With the introduction of analytics into the visual design of written content, we are on the cusp of an era of incredible evolution: one where the design of information changes in real time in response to data about the readers consuming it. New technologies from Amazon, Apple, Google, WordPress and Tumblr already provide a preview of Intelligent Content. In essence, it won’t be long before the media we consume knows us better than we know ourselves.
Content that reacts to being read
Around 1952, computer scientist Grace Hopper introduced new thinking about compilers –machine-independent software that would translate code written in human language into computer friendly binary ones. John Von Nuemann took Dr. Hopper’s work to a new level in his unfinished masterpiece “The Computer and the Brain,” which theorized that massive versions of compilers would eventually result in computers so intelligent that no human mind could keep up with them.
In a way, books and magazines of the future will act as sort of human compilers, translating your reading desires into pure machine language that tells the publisher how to present the material for faster and more pleasurable absorption. It’s difficult to comprehend what these experiences will be like once machines themselves begin creating material for humans. The content itself will be designed to gather information about the reader, mash it up with data about others interested in related subjects, authors, or publishers, then decide what content to present to you next. This is what we mean by Intelligent Content
Curation will guide content
Some argue that readers no longer want curated content, however we believe people always have and always will look to trusted sources for guidance, and that’s where books and magazines will continue to add value. In a world where people are already inundated with information, it’s only going to get worse as we get more and more smothered by everyone else’s stream of consciousness, courtesy of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and whatever is next.
So the short-term impact of the Intelligent Content movement will feel something like the music industry since 2000. MP3′s meant the end of curated CDs. Now, playlists are compiled and shared with the help of Pandora, Spotify or Songza. Thus magazines and books could soon become the Pandora of dynamic content, with artificial intelligence applets that choose and adapt content, then tailor it to the reader’s context and taste. We see the beginnings of this with Flipboard, but it will only get more advanced.
Experimenting outside the print paradigm
Massive waves of disruption always bring opportunity. Publishers like Hearst and Conde Nast continue to experiment with and push the boundaries of enhanced reading experiences on tablets, but many other publishers still obey the rules of printed media, requiring you to “flip” through virtual pages as the primary mode of navigation. WordPress and Tumblr appear to be closest to offering an always-on and continuously updated experience based on analytics about the reader. The flexibility and customization they offer provide a glimpse into how written and visual content will eventually be continuously reconfigured and redesigned by the moment to accommodate data gathered about what you like to read.
Our future might be filled with mash-ups of video, audio, real-time updates, new navigation interfaces and even content that interacts with a reader’s environment (such as augmented reality). Digital publishers can experiment with new hyper-responsive designs as well as back-end databases that mine your other web activities to determine what you’ll like. For example, Quartz (qz.com), a digital only news site launched in September last year, uses WordPress and responsive design to customize the reader’s experience on a device level. Companies such as Gravity, Contextly and Sailthru offer digital publishers new tools to create more personalized experiences based on a visitor’s profile and previous reading behavior.
The algorithm will be the new editor
In the long term, the algorithm will likely replace the editor and curator. Quick and automatic branding and positioning of the book or magazine on a glowing electronic slab will become more important than the most sage human editor. For focused, long-form content, algorithms will sort out content discovery, delivery and presentation. Google already conquered discovery with algorithms, and now content aggregators such as Zite and Prismatic offer readers an elegant, gated magazine-like design using data from the reader’s social networking profiles, past reading habits and current location.
Using big data to create content on demand
Intelligent Content can also help publishers create content in a more cost-efficient way. One of the main challenges publishers face is predicting which content will be popular. Analyzing the big data that comes from reading and search behavior will help them predict which articles will bring in a much-needed audience.
Recently, researchers at MIT developed an algorithm that can predict topics that will be trending on Twitter hours in advance. Similarly, startups such as Content Fleet and Parse.ly use algorithms to identify emerging popular topics on search engines. This way, a publisher will be able to create content with almost a certain return on investment.
Publishers who recognize the design- and data-driven future of Intelligent Content will have a head start. They can experiment now with new ways to deliver content and measure how its readers engage with it. That data in turn can help them deliver even more engaging content experiences, ultimately preparing them for a future of Intelligent Content.
Roger Wood is a product designer and statistician, and founder of the (Art+Data) Institute. Evelyn Robbrecht is a Content Design Fellow at the Institute; previously she helped launch the mobile and new media department of Sanoma Media Belgium.
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