Let’s Try To Understand and Work With the “Digital Revolution” in Terms of Human Factors, Not Technology

Most discussions of what the digital revolution is concern themselves either with the technological means and media that make it “digital”, or providing examples of the specific epiphenomena of norms being disrupted and the innovations coming into being in various fields or use-case scenarios.

For example, a location-aware review database app is a “technological means” on a smartphone — a “technological medium” — that is (“specific epiphenomena”) creating an innovative way of deciding which restaurant to go to (and maybe also a way of helping other people decide). This disrupts business models, for example by giving disproportionate benefits to a digitally-savvy restaurant, penalizing one which is not digitally active or has bad feedback, and possibly makes business more difficult for old-fashioned information products such as desktop website restaurant review systems, which in their short heyday had replaced printed restaurant guides.

Here are two further examples with slightly different media and epiphenomena: a restaurant offering a tablet to diners to choose and order instead of a paper menu and waiter; and a restaurant offering a Youtube channel of their chef showing people how to cook his famous recipes at home. Obviously all sorts of interesting possibilities are opened up by these particular combinations of medium + application. Clearly, all three examples are part of the digital revolution, but how can we relate them together?

Although the technology and industry are pretty much the same, it is not immediately apparent how we can apply marketing principles to be able to take advantage of the different opportunities. And if we put ourselves in the shoes of the restaurant management, or of their competitors, or of a partially similar business such as a coffee shop, how can we derive good new ideas based on these previous examples? Simply focusing on the technology or the epiphenomenon will not help derive good ideas, e.g. vague management edicts “we should do an app for this restaurant” or “our consumers should be able to find out about these recipes online”. Even assuming you hit on what you believe should be an interesting or useful combination, how can you specify the details in a way that actually makes sense, and how can you model in advance whether it is worth building and marketing?

To answer such questions, of course we must study the human user. Short of serious study of human psychology and behavioural economics, I believe we can still all recognize common aspects of the digital revolution by looking at how people in general are starting to behave differently compared to how they (or their parents) behaved before the digital wave broke.

In other words, we can start to take human factors as the universal factors involved in the digital revolution, regardless of any particular technology or industry or combination, which are always changing and difficult to keep up with. For me, this is the more useful way to use the term “digital revolution”: we can assess whether a user is pre-revolution, or embracing it… whether victim or beneficiary… by looking at the style of consumption and usage. In turn, the subject matter — the content or utility — and the organizations creating or marketing it can also be judged to be on the wrong side or the right side of the digital revolution in how they work with the new style of consumption and usage. It is not nearly as useful to compare “how digital” people or businesses are in terms that are linked to any one technology or application scenario — since by definition of the age we are entering, these will propagate and evolve faster than most of us can keep track. It is already the case that no one person or organization can be (or needs to be) active in any significant proportion of all the digital things they could choose to consume or use.

Universal Behavioural Factors Of The Digital Revolution

The causes and effects on human behaviour of the digital revolution are very tangled and multi-directional. For convenience I have separated out the following shortlist of ten headings for what I believe will be familiar issues. Each one, it should be apparent, is connected to the others. Taken all together, these factors begin to constitute a usable model when asking ourselves the above questions of how to interrelate digital technologies and use-cases, as well as how to generate and evaluate new ideas in a way that adequately takes account of the digital revolution.

I am standardizing on the term “user” to describe a person, consumer, customer, reader, viewer, player etc because in digital you are always using something, and the software development consideration of a slightly anonymous “user” somewhere beyond the code is quite apt. The connotations of a drug “user” are not out of place either.

This is one of several bits of terminology which I am attempting to declare, because we are currently [2014] still at the stage of not having any widely accepted vocabulary for discussing the digital revolution which is independent of particular soon-to-be obsolete technologies and use cases. At the moment human vocabulary already seems annoyingly inadequate for the phenomena of the digital age, and we are only just getting started.

With the digital revolution we have increased our desire for information — “information” taken in the loosest sense including entertainment and utility results as well as knowledge. We have adapted to consume larger quantities of information, but (to continue the metaphor just for this point) we are always straining our belts and at risk of feeling stuffed, and therefore our quality of attention may be diminished. At the same time we are also adapting our “metabolism” to burn through information faster: in other words, increased consumption of information means not only increased ingestion, but more efficient digestion, and, yes, faster “dumping” of what we don’t need to store. “In one ear and out the other” is a beneficial cognitive habit for users, and this is an important part of the “supersized information appetite” factor which digital matter must now take account of.

