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Real commitment or lipstick on a pig?

Real commitment or lipstick on a pig?

I’ve discussed Web 2.0 at length in its various forms on this site, but it looks like, with awareness of the phenomenon growing in business, many of our (by which I mean you and me) clients are interested in having “a Web 2.0 site”. Trouble is, I don’t think many of them understand just what that means, and I also think that from a consulting perspective, some of us are failing to transfer that knowledge to them. Let’s start by not laying blame. Web 2.0 is hard to explain.

Here’s what I’m seeing. Many sites out there are getting makeovers that have them looking like Web 2.0 sites, but they’re the same old thing under the skin – walled gardens pushing a message from the top down.

Here’s an example. Today, on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to, an interesting question was asked:

I have been tasked with researching the web for sites that are doing interesting and new things with the “web 2.0 model” for our client. I have been wandering around a lot looking at product sites such as Sony, Best Buy, and Miele UK to see what’s out there. I was wondering if any of you had any really interesting sites that you have seen that you could send my way. Thanks in advance.

When I jumped in to open my big mouth, there had been five responses – all dealing with Web 2.0 look and feel, but none dealing with the fundamental question in my mind, of just what the “Web 2.0 model” being asked about was. Now, I don’t by any means think the question or the responses were uninformed or misunderstood the question. But I do think that look and feel is getting some strong (perhaps too strong) focus at the detriment of the other attributes that make Web 2.0 what it is.

I asked the following question:

While everyone answering so far has approached Web 2.0 from a visual sense, as someone who also consults on use of social media and social networking, I have to ask whether the client is after a Web 2.0 “look” or do they want to reimagine their offering from a social networking and social media sense?

To get a handle on what I’m talking about, let’s look at Tim O’Reilly’s September 2005 definition [1]. Tim offers seven core attributes (with my summaries):

  1. The Web as Platform – the application is natively web-based
  2. Harnessing Collective Intelligence – embracing the customer and stakeholder for the wisdom of crowds, opening the corporate wall to communication and an instant feedback loop of customer->company->customer through publicly exposed tools such as blogs
  3. Data is the Next Intel Inside – leveraging the value of corporate data by using others data through APIs and opening your data to reuse
  4. End of the Software Release Cycle – no big bang releases, just incremental improvement
  5. Lightweight Programming Models – use of RoR, PHP or whatever other fast, light language is appropriate to facilitate fast launch and incremental feature improvement – no more big bang site reworks
  6. Software Above the Level of a Single Device – web, iPhone, mobile, TV, PS3, whatever – if it can use your app, let it
  7. Rich User Experience – attractive, user-centered design and feature-rich interaction focussed on long term, valuable user experience

Often, #7 is the only one discussed in depth by clients. They want a good looking, sexy site that draws in the customers. However, the remaining six, adopted to one extent or another are really what makes an application or site fulfil the Web 2.0 promise. With visual treatment only, it’s just lipstick on a pig.

If you’re working with a client and they are excited by this “Web 2.0 thing” they’ve heard about, it’s in your interests as a responsible, professional consultant to make them aware of what Web 2.0 is really all about. It will probably scare the hell out of them. But again, with good, trusted counsel from you, your client (or your company if you’re an “innie”) has the opportunity to break the mould around their offering and come away with something real, important and connected to their market in new and exciting ways. Ways that could offer real benefits if the changes entailed in Web 2.0 are adopted wholeheartedly.

Tim also offers several design patterns that you ought to raise with your client. These patterns heavily inform the Web 2.0 experience, and again, failing to include them as core features to one extent or another results in payment of nothing more than lip service to the Web 2.0 model. Some of them are matched to the core attributes. Here’s the list of patterns and their meanings, lifted directly from the oreilly.com article:

  1. The Long Tail – Small sites make up the bulk of the internet’s content; narrow niches make up the bulk of internet’s the possible applications. Therefore: Leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head.
  2. Data is the Next Intel Inside – Applications are increasingly data-driven. Therefore: For competitive advantage, seek to own a unique, hard-to-recreate source of data.
  3. Users Add Value – The key to competitive advantage in internet applications is the extent to which users add their own data to that which you provide. Therefore: Don’t restrict your “architecture of participation” to software development. Involve your users both implicitly and explicitly in adding value to your application.
  4. Network Effects by Default – Only a small percentage of users will go to the trouble of adding value to your application. Therefore: Set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.
  5. Some Rights Reserved – Intellectual property protection limits re-use and prevents experimentation. Therefore: When benefits come from collective adoption, not private restriction, make sure that barriers to adoption are low. Follow existing standards, and use licenses with as few restrictions as possible. Design for “hackability” and “remixability.”
  6. The Perpetual Beta – When devices and programs are connected to the internet, applications are no longer software artifacts, they are ongoing services. Therefore: Don’t package up new features into monolithic releases, but instead add them on a regular basis as part of the normal user experience. Engage your users as real-time testers, and instrument the service so that you know how people use the new features.
  7. Cooperate, Don’t Control – Web 2.0 applications are built of a network of cooperating data services. Therefore: Offer web services interfaces and content syndication, and re-use the data services of others. Support lightweight programming models that allow for loosely-coupled systems.
  8. Software Above the Level of a Single Device – The PC is no longer the only access device for internet applications, and applications that are limited to a single device are less valuable than those that are connected. Therefore: Design your application from the get-go to integrate services across handheld devices, PCs, and internet servers.

Take a look also at Tim’s video from last year where, once again, he was asked what Web 2.0 is:

So, I guess for you, the next big question for you and your client is – lipstick and lip service, or commitment to the fundamental meaning of Web 2.0?

1. What is Web 2.0 – Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, Tim O’Reilly, 30 Sep 2005. http://www.oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html. Retrieved 19 Mar 2008.

Stephen Collins
trib@acidlabs.org
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