Lars Damgaard
strategic user experience designer
July 26th 2015

Who controls the user experience in the age of distributed content?

For a long time editors and designers have produced their magazines, daily newspapers and websites based on editorial and aesthetic considerations and done so with a large degree of control over the user experience.

Facebook instant articles

Until recently “the website” has been the primary digital channel for distribution of editorial content.

For a publisher, a traditional website is a very comfortable thing to deal with: you own the code, the taxonomy, the layout of templates, the branding, the interaction design, the information architecture and so on.

In other words, publishers have more or less complete control of how users will experience their content. However, the days where the publisher’s website was the inevitable destination for users to arrive at, are numbered due to the rise of distributed content.

Whether producing content separately for other platforms such as Snapchat or making content available via Facebook’s instant articles, Apple’s upcoming news app or even the official Starbucks app it means serving content completely detached from the traditional website, which essentially means giving up a lot of control over the user experience and the business model.

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Both Facebook and Apple strive to give publishers (and their designers) a certain degree of control over layout and typography which means that publishers can still provide a branded experience for their users, but when it comes to user experience design, our traditional conceptions are seriously challenged, explained perfectly in this quote by Ezra Klein:

The same goes for site design. Why roll out a powerful new annotations system on your site if the resulting work won’t survive on other platforms? Why create an interactive video if you can’t upload it to YouTube and Facebook? What’s the point of a new method of grouping related content if no one on Snapchat will ever see it?

There is no doubt that publishers need to embrace or at least experiment with distributed content in various forms in order to engage new audiences. But at the same time, they have to accept that the user experience design is more or less out of their hands and that it might be directly incompatible with existing business models such as hard or soft paywalls.

Furthermore, distributed content in the hands of major players such as Apple and Facebook will certainly raise the bar in terms of the audience’s user experience expectations, which means that publishers will have to invest even more time and money in developing digital user experiences of their own that can match tomorrow’s standards, but at the same time probably also accept that a increasing number of users will access content outside the comfortable realms of the traditional website.

If publishers leave the good user experiences design to third parties, the slow, traditional, bannerfilled website will soon be an anachronism with little attraction to users.

Of course this is even more of a challenge if content is available for free on the distributed platforms, but put behind a paywall on the publisher’s website.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think on twitter.

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