As both an effect of chronic supersized information consumption, and as a defensive reaction to the practically unlimited amounts of information we want (or need) to consume each day, we have less acuity and time length of attention that we are willing or even able to dedicate to any one task*. For sure, diminished attention spans also come from other modern cultural and health factors, but I believe it is fair to say that the effects and needs of information consumption within the digital revolution already produce their own significant attention span diminishment, even without sugary cereals, ritalin, carbon dioxide offices, sedentary lifestyles, legalized marijuana, and so on.

*Task is another general term to declare, meaning a more or less intentional and definable group of actions for a user to achieve using digital means, be it consumption or utility. Tasks can be simple, like reading and replying to an email, or complex, like booking a flight. Two important implications from this word are that everything a person tries to do competes for the same resources (money, time, energy, motivation) even if the tasks are on the face of it quite different, and everything is subject to usability considerations.

On the one hand, the larger-than-pre-digital-era volume of information being consumed by users — and our ability to continue doing so — means that we can marshal more information in short-term working memory for a task that requires decision-making. The working data will expand to fill the capacity available, so to speak. Not only this, but our starting point is likely to be considerably more than zero knowledge: digital users are simply better informed and have wider experience (even if only virtually or vicariously acquired experience) than pre-digital people. This means in the decision-making part of a task, we will always have more data to crunch, and more choices up for consideration.

On the other hand, the lack of physical or resource limits in online information provision and access mean that to acquire our data set we are constantly threatened with being overwhelmed by the quantity of raw information and un-deconstructed choices that appear to match our task.

The early-consumerism problem of the “paradox of choice” in a supermarket where we can choose from 200 different types of jam, seems nothing compared to online, where there is no limit from any physical shelf space, and the choice may be from 2000 types as well as lots of new related avenues (such as learning about what goes into jam, making our own jam, healthy jam, award-winning and luxury jams…and all the wealth of information if we choose to pursue research about each of those things) — all of which would never occur to us to expend our mental resources on when we are standing in physical retail space.

“Overwhelm” means our ability to perform a task is, firstly, gradually degraded because of the volume aspects of constraining and performing the task. This task may have begun as quite a simple task and we didn’t expect it to consume much of our resources at all. But the information volume and mental ramifications consumed too much energy, sapped our motivation, and created feelings of dissatisfaction… overall degrading our performance in the task.

Secondly, beyond a certain point that we may call “stress failure”, overwhelm is not just a matter of reduced performance, but can mean complete failure to perform. Again, this might have begun as a simple task well within our abilities, but the difficulty comes from the quantity and complexity of the information to process, and we end up “crashing” without the expected results.

Readers may not disagree with my speculation that, repeated often over the long term, such stress can diminish the basic fitness of the brain to handle tasks, even from a fresh start, see (2).

The risk of overwhelm is in the mind of users at all times — a universal corollary of the digital revolution — and the risk of contributing to it should be a universal principle for producers of digital matter*. Commercially speaking, more choices, and more difficulty in evaluating choices means the significance of your offer to a user, and their chance of choosing it, are diminished… and overwhelm means they may fail to take action at all on any of the choices.

*I will use digital matter in the sense of “subject matter”, or the object of activity of a user, regardless of the use case: so this could be content for information or entertainment, and any package of that content, parts of software with particular utility, larger constructions like an app or website, an online shop, a product in an online shop etc etc.

Distraction risk comes from the ease of distraction in the digital space: the ease of any agent deliberately distracting a user, the ease of a user accidentally becoming distracted, and even the user’s deliberate intention to distract herself.

