Taking a Look at Medium and Its Information Strategy

Intro

Medium is an online platform that allows for anyone to publish their thoughts and ideas and share them with the world, be they a professional writer, complete novice or something in-between. By opening up to a broad and diverse range of writers with various types/levels of expertise, passions, and personal experiences, Medium proudly claims that their value proposition is to offer ideas and perspectives that you won’t find anywhere else.

Founded in late 2012 by Evan Williams, Medium currently holds an impressive Alexa global rank of 327 (on the day of this article) climbing the rankings over 50,000 spots in the last 5 years (Alexa).Medium’s success is at least in part due to how they added value through their organization and display of information and got both writers and readers to view Medium positively; this is largely due to their de-emphasis of authorship, consistent content organization, clean and minimalist design that reduces cognitive load, and methods of leveraging user insights to create more relevant content.


General Cleanliness and Noise Reduction to Help Efficient/Objective User Exploration

Medium in general takes a minimalist approach to design, allowing users to more objectively seek value without flashing signs and in-your-face design elements. From the nice use of white-space, to the trustworthy, humble choice in typography, to the complete lack of advertisements, Medium reduces noise and advocates for a clean slate where only what is necessary to make a choice is presented, something that has remained a core design philosophy over time (Gonzales). Content is made easy to interpret, which certainly plays a factor in the ability to choose one article over another.


Data, Metadata & Scaleable Information

The articles within Medium are the most important pieces of information and the core data within Medium are the elements that comprise the articles themselves, primarily user-generated text (including article titles, section headers, body text) and media (users can post/embed images, videos).

There is also metadata to support and influence how one chooses to interact with Medium and helps users distinguish between articles (claps, categories, suggested reading time, author information, shares, follows and comments). This metadata includes social proof, which can alter mental context and potential action regardless of initial user context. The user’s choice to add to some of this user created metadata (such as claps, shares, follows, and comments) is remembered by the system, so as to allow the system to later display even more relevant content.

This core data and its supporting metadata serve as the blueprint for a scaleable, repeatable block of information and is organized via collections/tags but can also be discovered through other ways, such as author profiles (if you like a particular author, you can view more from them, which wasn’t the case when Medium first hit the scene but has recently added value by conforming to a common mental model developed by interacting with external consistencies) and by suggestions that the system makes based on learned user preferences.

Medium displays certain data and its respective metadata in a way to encourage readers and writers to return to the site. Writers happily return to participate more when they receive recognition/appreciation (although it also helps when they perceive writing as low-effort). Readers are happy to return when the core data is presented in a way that makes it easy to find interesting content (particularly after repeat interaction and a suggestion system that learns), no matter their mood or how much time they might have to spend reading an article.

Medium’s information design reaches a nice balance in accommodating people who seek information based on category, freshness, how much time it will take them to read, and who wrote it (although less important). Medium created a minimalist design that nicely offers the appropriate information for many potential use-cases.

This definitely resonates with my efforts throughout this class to solve the same challenge with presenting repeating, scaleable information blocks in a way that can be both interesting and easy to choose between for multiple types of use-cases. My big takeaway is that you can choose to organize information in a way that favors one use-case over another or you can try to be as balanced as possible; Medium takes the latter approach.


Evolving Organization

Medium has changed the way it organized and presented its core data quite a bit since its inception. Perhaps the largest change to note is how their homepage has changed. In 2012/2013, early in Medium’s life, they had two tabs to select from on the home page: “Your Reading List” and “Collections”.

In 2014, they changed things up again, using “Reading List”, “Bookmarks”, and “Top 100” as the primary tabs.

Of course, today we see a more traditional and familiar set of content categories and methods of exploration. These early designs, I believe, are reflective of Medium testing the waters with just how unique they could be and how little they could conform to content publication organizational standards.

Their complete lack of focus on authorship was apparent in early designs (and still is today somewhat, although much less so). So too was their de-emphasis of popularity metrics in 2012/2013, which they have lightened up on a bit today, although you could already see them starting to do so in their 2014 designs where they introduced the “Top 100” tab and also explicitly called out how many posts were currently sitting within each collection category (that last feature no longer exists today because it simply does not scale well or present meaning when every collection has thousands of posts).

Interestingly though, the core data pertaining to each article has remained very similar — the main evolution has occurred in layout, navigation, and taxonomy. Over time, the simplest way to put it is: although still unique in ways, Medium has adopted many external consistencies for the sake of experiential familiarity.


High-level and “Rabbit Hole” Exploration

Medium offers familiar content categories for a social blogging website, including things like “Popular on Medium”, “Staff Picks”, “Technology”, “Culture”, etc. Today (although not true for their past) they aren’t reinventing the wheel here in terms of category taxonomy, rather they have identified successful external naming choices and have leveraged the opportunity to remain fairly consistent with the rest of the world.

Once you click into a content category, you see some standard items and some clever ones. On the standard side, you see related articles to your topic and a featured section. On the clever side, if you like the general “collection” of content that you are looking at, you have the exploration ability to “go down the content rabbit hole” by selecting one of the “Related Topics”.

