Friday, March 02, 2007

Customized Content Presentation and fishWrap

One of the little Web 2.0 mini-trends going on is the rise of the customized portal. It's not new, of course; you've long been able to customize your My Yahoo! page for example. But there's been a fair explosion of AJAX-y and Flash-y (i.e. highly interactive) sites such as Netvibes and Pageflakes. (There are many others as well.)

But my interest here isn't in discussing these myriad sites per se. Rather, it's to ponder a bit the question of how content gets presented and how much control we exert (and want to exert) over that presentation. I mention these new portals because they very clearly combine layout with content. They're not just a customized choice of information source. They're also a customized presentation of that information. Contrast this, for example, with the typical RSS reader which deliberately extracts the content from its design context.

All this was brought to mind by a recent discussion with Pascal Chenais over at his fishWrap blog. The name of the blog comes from an early MIT Media Lab project in personalized news delivery. As Pascal describes it:

When fishWrap was created it was meant to help incoming MIT freshmen transition into their new community. MIT has a residence orientation period in which the freshmen acquaint themselves to the campus and pick where they will live. In the early 90s this involved non-stop activities in which the dorms and independent living groups would put their best face forward. MIT kept track of where the freshmen traveled through a system called Clearing House. For the freshmen this is a particularly intense and confusing period. To help them with this process a group of freshmen in my Newspapers of the Future seminar proposed using the Media Lab’s personalized news systems to prepare a personalized editions for each of the incoming freshman. Each edition would reflect the things they had experienced on campus the previous day using data from Clearing House and news from their home town. Moreover, the system could include news about majors they were interested and current events. These personalized hardcopy editions were to be delivered to the freshmen each morning to their temporary residence.

Apropos the subject at hand, fishWrap included some very innovative work around optimizing layouts. Pascal notes that the intended use of fishWrap pretty much demanded a physical implementation. After all, there weren't a whole lot of WiFi hotspots in 1993! In addition, as he notes in this follow-up post, even leaving aside that practical detail, the early Web just wasn't a very design-oriented place. Especially before the advent of Cascading Style Sheets (which made it easier to create a consistent look to pair with HTML content), many designers were less than fond of presenting work through the lens of HTML--preferring technologies such as PDF that gave them, the content creator, control over the ultimate output.

It's unclear to me that, for the most part, we will ever be nearly as focused on layout and presentation for our daily, hourly, and minutely information streams as a print newspaper--much less a stylish magazine such as Wired. However, as the tools improve, it does seem more than conceivable that we'll improve on raw data feeds--if only to better our mental filtering, comprehension, retention, and organization.

Which is what good design is supposed to do anyway.

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