It is easy to see how susceptibility and even intent to be distracted are increased from our first three headings: (1) a large volume of information consumed means we are more open to new information; (2) less (and lower quality) attention spared for any one object means we will jump off it more easily; (3) the process of considering more complex data and greater range of options in decision-making means there could always be some rational benefit to jumping off to related information; and (also 3) the “overwhelm” aspect simply means performance degradation that again leads to distractibility…

In this fourth heading I mention “loyalty” because I think the same distraction effect occurs on the macro level: our loyalty to any information source, a product, brand, or even taste or habit… are all much shorter-lived and “promiscuous” because of our bigger throughput of information, our greater capacity (if not desire) for distraction, our increased skill in researching and switching, our appetite for the fresh as we constantly update our quality benchmarks due to the ease of discovering better alternatives. In the digital revolution, distraction is the rational standard, and sticking to/at any one thing is the anomaly.

Everything digital is so insubstantial that, beyond certain technical skills and investment of resources to produce your digital matter, it is quite easy to enter the same spaces as the bigger, more established, and richer organizations. As a “leading” organization, even if the quality of the competing matter is not apparently commercially serious competition, it is in your space… in your user’s face.

The competition is for attention: as users cannot simply isolate information/utility according to the task, basically anything can compete for attention.

On the broadest level, every human only has a certain number of waking hours per day, and everyone in the business of digital matter is competing there. Angry Birds are literally a serious competitor for an ornithology ebook or bird-recognition app. Candy Crush Saga is literally a competitor to sellers of chocolate, dating websites, or over-50s cruises (see what I did there…)

So there is no longer “your user”: you don’t own any long-lived loyalty (4) unless you are constantly renewing it, and (5) this user will be swinging all over the place, so loyalty means swinging back to you often rather than monogamy…

As already discussed, the digital revolution is not about any one device, piece of software or silicon, method or functionality, medium or language, form factor or style, demographic or place of usage, industry or category, price range or licence, data or information, speed or storage density, scale or instantiation. However, of course the practical implementations of tools, information presentations, communication channels, records, movies, games, projects, processes, and whole businesses WILL be constructed in different combinations of these technologies, media, and use cases. BUT because these are not the thing of the digital revolution, but rather it is the advancing human experiences and expectations which are the thing, organizations should not design and develop and implement as if anything but that experience and expectation are the thing to perpetuate. The form of something does not have to be static: this is a statement worth pondering.

*Organizations: It is difficult to create a good term for the counterpart of the “user” in the digital revolution. We could say “creators” but those who create digital matter are not always easy to identify, and not always the most important in its distribution and ongoing life. It is hard to say “businesses” because not all digital matter is produced for commercial purposes, and I wouldn’t say “publishers” or “designers” because not all digital matter is produced in a deliberate way.

In this heading I chose”organizations” because I think we can very generally distinguish between the user, who is individual, and the other side which is in some way responsible for creating and/or delivering the digital matter to the user, which involves more than just one individual. The intentional group and the plurality are important because digital matter always takes many people (and machines) to bring into being, but the experience (usage, consumption) of it is always singular, because that it is the nature of human consciousness.

At the same time we should consider a lot of cause and effect in digital matter is not by humans at all, so another proposed bit of terminology is “agents” (as in, having agency in a transaction), some of whom are human agents, and as just mentioned may be separated according to individual “user” or intentional groups referred to as “organizations”.

The amount of information and utility that has already become digitally accessible means users are exposed to a great breadth and depth of experience very efficiently. It is like a galactic version of “Everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City”. But, to mix references, we are not in Kansas any more.

Users’ value judgements of what is lame, cool, awesome, adorable, roflmao, and so on are the factors in whether that matter is clickworthy, shareable, add-to-wishlist-able, and just plain consumable. These standards are applied more universally in the context of apportioning limited attention (2) and your “interesting” commercial message will be competing for attention (5) with “f***ing incredible” content that is (4) quite possibly just distraction with no relation to the user’s original task.

This does not mean that everyone has gone all “Wayne’s World” (a reference that neatly dates me) in the depth of their value judgements. Actually, digitally active users (in proportion to their immersion in the digital world) are likely to be more knowledgeable in general than pre-digital folk, better research-armed for any specific task, and more discerning in terms of aesthetics and usability. The quality of your digital material is expected to be at least roughly up to the level of the best X they have previously experienced from someone else, considering the apparently low cost of entry (5) to achieve such things digitally… If you fail to provide this, or are providing something in not exactly the right form (6), it’s no problem for the user because (4) they are not going to wait loyally for you to catch up and will simply choose something else from (3) their large list of options.

