The evolving user paradigm

remember the old AOLBack in the day when I was learning all about the Web and doing research, I always asked the question, “How long have you been using the Web?” The answer was important, because invariably, those with more experience used the Web differently. Back then, we all knew that AOL’s days were numbered, because despite their rapidly growing numbers, AOL was training wheels for the real deal.

AOL needed the Web and its users to stand still, but that is never the way of the Web.

Every Web application has its early adapters and every user has his or her early experiences. The evolution of the Web user, however, remains the single most under considered element in most developments today, which is why it’s always at the front of my mind.

In my work, I realize that media companies would prefer that everything just stand still, so that we could understand (and learn to manipulate) the equilibrium. The essential problem with much of media Web development is that it assumes that what we have today is what we’ll have tomorrow, and that overlooks the evolving user paradigm. Innovation looks past the here and now and makes decisions based on, as Wayne Gretzky used to say, “where the puck is going to be” instead of where it is now. The process-oriented brain, however, needs a starting point, and that is its main problem. Where do we usually start? With what we know, and that involves studying, for example, user behavior.

But if we don’t separate early use behavior from later use behavior, what do we know? This is why the question of how long users have been using is so important in thinking about what will work downstream.

The Web is a moving target and a community that is evolving, as it becomes more and more comfortable with what it can and cannot do. As young people learn code basics and how to use Web applications to the max, they begin their journey far ahead of the mid-career professional, who has decided that the press of life renders study and learning less important that perhaps it should be.

When moms and dads and their families and friends are all making media in ways similar to the geeks of today, what will we have then? Unlike the TV meteorologist who keeps teaching the same things every year with the assumption that nobody’s learning (why else repeat the same stuff over and over and over again?), the whole point of learning the ways of the Web is to better enable participation, and that has powerful ramifications for the future.

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