2009-07-29

Learning from user behaviors.

Years ago I visited a university campus and was struck by how conveniently the paved footpaths were arranged. The paths seemed to follow a very natural route between buildings -- the sort of route one would take if there had been no paved paths to enforce some landscaping architect's idea of how to get from one building to another.

Also, the paths even had features that seemed directly aimed at encouraging the use of roller-blades and skateboards; which is rather unusual given the institutional hostility usually displayed towards any and all boisterous behavior in public spaces.

I was told that not only was this the result of a deliberate effort, but that the process at which the architects arrived at the precise arrangement was rather unusual. After the buildings had been erected the construction of the footpaths were put off; only to be finalized and eventually paved once paths had formed on the lawns between buildings.

In other words: the landscape architects had made a conscious decision to observe how people wanted to move between buildings and then turned those paths into paved paths.

Figuring out what users want is hard. Mostly because users have no idea what they want. We are terribly bad at articulating what we want and often when we try, we get it wrong. An oft cited example of this is if you ask people what sort of coffee they prefer. Most of us will use words like "strong" and "dark" -- yet tests show that most of us prefer nothing of the sort. We prefer weak and mild coffee. It takes a lot of experience and discipline to correctly identify and articulate what you want.

There are numerous research companies that attempt to figure out what the consumer wants. At first glance their methodologies often look sound, yet time and time again we are reminded that much work done in this area is relatively fruitless. I won't pretend to understand much of what they are doing, but after reading some literature on the topic, listening to talks given by numerous innovators, and attempting to observe my own behavior when choosing products, I have this gut feeling that much of what they do is merely identifying "local maxima".

In the algorithm world what these companies often do reminds me of Hill climbing:
Hill climbing can be used to solve problems that have many solutions, some of which are better than others. It starts with a random (potentially poor) solution, and iteratively makes small changes to the solution, each time improving it a little. When the algorithm cannot see any improvement anymore, it terminates. Ideally, at that point the current solution is close to optimal, but it is not guaranteed that hill climbing will ever come close to the optimal solution.
If you squint, a lot of activities that go into refining products and services seem to behave like hill climbing. The problem with this approach is that it often misses maxima that are distant or that the effort is not conducted in parameter-spaces that matter the most.

It is striking how the content industry seems so spectacularly incapable of observing the paths that have formed where their product is consumed -- largely outside their control. Not only does the media industry fail to make note of why these paths form, or how, but they expend considerable effort in the provably futile effort of herding their consumers back into the pen.

It is tempting to conclude that the content industry is more obsessed with having consumers access their product on their terms than they are obsessed with actually earning money.

One prime example of this is the sheer dumbness of regional licensing.

There exists various rationale for regional licensing. For instance it may be impractical to release the product at the same time in all markets due to adaptations that need to be made for each market; the germans usually dub all their movies, norwegian releases are subtitled, and in the US you have to make sure that under no circumstance are minors exposed to even partial nudity or even mildly colorful language.

Additionally a lot of attention is paid to preserving outdated licensing arrangements that prevent the same content from being distributed in other ways than the rights holder is capable of. This is the case for Formula One, meaning that most Formula One fans in Norway either have to shell out serious money for marginally interesting, yet expensive cable plans just to watch F1 or download the content from unauthorized distributors on the Internet. Legal access to reasonably priced F1 coverage on the Internet does not exist in Norway because the rights holders either were too cheap to buy the additional rights or they were incapable of offering the service.

The prime motivator behind illegal distribution of content on the Internet is convencience. Those who control the rights to content are not doing a very good job of reaching their markets. Occasionally you will see them try; with much fanfare and self-congratulatory announcements, but for the most part these attempts end up being feeble efforts that fail to deliver the convenience consumers wish.

Meanwhile the consumers are creating their own paths.

Years ago, getting your hands on a movie or a TV show on the Internet required some work and you needed to have friends in dark places. Today it is fairly easy for unsophisticated consumers to do the same. Not only that, but the effort needed is radically diminishing.

In a couple of weekends most people moderately adept at searching the web would probably succeed in setting up an automated system that acquires the content they want automatically and makes it available in their media library -- ready for playback on their device of choice at any time.

The reason people do this is not because they are evil or because they are solely motivated by getting stuff for free, but because it is a much better user experience. It is more conventient.

iTunes offers much of this already. The problem is that since I live in Norway the rights holders are more keen on slamming on the brakes, insisting on pointless, unintelligent litigation and show very little interest in removing the obstacles for doing business with me. If I could get TV shows and movies through iTunes I would.

I think the content industry needs to work a lot harder to adapt to the changing times. The archaic models they cling to do not work and it is infuriating that they insist on behaving in this destructive, and not least self-destructive manner.

The content industry needs to stop focusing on litigation and start paying attention to the paths that have been built by the consumers. They need to make an effort to understand why these paths form and be more ready to accept the fact that their notions of how business is done may be severely outdated. They have to stop thinking that it is about getting things for free. It isn't. The focus on getting stuff for free is only a by-product of the content owners refusal to provide convenience and reasonable terms. However, by encouraging and incentivizing the consumer to find their own paths while being largely unable to offer consumers reasonable service, they have indeed created a whole generation of people who are used to getting stuff for free.

Content owners need to learn from the very consumers they hate. The ones who have created the paths that actually work and provide the level of convenience we all want.

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