The impact of “real-time” on experience design

Conceptual framework including... now. work-in-progress.

You are reading this in real-time… You just read that in real-time. That’s how fast the web can be.

Real-time has been around for traders and people with ticker-tape machines, but expectations have been reset by the twitter’s and facebook’s of the world. Here are some of the experience design challenges and solutions brought about by the emergence of real-time information in the everyday web.

How does one move back in time?

  1. Clicking “more” at the end of a feed to make one continuous page of entries. This maintains the context of the page and allows one to easily scroll up to see all of the more recent items. (chosen by Facebook and Twitter)
  2. Pagination. This allows for someone to page through entries and not have to continuously scroll, thus losing all of the other details from the page. (chosen by friendfeed)
  3. In-line wonder scroll. Not sure what else to call it. Blip.fm has made an interesting choice I have not seen before. I think I like it. The whole section scrolls between pages. slick.
  4. WINNER: I prefer solution one. I never know where pagination is going to return me once i click it, and the relative placement of the “more” elements is a true timeline.

How do you thread a conversation with little or no context?

  1. Hash tags. creating common tags that can be returned in a search in a single feed. (popular on Twitter)
  2. Meta-data based on who replied to what. Friendfeed has done the best job of allowing a conversation to be followed in an intelligible way. Google Buzz has done a rather abysmal job of this. The stacked box thing does not translate to real-time.
  3. WINNER: Meta. When done well. Hash tags are useful, but require a coordinated effort by a mass of people. It happens, but it is not the most natural way to thread a logical conversation.

What to do with the time between page load and… now!

  1. Tell the user stuff has happened, but allow her to control its display. The top of Twitter’s feed simply tells the user… “hey, a couple of things have happened since you’ve been reading this… click here to see it.”
  2. Just keep on feeding stuff. Been tried by some and abandoned by many. The speed at which stuff can appear can be disconcerting while trying to read the feed. Many who still have this feature have at least provided a pause button somewhere in the page (like friendfeed)
  3. WINNER: I enjoy the subtle first approach that allows me to control when stuff moves down.

How do you make a giant stream of information intelligible?

This will be a post of its own eventually, but here are some initial thoughts. The natural constraints are the first line of defense against blaring noise: Selecting individual people, limiting the amount of information one can enter, and creating groups (essentially the people thing). Then there are the two core methods of displaying the info from there:

  1. Algorithms: When computers, based on human instructions, select the things it determines we would most likely be interested in based on myriad patterns in our behavior. Complex and rarely fits the bill.
  2. Let ‘er rip: An unfettered stream of everything. This at least allows the user to use the first-line methods above to make some sense of their stream.
  3. WINNER: jury still out. I am always pulling for the algorithms, but I have had the most success with my own filtering of the fire hose. Facebook has flip-flopped between the two do many times, they finally just gave users both.

Ah… there. There are many more decisions to be made now that we can show stuff that is flowing in faster than the speed of e-business (EK), but they will be explored in some of the following 55 more posts.

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