I like this because if one topic impresses you and builds your trust, there becomes greater opportunity to influence you to further explore topics you might not have previously considered. Medium also does this in a separate section at the bottom of each article by presenting “tags” for that particular article, displaying these related categories in two primary places (the start and end of an article). It’s an approach that builds upon small wins and one that works quite well. This is also something that wasn’t fully part of the original Medium and is a sign of the evolution of their content navigation methods.


Medium’s Goals & Incentivizing User-generated-content

Medium heavily depends on user-generated content. Without it, they eventually lose readership. It is the continual flow of new and interesting content, as well as the ability to easily find disparate types of content that drives Medium’s success.

That said, a major goal that Medium tries to achieve is encouraging writers to actually come and write. There are many ways they accomplish this: a clean and easy-to-use editing UI, quick sign-up, and instilling the perception that author branding/reputation is optional. However, I think there is one very macro way in particular that Medium’s information hierarchy sets them apart: making writing appear to be something that can be done as many times as you’d like, including just once.

Traditional blogging platforms tend to take the approach of organizing articles in a way that made the actual written content almost a subordinate piece of information to the author. They designed their websites and organized their information in a way that catered to the supposed reader desire of choosing an article primarily based on who wrote it. That author-first presentation of information meant that many possible one-off writers never participated because they did not intend to become “authors” so-to-speak.

Medium reduced that sense of commitment and created a lower barrier-of-entry by primarily putting content first, authorship second — although they do now also a have members-only design that favors an authorship-first approach where you can read exclusive expert-written articles, as to not lose out on that possible reader desire as well (a relatively recent method for organizing information).

You aren’t required to have a lengthy author bio or list your credentials, but you can, if that’s your game. The big takeaway here is that identity and personalization are not things that Medium forces writers to care about. This leads to participation from everyday people in addition to more traditional bloggers or writers.


Low-barrier to Entry, Personalization & Identity

Another way Medium incentivizes user participation is through easy sign-up, immediately relevant content thereafter, and interesting participatory abilities. Medium’s sign-up process is simple and efficient in that it allows you to sign-up using a Google or Facebook account. This helps Medium learn more about you, particularly if you choose Facebook, as certain information about you can be gathered and used to create a more contextually relevant experience.

Once you connect your external account in step 1, step 2 is to “pick all the topics you are interested in to fill your homepage with love”. This is to help ensure that your initial experience is relevant and has an immediate effect on the way that information is organized and displayed to you.

Once you are logged in, the information that Medium presents to you as a reader begins to shift. Rather than seeing the “Popular on Medium” content category (a general use-case display of information) at the top of the page, you now see “Top Stories for You” based on the interests you selected on sign-up. Later, this is also influenced by the writers you might have followed, the articles you’ve clapped on, commented on, or shared, and likely other factors that Medium is not as willing to disclose, such as time spent on each page and other analytics data points that I am sure they are measuring.

Speaking of interacting with content, Medium offers the very unique ability for users to comment on specific portions of an article. This gives readers a newfound voice and sense of participatory power that is quite refreshing. Sure, they could comment at the bottom of an article on competitor sites, but the ability to place comments directly on specific sentences incentivized even more user feedback due to its increased relevance — and on the writer’s side, even more pinpointed feedback to utilize (hopefully) constructive / appreciative feedback.

One interesting design choice that helps create identity is the way that Medium stores and displays content that you’ve clapped for and content that you have highlighted. At the bottom of your profile page, you can see a list of content that you have taken these actions on.

In a way, this is Medium’s unique strategy of continuing to allow readers and writers to build an identity based less on what they might write about themselves in a pre-conceived bio and more on their actions and expressed interests, be that through their own writing or their appreciation/interest in the ideas put forth by others. It’s a refreshingly different take on creating identity, one that leverages captured information about a user that many services only store beneath the scenes; Medium displays and organizes this information in a more public manner to create a certain identity transparency.


Summary

Over the years, Medium has kept to its core concept yet has changed a lot as well to adapt to new norms and find more ways to incentivize reader and writer participation. They introduced a subscription based model with benefits that imply also catering to the traditional “expert author” user desire. They now have author profiles that can house/display articles as well (as shown above), whereas when Medium first emerged, clicking on an author’s name led you to their Twitter feed, de-emphasizing reputation-building within Medium and instilling the fact that information was organized only within its respective category/tag (Nieman Lab).

Overall, they’ve made a lot of changes that reflect the shift from an attitude that purely says “we are a very different type of content/information portal” to “we offer unique differences but cater to many external consistencies as well”.

The former philosophy is often great for making a grand entrance to the competitive space and gaining attention fast, however, once that starts to wear off, it certainly doesn’t hurt to organize and display information in a way that accommodates to more mainstream use-cases as well, even if your initial value proposition(s) still hold true. That would have been my advice to Medium, but they seem to already be acutely aware of it. May they continue to evolve their information design as the times continue to change.


Sources

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious. (n.d.). Retrieved Novemer 23, 2017, from http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/08/13-ways-of-looking-at-medium-the-new-bloggingsharingdiscovery-platform-from-ev-and-obvious/

Gonzalez, M. (2017, August 24). Rebooting the Medium Identity — Designing Medium. Retrieved November 22, 2017, from https://medium.design/rebooting-the-medium-identity-6fb8d5a47fc1

Intro to Medium.com Blogging Platform. (2013, November 21). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHyOj7ri4Tw

Medium.com Traffic Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/medium.com