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Preparing for the Real World UX: Lessons from SXSW

As a web developer I’m used to thinking about user experience (UX) from the standpoint of the screen. My biggest takeaway from SXSW Interactive this year was how quickly the screen is getting connected to the real world.  We’re all used to ordering from Amazon or Zappos and having a box appear on the doorstep in a few days (and increasingly the very next day.) Soon, that connection will be pervasive, wonderful — and somewhat scary.  Successful marketers, even those that don’t necessarily sell physical goods, will have to pay a lot of attention to “programming” the real-world, realtime user experience.

On Monday I went to “Lessons from Disruptors: Game-Changing Start-Ups” moderated by Modern Media’s friend and Time editor-at-large Harry McCracken. All three of the panelists came from start-ups that make devices. Travis Bogard of Jawbone makes mobile accessories like headsets and speakers. Ren Ng invented Lytro, a camera that (as far as I understand it) collects so much data that you can focus the picture after you take it. Matt Rogers left Apple to reinvent the thermostat at Nest Labs.

All three of these companies strive to simplify and smooth out the real world. Why should you have to remember to turn your thermostat down at night, deal with wires to listen to music or hold the camera steady while waiting for it to focus? Extra buttons, choices and “features” are replaced by serious software and product design centered on outcomes rather than process. The technology is advanced, but hidden.

Two of the products — the Lytro and the Nest — loop data back into the web.  You can focus your uploaded pictures online; you can see and set your home’s temperature from the office.  SXSW was chock full of other technologies that tie the web to the real world, from digital wallets to displays that target content based on your face. Whether or not I like the idea of coupons for the local gym being delivered to my iPhone when I purchase a six-pack of beer and a bag of pork rinds, it’s pretty clear that this integration of the web data and personal reality has huge emotive power.  It will, one way or another, change how we consume and how we market.

The products, applications and marketers that succeed in this new world will be the ones that slot into the real-world user experience seamlessly and naturally.  While I have no hope of ever creating something as flat-out cool as the Lytro, I’m really going to try to apply those design principles to Modern Media’s development and marketing work.  Four things that I’m thinking about:

  1. Minimize the amount of work we ask the audience to do. Is this checkbox necessary? Does that paragraph make any sense at all to the reader or is it just brand cruft?
  2. Make our offerings as modular and as simple as possible. Marketers have already lost much control over message distribution (think Facebook.) Consumption of information is moving from the laptop to the phone. These contexts don’t allow for complex messaging and multi-step, multiple choice processes.
  3. Assume that the user is doing something besides paying attention to us. Don’t interrupt. Help her do that thing while offering to enhance the experience.
  4. Make the outcome clear.  Hide the process.

Let me know what you think of merging realtime data with the real-world user experience. As a consumer are you going to opt-in or -out?  As a marketer are you scared or excited? Or am I just talking through my iHat?