The usability point is crucial, which is why I put “self-service” in the heading: if your digital matter is too difficult for the user to succeed in, forcing them to stop or at least break out into a (shock horror) non-digital support communication, then regardless of any details it can be said that the digital matter — and hence organization — has failed. Businesses which translate legacy processes from human interaction into digital self-service versions must (a) make these completely self-contained rather than attempting to mix cyberspace with meatspace, and (b) must approach the design in order to exceed by far the original manual/physical/human experience. A degraded “press 1 for new enquiries, press 2 for existing customers” call centre approach towards digital self-service is completely incorrect. The correct approach is to aim — beginning in version one — to make the digital experience equivalent to a complete and personal service from your no.1 highest trained support staff, except without any actual human delays. The same principle will apply very soon when organizations start to put robots into real-world human service roles.

As for digital users’ tastes, these are likely to be ever more subtle, idiosyncratic, and changeable. Attempts by organizations to predict or prescribe tastes are doomed to failure. The “demanding” aspect comes up in things which are subject to taste because variety, freshness, and personalization are going to be sources of value.

The combination of (7) higher quality standards and acquired thin-slicing value judgement skills to process (1) supersized amounts of information results in users being more suspicious of digital matter to begin with, and more critical of it when it does not fulfil its promises.

The two (often combined) monetization models of much of the internet and software of being ad-supported and based on feasting on your personal data, have unsurprisingly been big contributors to users’ rational suspicion of the motives of organizations behind the digital matter they are using or consuming. That is to say, whatever the digital matter, there might be a commercial catch which we either have to work around or filter out.

This does not seem very surprising but it is still something which is ##not faced-up-to when organizations are designing their products and marketing messages. Organizations still begin most things on the basic idea of creating a finished item of estimated adequate quality, broadcasting it, and then hiding from any direct contact with the user. The basic habit of pre digital organizations is to minimize the necessary investment in product, service, or understanding by keeping users at arm’s length and basically looking down on them as fake two-dimensional Sim City versions of what they would like users to be.

As you can observe in the advertising, product packaging, tone of voice, and attitude towards customer service of the vast majority of organizations, their picture of the customer is, firstly, just that — a simplified “picture” of a predominantly commercial unit “customer” rather than user (a word into which I am trying to pack the rich human connotations of these 10 digital revolution behavioural factors). Secondly, their idea of that customer is clearly someone innocently and relentlessly positive about their life and the value of your product in their life. Probably this was never true even in the era of adverts telling you 9 out of 10 doctors recommend cigarette brand X. But even in the postmodern era we still see businesses creating products and marketing them as if customers are all simple, happy-happy joy-joy, predictable units whose lives are neatly enhanced by buying your stuff. Even “edgy” brands work in the same way by simply tweaking their variables of the pictured consumer. This is now unacceptably fake and patronizing in the eyes of cynical users. It is as if the digital revolution has allowed adults to “grow up” one further level. Or a less ambitious explanation would just be that digital users are self educating and bootstrapping their skills in thinking for themselves, in ways that were never possible in the previous era where the classroom and library were still dominant.

The sanitary towel brand which “came clean” in an social media ad campaign to acknowledge to a waggish complaining user that, actually yes, blood from menstruation is not light blue, amused everyone but serves as a good example of how past patronizing attitudes towards consumer audiences cannot stand up in the cynical, snarky, free-speech-enabled digital space. This brand won points for acknowledging that.

Many “best practice” marketing case studies still develop a narrative of a successful campaign leading masses of similar fans breathlessly to declare their love for a brand and leave behind competing brands in a new horde-movement of loyalty. This narrative is completely fake: in the digital revolution, users are just not that simple-minded and it is no longer possible for organizations to act as if they are.

As just mentioned, traditionally, commercial organizations attempted to create a finished product, with a finite campaign broadcasting its benefits, addressed to a simplified characterization of the audience, which, conveniently, the organization would not need to engage with. But in the digital revolution, no organization can control the message about their products or the organization itself. Obviously, just in sheer volume and variety of digital matter, one organization cannot keep up with the total production capacity of millions of individual users. The organization’s intentional communications can’t keep pace. This has certainly been quite a shock to a lot of big brands, lumbering into social media marketing and discovering that there are lots of people who really don’t like them, and they can be disproportionately vocal and create a volume and reach of information about the brand that competes powerfully with the original centrally-controlled message.

