Making Software Pay Attention

When we use a piece of technology – whether a web browser, a portable music player, or a cable box – really anything that deals with content delivery and manipulation – we provide an invaluable amount of raw data about our behaviors, interests and habits. Almost all these devices today simply operate as workers – never doing more than what’s asked of them: play that song, display that article, record that movie. Once the task is completed, these devices (for the most part) completely forget what was asked of them and simply wait for the next task request.

A relatively unimpressive exception to this rule is the common display of “Recent…whatever.” Office applications remember the last few files you loaded for easier retrieval. Many mobile phones have a “Recent Activity” list of some sort (missed calls, outgoing calls, etc.). But beyond these basic conventions, there isn’t much else. And that’s too bad. I think there’s enormous value in paying attention to and remembering information on a couple of levels:

Morphing Interfaces. Imagine an interface that paid close attention to how you worked, the assets you cared about, or even more impressively the patterns and habits of your usage. Over time, the interface would change in some subtle ways to better accomodate the way you work. The Microsoft Office applications have been doing this for awhile. Certain menu items hide away if they’re rarely used. The down side of this approach is that people are accustomed to things staying in the same place. There’s an appeal to the predictability of a rigid, yet carefully thought-out interface. I don’t think I want my car’s controls changing slightly anytime soon. That said, I still think there’s more to explore here.

Learn. Connect. Share. The Internet and the progression towards cheaper and easier connectivity among and between computers and devices opens up all sorts of possibilities. Rather than your audio player being this isolated island of knowledge about your habits, it can go ahead and broadcast out to others (either by Wifi in real-time or when you sync up your player). Imagine Nielsen ratings based upon portable audio player usage. Or the ability to stumble on someone else’s playlist in the same coffee shop because their musical interests somewhat overlap yours. This kind of thinking is already happening. An awesome evolution of RSS is the ability for software to track what we pay attention to and fold that into a larger repository. Hell, it’s impressive enough if my feed reader could do this for me alone (an upcoming version of FeedDemon is slated to have this feature).

It’s exciting stuff, but one step at a time I suppose. Let’s first get software to start paying attention – close attention – to what we consume and how we work. Once software starts paying attention, all sorts of cool things are possbile.

5 Comments Making Software Pay Attention

  1. Jay

    Check out They are trying to build this central repository of user’s online behavior.
    Probably best folks in a position to do this is Google. You know they’ve already been collecting data for years with the Google Toolbar. Now with Search History – they are personalizing results based on your history. So it’s happening.

  2. marc nothrop

    I couldn’t agree with you more, although as you note with MS Office, it’s vital that this ‘interaction morphing’ be careful not to undermine other important aspects of the UI, and it’s conventions — for me, chasing Office menus was always a constant annoyance, and undermined the experience.
    You can think of a number of obvious enhancements that could apply across mail, web and news readers — a good news reader should actively help me manage both the mountain of articles, but it should help me to manage new subscriptions, as I discover new people or projects to track, and help me cull out the ones that I’ve stopped actively following.

  3. Matthew

    Maybe you should work for Apple? The been on that for years.
    My iPod (I named her Nannie, like Nannie the Nano) practically knows what my favorite Elliott Smith song is. I could, with my eyes closed, press the center button 3 times and those soft guitar arpeggios start fading in . . .
    Much better than that piece of crap “Creative” you sold me. I am glad the Polish mob stole it!


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