is that as a designer it is my role to help users the best I can: if I need to give up control in order to innovate then that’s what I’m going to do. Or, it may be that I’m innovating on a different level than before. Before I was innovating on the navigation level, now I’m innovating on the content level, providing content in formats with which users can build their own navigation structures.

Not all designers see it like I do. In a follow-up comment to his recent Digital Web article, Dirk Knemeyer says that “we need to begin controlling the environments that our work is being experienced in.”

To this sort of viewpoint and to those designers who want control over more parts of the experience of their users I say: Achtung. Controlling experiences is getting harder by the minute. Not only are people viewing our content in places other than our own web site, but we’re enabling them to do so with semantic markup. In some cases they can create interfaces that add value over and above what we provide! In other cases they can repurpose our content in ways that we might not be able to anticipate. Case in point: Google is sued often over repurposing content.

This is even happening to me. There are several sites out there who reprint my content word for word. One site, called usernomics, sometimes even adds logos or images of the topics I’m talking about. So not only are they adding other content and navigation scheme to my content, they’re adding value (added: sometimes positive/sometimes negative) to my original content! If this hasn’t happened to you, it will soon.

I think this is the way that the Web is going. Despite the naysayers who claim the Semantic Web is a load of bunk, the Web is going whole-hog services and semantics. Web apps, APIs, feeds, remixing, aggregating, tagging…and everything in between. Whether you know it or not, we’re shifting control away from our own interface to the interface of others.

To John Dvorak I say take a gander at this app: Simile: The Semantic Web Browser. This follows on the heals of the others great new interfaces I pointed to recently (that everybody is pointing to). Not moving toward a semantic web? In some cases we’re already there.

For the most part, designers can’t control experiences because experiences are subject to the user. Just as we can’t know the mind of another, we can’t truly know what they’re experiencing. We can, however, create tools with which users can have experiences, and I think this is what Dirk was getting at. Sure, these tools (otherwise known as interfaces) can help tremendously, but more and more we’re seeing that users will use them or bypass them in ways that we cannot control. So don’t be surprised or dismayed at your lack of control. With Web 2.0 (the web as platform), we’re giving permission for all this to happen. And it’s happening at the speed of the API.

Published: May 26th, 2005

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