It seems an obvious point to say it, but we still don’t really see ab initio grasping of this point: digital matter and indeed the whole organization behind its creation and/or dissemination, must keep in mind as one of its starting principles that the users will freely discuss and globally publish their experiences and opinions about the matter and the organization. These are users with (7) demanding expectations, (5) plenty of alternatives to your offer, and attitude defaults (8) that say “impress me… or else”.

Giant organizations which have large numbers of users, had better be ready with giant internal capacity for listening to those users all of the time, and acting on what they find out. Just sitting one or two interns in front of Hootsuite to fire-fight the token customer support Twitter channel is classic behaviour of organizations that have not yet internalized the new reality.

On the other hand, digital matter produced in the right mentality, and the organizations behind them, will start to improve in a much faster and more evolutionary manner, and leave behind traditional organizations which are not able to listen and learn and iterate, or at least have got stuck in current capabilities, fixated (6) on one limiting set of technologies and media that will sooner or later be abandoned as outmoded.

The pre-digital-revolution orthodoxy for running an organization is to create efficiency, stability, manageability, and scalability via dividing the organization’s functions into ever more carefully defined specialisms, categories, and hierarchies. The “willpower” of an organization, that is to say the ability to have an idea and implement it, becomes occupied in an oscillating battle between centralization and attempts to regain productivity by devolving decision-making. The thinking and production of the organization become abstracted because of the division of knowledge and responsibilities, the distance between idea and implementation even within the organization (let alone the distance from the user), and the laying down of layers of meta-management that deliberately operate abstractly.

Over time the organization itself becomes more distant and abstracted, and defines itself in a limiting way by abstract declarations of what things it does and what things it does not do. Adding new functions/products/services or, on the other side, divesting itself of product lines or business units which no longer “align with the core competencies” are momentous, wrenching activities for traditional organizations. It is not just a problem for big organizations though: just try suggesting anything to small business managers that sounds remotely different from what they believe “we do” and you will be dismissed with nervous laughs. The word “agile” has been co-opted from its original, specific, sense in software development, and made popular in general business speak because it seems to capture the sense not of any particular practice but an ideal… the longing that inflexible and inertial organizations have to be able to keep up with and exploit the possibilities of the digital revolution. I would suggest that any organization constantly throwing around the word “agile” is probably by definition without any hope of benefiting from the digital revolution and should disband immediately…

An open question is whether organizations will always be like this: in order to produce they have to organize, and from organizing they lose touch and become abstracted, and attempt to improve by trying to get bigger, more organized and more abstracted. Must it ever be so? I believe it is a fair assumption that this is a human way of doing things that cannot really be “solved” by new technologies. If anything, the digital revolution will just accelerate our tendencies to behave in this way: work is becoming much more specialized and ultra abstracted. (Just spend a few moments looking at some modern job titles.)

Therefore the interrelation of organizational nature with the digital matter produced and the users of it should be anticipated and worked with. In other words, how can an organization plan, create, test, improve, market, maintain, and advance in the full expectation that the longer they do it, and the better they get at doing it, the worse they will get at doing what they actually are supposed to do, i.e. to serve and satisfy users and gain coin and/or reputation in return. Experiments with forming organizations that are intentionally temporary — to coalesce quickly, produce efficiently, and then disband — will surely abound. Organizations which can arrange themselves ideologically on bases other than soon-to-be-obsolete technologies will be better able to endure. However, success will (I believe) always breed the sense that it is desirable to endure the organization which produced that success, and since apparently the success comes from the technologies and epiphenomena, credited to the brilliance of the centralized decision making, and the expertise of the specialized people and abstracted work processes, “therefore” more of all of that is needed, and so on.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result may be madness, where the result was failure. But perhaps the digital revolution version of this rule is that, if at first successful, doing the same thing again is a formula for failure.

Deep change and de-simplifying the image of the user

I believe that digital matter organizations — that is, creators, publishers, platforms, merchants — should begin their work on the above ten human factors as if they are new laws of nature.

