The Interface is Where Innovations Find Value
Simply put, there are technological innovations all the time, but they are not valuable in and of themselves. Only when we put an interface to them can we tell how valuable they are.
Steve Rubel at micropersuasion has written a short but interesting post about why Google is not providing RSS feeds…yet. He supposes that it’s because RSS feeds keep people away from web sites: they don’t have to visit the site in order to read the feed. He suggests that this scares Google because they make so much of their money off of advertising, and if the feed, as opposed to the site, contains the valuable information then users will never need to spend time on those sites where they’ll see advertising. (Rubel goes on to predict that Google will do feeds, but have advertisements in them).
This is interesting because feeds are an obvious improvement in user experience over simply surfing to web sites to check for new content. If you haven’t yet subscribed to any, I predict RSS feeds will be coming to an interface near you. However, with RSS as an improved delivery format, (or an improved discovery format), what we’ve really done is innovate the interface, or rather, changed it completely. In this case, we’ve moved away from the web site as an interface to a intermediate, RSS reader instead. What is valuable is the improved interface, not the technology. Any technology that would provide for that interface would be well-used…RSS, Atom, or some other format.
Take that view with this interesting tidbit about Google maps posted by Jason Kottke recently, containing what I think is a very interesting notion: that most significant advances in software are actually advances in user experience.
Kottke quotes himself here, but he is really paraphrasing something that Robert Morris talked about in an ETech Conference presentation three years ago…( I found the talk but it doesn’t mention this concept )
This idea makes sense to me because it underscores the notion that software is valuable only the extent that it helps people, and it is expressly not valuable if it doesn’t help people, no matter how wonderful it is otherwise.
So, taking this further, it is interesting to note that some of the most valuable services out there really aren’t that amazing technologically. My current favorite application, Del.icio.us, is something even I could have implemented given the specs and several months time. However, actually making the thing wasn’t the hard part, the innovation of the interface was the hard part: figuring out what was useful to people and then building it. Joshua Schacter’s story is an interesting one, but somewhat similar to those of other folks who have come up with great software. His application grew out of his own need to store bookmarks, and only after did he realize that others might find what he built useful. And since I wasn’t in that position, working day in and day out with a bookmarking tool, I could never have innovated like he did.
Simply put, there are technological innovations all the time, but they are not valuable in and of themselves. Only when we put an interface to them can we tell how valuable they are. Interfaces are where the real innovative value lies.