Web Squared: What It Means for Product Design
29 Sep 2009

Web Squared: What It Means for Product Design

29 Sep 2009

It has been five years since John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly launched their Web 2.0 Conference. The Web has changed immensely in that short period. Since 2004, web-enabled mobile devices have gained wide-spread adoption, all kinds of devices have started interfacing with the internet, events on the Web have started occurring in real-time, and we have increasingly been emitting data in our everyday life through our mobile devices, on websites, as well as countless other channels.

John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly have recently published a report, titled “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On,” that reviews major changes over the past five years, sums up the current state of the Web, and predicts where it is going in the near future. “Web Squared” is the term that the authors give to the current state of the Web; it has evolved beyond the term “Web 2.0.” The paper sublimely encapsulates the past, present, and future, and it should be required reading for all product strategists and user experience designers.

A More Inclusive Web

To say that the Web has grown might be missing the point. The Web has grown not only in size, but more importantly, it has also grown to include many new ways of interfacing with it. In 2004, the primary mode of connecting to it was through a computer. Interacting with the Web involved a screen and standard modes of input such as a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. In 2009, we interface with the Web through innumerable novel devices that are fundamentally different from the old interaction paradigm. We may connect to the Web through widgets on an HDTV or through a touch interface on a mobile device. I like to think of these as varying nodes or portals that give us an interface to the many arms of  the Web. For example, my TiVo now streams movies from Netflix directly to my TV. The experience comes complete with a TV-based interface as well as web-based interaction components. There are countless of other examples of new interaction portals:

Web Squared: Various Novel Devices Now Are Portals to the Web


Beyond many novel ways for users to interact with the Web, there are also various new ways that devices interact with the Web on their own, without our input or knowledge. Allow me to use my TiVo to illustrate this point. (They are our client after all.) My TiVo automatically downloads new television listings from the Web. It even makes changes to my channel line-up automatically, and only informs me that it has done so. It does not require me to order it to do so. It does not even require me to approve it. It just does it elegantly and correctly, so my time is not wasted on unnecessary interactions and tasks.

What all this means is that the Web is becoming ever more the ether that stores and computes data and facilitates our interactions. We used to think of the Web as countless web pages. Now, the ways in which we experience the Web are much more varied. Whether it is through an online gaming community on the Xbox 360 or through a Netflix widget on a web-compatible television, the Web will never look and feel the same.

Collective Intelligence & the Information Shadow

The Web is increasingly about collecting data and harnessing its power. Think about geo-tagging on Google Maps or reviews on Yelp. As the amassed data grows is becomes more useful and powerful. For example, a review of a restaurant on Yelp with forty reviews is held to be more trustworthy and accurate than one that has only a few. The ways that data are collected by web applications are also expanding. It used to be that data was primarily collected through user input. Now data can be collected from the GPS on a user’s smartphone, from the user’s buying habits on a website like Amazon.com, from the TV programs that the user watches. The list goes on and on, and new ways of collecting data are being invented and put into mainstream use. For example, my Fast Pass monitors how often I pay toll and how much, and it then adjusts my periodic account recharges to be inline with my toll-paying habits. At every interaction we can be potentially leaving a shadow of data about us, our needs, and our habits.

Another important point is that everyday things like books and songs both exist in the physical world and on the Web. For example a book, and, more importantly, meta data about that book lives on the web on Amazon, on Facebook, etc. The projection of data that things leave behind on the Web is termed “information shadows” by Mike Kuniavsky of ThingM.

All this data—the data that we project and the information shadows from real-world objects—can be gathered, processed, and made available to users, thereby providing them with fantastic possibilities and benefits.

The Web in Real-Time

Although the first real-time interactions on the Web have roots further back than AOL chat rooms, they have recently gained prominence throughout the Web from services like Twitter to close-to-real-time search results on Google and Bloglines to real-time traffic data on car navigation systems. The trend points to an increasing element of currentness within the Web as a whole. Applications will continue to make use of real-time data to offer us novel products and services. Consider, for example, the taxation system that IBM developed for the city of Stockholm that taxes drives based on current levels of congestion. Another great example is the “Stations Vélib à Paris” widget on Netvibes that lets Parisians know in real time the number of available bicycles at their favorite rental station.

In many cases, real-time information is much more valuable than stale, out-dated information, and in the near future the Web and its many portals will increasingly provide users with increasing forms of up-to-date intelligence.

What Does Web Squared Mean for Product Design?

The contemporary manifestation of the Web provides tremendous opportunities for richer and more valuable products and services. Some of the trends that have recently developed have been around for years, but have only recently been unleashed through novel implementations—think real-time communications. Other possibilities arose from new technologies that have become available to us, such as the wide-spread adoption of GPS in mobile devices. All these make product design both more challenging and exciting. Design of products in the Web Squared world should take into consideration:

  • New data sources
  • Real-time interactions and information
  • Collective intelligence from multiple sources of data
  • New portals to the web such as mobile devices and consumer electronics
  • Novel output and input paradigms

It is a lot to consider, but keeping these elements in mind throughout the design process is bound to lead to more beneficial and enjoyable products.

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