Consumer interaction with content used to be a straightforward process. There was a simple set of delivery vehicles — print, radio, television and film — and an equally defined set of mechanical interfaces, usually consisting of pages, knobs and dials.
Media companies have always needed to determine which format was optimal for specific content, and audiences have always selected the means through which they want to consume it, but the choices were reasonably limited, and favorites quickly emerged.
Advertising was just as established. Through decades of research and insights, effective ad formats were tailored to each medium, giving brands a reliable set of alternatives to draw from; there were only so many ways to modify a print ad or a television spot.
The industry nonetheless sought to improve the consumer-content interaction. Letters to the editor, hand-held remotes and satellite radio are all by-now-familiar advances that have improved audiences’ ability to select, consume and respond to content.
The precipitous growth of digital media has upended traditional models of content delivery and consumer interaction. Media and advertising have changed forever, leaving marketers and researchers alike wondering how to navigate a brave new MAdTech world.
Human-Computer Interaction defines digital consumption
Central to this mission is an understanding of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), a field of study that unites behavioral science and technology. To meet the developing needs of the new media market, marketers and their agencies must become familiar with the field.
Human-Computer Interaction has existed since the infancy of personal computing. As ever-increasing computational power was put in the hands of non-experts, the need to optimize the interface between the user and their objective became clear.
Like traditional approaches to consumer-content interaction, HCI considers the content experience on three planes: delivery, interface and advertising. Together, they address (1) how content is made accessible, (2) how it is experienced and (3) how this interaction is monetized.
1. New vehicles for content delivery improve access
Smartphones put enormous computing power and an internet connection in consumers’ pockets, freeing content consumption from fixed devices. As the means of delivering content change, it is vital to align the use of new vehicles to consumer needs.
HCI can improve content delivery from two perspectives: accessibility and interactivity. There are now myriad means of connecting consumers with content, and not all are equal.
Mobile apps, professional suites in cloud-based platforms and location-based social media are all developments in delivery that make content consumption more immediate and more personalized, encouraging engagement through increased functionality.
Video-on-demand (VoD) is a prime case study for the role of HCI in media development. Companies like YouTube, HBO and iFlix are improving access to content with mobile applications and delivery deals with telecom companies that expand their reach.
The integration of features like direct messaging and comments, as well as links to established social media platforms, make media consumption more interactive. By bringing together distinct media, they also create a holistic media experience that encourages engagement.
These developments rely on research that reveals not just how audiences consume media, but why. Cultural differences, the proliferation of mobile devices and other daily realities shape how media are consumed from market to market, defining ideal delivery vehicles.
2. The right interface boosts engagement and satisfaction
The evolution of media interfaces is similarly driven by HCI research, often with the help of tools like eye tracking and facial coding. HCI insights inform our understanding of cognitive processes, allowing for more intuitive interfaces that ease mental strain and increase user satisfaction.
Recent developments in cloud computing, multimodal inputs and augmented and virtual reality, paired with advances in AI, promise to make interaction between humans and computers even more seamless, but implementing these developments effectively remains a challenge.
By shifting content consumption from a largely passive to an active experience, social media platforms have empowered consumers and blurred the line between consumption and production. Articles, videos and music can all be shared and commented on in real time.
Likewise, platforms like Snapchat have brought an immediacy to visual communication by limiting content length and allowing users to narrowly define content sources. The ability to catch a glimpse of friends’ day-to-day lives has revolutionized what it means to “stay in touch.”
HCI’s evaluation of usability addresses consumer desire for direct yet flexible access to content. We have come a long way from command prompt interfaces, but how users interact with digital technology continues to develop rapidly from year to year. (Just think about voice search assistants and IoT interfaces.)
3. The best ad formats for new media
An intuitive and powerful interface can be rendered ineffective, though, if the content form is ill-suited to consumer needs or if its substance isn’t appealing. Today, content, including advertising, can be rapidly tested and adjusted according to any number of factors, from attention to engagement.
Deploying consistent and impactful messaging across a multitude of devices and platforms is one of the biggest challenges for marketers in the digital era. Brands have access to unprecedented data on consumer behavior, but it takes HCI to contextualize — and act on — this sea of information.
For marketers, developing the optimal means of data collection and making sense of it all relies on a firm understanding of how consumers typically interact with content, the digital platforms they use to consume it and the devices they use to access these platforms.
Rudimentary click-based metrics are being replaced by more sophisticated models. VoD platforms like iFlix are recording time elapsed between interactions, while social media like Facebook identify subjects of interest to users through advanced text and image analysis.
It may seem as though these new data tools diminish the role of agencies and market researchers, but the truth is that their ability to contextualize information is only growing in importance. Knowing how users interact with content and advertising is meaningless if we don’t understand why.
Using HCI for competitive advantage
News, entertainment and social interaction have remained largely unchanged in terms of the actual content provided. Many media companies must now distinguish themselves through their platform and user interface — the means by which they connect users with content.
By uniting a technological perspective with traditional research methodologies, HCI can help media companies, marketers and researchers understand what kinds of information or entertainment consumers want, how to best deliver it and how this process can be effectively monetized.