Most content production, marketing, software design, and entire business planning are still being done on pre-digital-revolution principles. Pre-digital-revolution thinking works on tacit assumptions that the user’s experience is going to be simple, linear, focused, attentive, highly motivated, innocently accepting — even positive — about your commercial exploitation, and dominated culturally by traditional broadcast media in which everyone in a particular demographic roughly shares the same experiences, interests, references, ethics, and aspirations.

All of these are false assumptions now in the sense they are not constants in an equation. The traditional models discount humans with the equivalent of “assume a perfect sphere” and “all else being equal”, but it is impossible to get good results like that any more. Traditional expectations of user behaviour may hold true for a long time in certain areas, particularly for the few decades that there are a lot of people still alive who were raised in pre-digital educational and cultural norms, but the important point is that we cannot now avoid bringing out as visible variables things like motivation level, attention span, and degree of cynicism.

Simplifying digital matter to make things easier on the user is an obvious doctrine. Over the past few years, web designers had to adapt to the realization that people might try to consume their big-screen-intended content (or worse, interact with their site’s functionality) via a small mobile touchscreen, or in fact expect to do so as their default method. Web designers quickly realized that it is better to start from the lowest likely screen size, device capability, and accessibility aspects, and cover those first — i.e. simple, mobile-first design, and add more kinky design and functions if the capability is there. When it comes to human variables it is equally sensible, in designing any digital matter, to consider a default low level of motivation, attention span, cynicism, and so on. But designing to work with those assumptions and still succeed requires a lot more imagination and artistry to produce the apparently “simple” result…

It is not just the details of usability and product concepts that must change. Entire new business models must be created or at least existing ones re-engineered to adapt to the digital revolution’s deeper changes in user behaviour, such as the refusal to commit to lengthy content (thank you for reading by the way), the devaluation of pure information, the corresponding heightened importance of entertainment, and the definite non-commerciality of a lot of what users expect to do. It is heretical of me to assert it, but in the digital revolution most of what organizations and users do will not be measurable and definite causality will be absent. Even more heretically, I contend that the lack of measurability doesn’t matter. This point is another argument against attempting to build ever-growing, centralized and abstracted organizations.

Even more difficult than the negative variables like degraded attention span and heightened cynicism are the empowerment variables like how highly a user is informed and how high the user sets the bar of acceptable performance. Users now implicitly hold your digital matter and, behind this, your whole organization accountable to globally benchmarked standards of design and usability. And those benchmarks are entirely subjective and constantly being rewritten by users’ expanding experience of better things.

The most disruptive realization for the widest range of organizations is that competition now means competition for attention, which is to say that you are not just competing with your commercial category competitors, but rather competing with all of the things in the life of the user which they would rather be doing, and are usually just a click or tap away. To use the cliché literally, users could care less about you and your product, but it is usually the case that something about which they care just a little bit more is successfully vying for their attention.

Design everything in the light of these factors

To finish let’s revisit the ten “universal behavioural factors”, reworded in the form of a checklist for a designer or creator or packager:

  1. The user’s appetite for information is big: how can we understand the user’s task and provide access to good depth and breadth of information and/or utility…
  2. …without assuming we have the full and undivided attention of the user for any single long period…
  3. …and with our attempts to provide the right matter and occupy the user’s attention helping against overwhelm rather than contributing to it.
  4. How can we insure against distraction, or adapt to survive it, or even benefit from it…
  5. and how can we increase the value of our matter in anticipation of attention competitors?
  6. How can we make the discovery, delivery, and consumption/use of our matter less vulnerable to change in particular technologies or media?
  7. Do we understand and accept the expectations and quality standards of the user…
  8. …and does our matter stand up to their cynicism…
  9. …particularly when, inevitably, they will evaluate or discuss us and our matter with others…
  10. …and is our organization structured in a way that naturally tends towards improvement of the matter — that is, iterative change — based on improved understanding of the users’ experience?

These questions can be asked of any one product (solution) or a whole business model. Answering positively to all of the above, going WITH the grain of the digital revolution, will probably mean you have to re-engineer your original concept of your product, service, offer, campaign, book, film, app, blog, community… Well, that is what you have to do if you want a chance, as, surely, the users are not re-engineering themselves to suit you any more.

A Digital Marketing Strategy Series article by George Baily

This article is also available in audio.


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