The Next Web 2014 Review

Emil Fraai (left) and I listening intently to Evan Sharp of Pinterest at The Next Web

Emil Fraai (left) and I listening intently to Evan Sharp of Pinterest at The Next Web

Looking back on The Next Web

The Next Web Conference Europe 2014 took place on April 24th–25th in Amsterdam’s Westergasfabriek. Among the 2565 attendees were five of us from User Intelligence. We were there to meet cutting-edge tech startups, and learn from global technology thinkers and leaders across two days of talks and presentations. 

The philosophy and focus at User Intelligence (where I work full-time) is on building lasting customer relationships through engaging experiences. Reflecting on the talks afterwards, we could see that this thinking aligns perfectly with the explicit and implicit message from many of the speakers — namely that the businesses must now focus their online strategies on building a ‘data-driven experience-lead digital relationship’. So we thought it would be helpful to dive a little deeper and look at each aspect of this term.


Using big data to build experiences and relationships

The central theme this year—‘Power to the People’—was addressed directly in several talks centering on the issues of privacy and surveillance in the age of big data and wearables. 

Big data has amazing possibilities, and can be used to make our offline interactions easier and our online experiences more engaging. However, giving our personal data to large corporations, especially those whose business is based on monetizing our data for targeted advertising, opens the door to some negative consequences. Aral Balkan passionately explained that effectively, the companies have come to believe that they are the true owners of our data, and so we become the quarries from which they mine their value. 

This also raises significant questions when designing for both the unsecure public and secure ‘My’ areas of content-management and ecommerce sites. We must be careful to manage and secure users data so that only what is needed is being collected, along with making it clear what each segment of data will be used for. Here at User Intelligence, we conduct acceptance and appreciation customer tests ahead of any such implementations. This is a key way to ensure that you are acting responsibly and keeping the focus on serving the customers needs and wishes alongside those of the business.

Big data is also about inclusiveness and providing ‘all’ content instead of a curated segment of the possible information. David Weinberger pointed out that unlike the space-constraints of print, the web enables us to provide ever-increasing content that’s filtered and controlled by the user rather than anticipated by the provider. This was succinctly put by Evan Sharp, that “the user experience becomes about the feedback loop between the collected data and the interface”. 

Lastly, having access to millions of users and massive databases can foster thinking about ways to recycle the collected data and knowledge to make a positive impact outside the primary customer relationship. For example, Luis von Ahn showed how his ReCaptcha and Duolingo services take existing user inputs to simultaneously digitize old books and translate news services respectively. If users are completing a task on your site regardless, then it’s worth considering how else that task can be conceived to help another part of your business, or indeed, be put to philanthropic use.

Seamless experience with internet everywhere

We are entering the age of the industrial internet, where every thing will connect and flow through the cloud and each other. However, this new reality requires us to rethink our current audience distinctions. Jonathan Wisler noted that we must think about creating meaningful human-to-human experiences rather than just B2B or B2C. 

One way to do this is through minimising or eliminating the universally-disliked purchasing experience. John Lunn (PayPal) told us how face-tracking cameras could link our browsing preferences or saved shopping carts to real-world in-store retail experience, with correct products ready as we walk in, and automatic payment using our faces as our IDs and wallets!

A key aspect of internet everywhere is the rise of wearables and mass-connected surveillance. While there is broad concern that wearables will lead to a decrease in personal privacy and a loss of ‘presence’ in physical interactions, Jennifer Healey (Intel Labs) made the case that wearables will in fact enable us to become superhuman with enhanced knowledge, sight and hearing, along with other physical enhancements. Wearables will also become “a defence against mass surveillance”, as they will enable us to capture equal amounts of data as those who are recording us. 

Either way, having access and connection to the internet everywhere opens the door to exciting possibilities for increasing contextual customer interaction and experiences, and it’s an aspect that should be considered by all businesses. 


Content-lead experience design

With this in mind, we were very interested in the focus on experience-lead design over feature-lead design. Consumer products are now all about sociology and psychology more than they are about technology and design. Companies must focus on engaging the customer on- and off-line with a clear and useful experience, in order to build an authentic, long-lasting relationship. 

Several speakers noted how vital it is to be constantly conducting research-based experiments and iterations to ensure that the experience is as engaging as possible. Introducing (positive) variance and surprise to the interface, content and user journey will also increase focus and interaction. Nir Eyal showed us that this effect is based on our psychology, specifically that we find the unknown fascinating. 

This is shown most sharply on timelines and immersive browsing (e.g. Facebook/Twitter feeds, Pinterest’s wall) are great examples of creating variable information that rewards the users natural desire to hunt. This was confirmed by Evan Sharp, who told us that “Pinterest is all about discovery”. He expanded that this process of discovery is in fact a process of designing and curating ourselves and our tastes, which tells us a lot about how users think about and interact with data-driven sites.


Digital relationships are all that matter

Much of our work revolves around creating the right platform for companies to interact with their customers, and for users to interact with each other elsewhere. We give a lot of thought to building digital customer relationships, and as it has always been, getting it right will enable long-lasting happy ones! James McQuivey (Forrester Research) pointed out that in the end, “whoever holds the lasting customer relationship will win”, and that this can be achieved by constantly disrupting your own business models and processes to find the best solutions.

Another way to enhance the investment in the relationship is to increase the opportunities for users to invest in the site. Luis von Ahn and Nir Eyal showed how this can be done by providing rewards, ranging from notifications, increased community rankings, scoring systems, games and so on. Designing habit-forming processes are essentially manipulation of our natural psychological desires, and they can be highly effective. 

Brendan Gahan also explained that content that leads to stronger emotions and reactions (positive or negative) is significantly more likely to be engaged with and shared later on. In a frenetic online environment, it is important to create paths of engagement for the core audience, and to talk directly to them, which will in turn build a crowd and a critical mass of momentum. 


Final note

As you can see, we had a thought-provoking and inspiring conference. It was useful to see that many of the worlds leading tech companies and designers are grappling with the same issues as we are. While our processes and thinking align favourably with others, it was helpful to see so many different speakers and companies together and in quick succession to form an overall view of current and coming possibilities.

This piece also does not touch on the many startup companies at TNW, and the talks related to them, which were integral to the conference and highly interesting and informative in their own right. I was very pleased to be part of The Next Web in Amsterdam, and am already looking forward to next years event!


This piece was originally written for, and published on, the User Intelligence blog.