Journal tags: context

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Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Clean advertising

Imagine if you were told that fossil fuels were the only way of extracting energy. It would be an absurd claim. Not only are other energy sources available—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear—fossil fuels aren’t even the most effecient source of energy. To say that you can’t have energy without burning fossil fuels would be pitifully incorrect.

And yet when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth. Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.

Before the onslaught of third party cookies and scripts, online advertising was contextual. If I searched for property insurance, I was likely to see an advertisement for property insurance. If I was reading an article about pet food, I was likely to be served an advertisement for pet food.

Simply put, contextual advertising ensured that the advertising that accompanied content could be relevant and timely. There was no big mystery about it: advertisers just needed to know what the content was about and they could serve up the appropriate advertisement. Nice and straightforward.

Too straightforward.

What if, instead of matching the advertisement to the content, we could match the advertisement to the person? Regardless of what they were searching for or reading, they’d be served advertisements that were relevant to them not just in that moment, but relevant to their lifestyles, thoughts and beliefs? Of course that would require building up dossiers of information about each person so that their profiles could be targeted and constantly updated. That’s where cross-site tracking comes in, with third-party cookies and scripts.

This is behavioural advertising. It has all but elimated contextual advertising. It has become so pervasive that online advertising and behavioural advertising have become synonymous. Contextual advertising is seen as laughably primitive compared with the clairvoyant powers of behavioural advertising.

But there’s a problem with behavioural advertising. A big problem.

It doesn’t work.

First of all, it relies on mind-reading powers by the advertising brokers—Facebook, Google, and the other middlemen of ad tech. For all the apocryphal folk tales of spooky second-guessing in online advertising, it mostly remains rubbish.

Forget privacy: you’re terrible at targeting anyway:

None of this works. They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.

Have you actually paid attention to what advertisements you’re served? Maciej did:

I saw a lot of ads for GEICO, a brand of car insurance that I already own.

I saw multiple ads for Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain in America. Red Lobster doesn’t have any branches in San Francisco, where I live.

Finally, I saw a ton of ads for Zipcar, which is a car sharing service. These really pissed me off, not because I have a problem with Zipcar, but because they showed me the algorithm wasn’t even trying. It’s one thing to get the targeting wrong, but the ad engine can’t even decide if I have a car or not! You just showed me five ads for car insurance.

And yet in the twisted logic of ad tech, all of this would be seen as evidence that they need to gather even more data with even more invasive tracking and surveillance.

It turns out that bizarre logic is at the very heart of behavioural advertising. I highly recommend reading the in-depth report from The Correspondent called The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising:

It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality.

The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

Suppose someone told you that they keep tigers out of their garden by turning on their kitchen light every evening. You might think their logic is flawed, but they’ve been turning on the kitchen light every evening for years and there hasn’t been a single tiger in the garden the whole time. That’s the logic used by ad tech companies to justify trackers.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. The advertisements are irrelevant most of the time, and on the few occasions where the advertising hits the mark, it just feels creepy.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on good ol’ contextual advertising.

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is very bad for the web. Megabytes of third-party JavaScript are injected at exactly the wrong moment to make for the worst possible performance. And if that doesn’t ruin the user experience enough, there are still invasive overlays and consent forms to click through (which, ironically, gets people mad at the legislation—like GDPR—instead of the underlying reason for these annoying overlays: unnecessary surveillance and tracking by the site you’re visiting).

Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is good for the middlemen doing the tracking. Facebook and Google are two of the biggest players here. But that doesn’t mean that their business models need to be permanently anchored to surveillance. The very monopolies that make them kings of behavioural advertising—the biggest social network and the biggest search engine—would also make them titans of contextual advertising. They could pivot from an invasive behavioural model of advertising to a privacy-respecting contextual advertising model.

The incumbents will almost certainly resist changing something so fundamental. It would be like expecting an energy company to change their focus from fossil fuels to renewables. It won’t happen quickly. But I think that it may eventually happen …if we demand it.

In the meantime, we can all play our part. Just as we can do our bit for the environment at an individual level by sorting our recycling and making green choices in our day to day lives, we can all do our bit for the web too.

The least we can do is block third-party cookies. Some browsers are now doing this by default. That’s good.

Blocking third-party JavaScript is a bit trickier. That requires a browser extension. Most of these extensions to block third-party tracking are called ad blockers. That’s a shame. The issue is not with advertising. The issue is with tracking.

Alas, because this software is labelled under ad blocking, it has led to the ludicrous situation of an ethical argument being made to allow surveillance and tracking! It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue. That argument would make sense if we were talking about contextual advertising. But it makes no sense when it comes to behavioural advertising …unless you genuinely believe that online advertising has to be behavioural, which means that online advertising has to track you to be effective. Such a belief would be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop it being widely held.

To argue that there is a moral argument against blocking trackers is ridiculous. If anything, there’s a moral argument to be made for installing anti-tracking software for yourself, your friends, and your family. Otherwise we are collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work.

It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked. Contextual advertising is also more lightweight than behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising is far less creepy than behavioural advertising. And crucially, contextual advertising works.

That shouldn’t be a controversial claim: the idea that people would be interested in adverts that are related to the content they’re currently looking at. The greatest trick the ad tech industry has pulled is convincing the world that contextual relevance is somehow less effective than some secret algorithm fed with all our data that’s supposed to be able to practically read our minds and know us better than we know ourselves.

Y’know, if this mind-control ray really could give me timely relevant adverts, I might possibly consider paying the price with my privacy. But as it is, YouTube still hasn’t figured out that I’m not interested in Top Gear or football.

The next time someone is talking about the necessity of advertising on the web as a business model, ask for details. Do they mean contextual or behavioural advertising? They’ll probably laugh at you and say that behavioural advertising is the only thing that works. They’ll be wrong.

I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and smart business decisions, we can make a cleaner future.

Clarification

I feel I need to clarify my last post and make a general point about One Web.

When I say…

we need to think about publishing content that people want while adapting the display of that content according to the abilities of the person’s device.

…I do not mean we need to adjust the layout of existing desktop sites for other devices. Quite the opposite. I mean we need to stop building desktop-specific sites.

I think there’s a misconception that responsive web design is a “get out of jail free” card: instead of designing for different devices, all you have to do is reflow your existing pages so that they fit fine on any screen, right?

Wrong.

If you have a desktop-specific site—and, let’s face it, that covers over 90% of the web—the first step is to replace it with a device-agnostic site. Not mobile-specific, not desktop-specific, not tablet-specific, but centred instead around the person visiting the site and the content that they want.

That’s what I meant when I said:

Most of the time, creating a separate mobile website is simply a cop-out.

It’s an acknowledgement that the existing desktop-specific site is too bloated and crufty.

Luke’s idea of Mobile First is a good thought exercise to start designing from the content out, but the name is a little misleading. It could just as easily be Print First or Any-Device-Other-Than-The-Desktop First.

Here’s what I’m getting at: we act as though mobile is a new problem, and that designing for older devices—like desktop and laptop computers—is a solved problem. I’m saying that the way we’ve been designing for the desktop is fundamentally flawed. Yes, mobile is a whole new domain, but what it really does is show just how bad our problem-solving has been up ‘till now.

Further reading: It’s About People, Not Devices by Bryan and Stephanie Rieger.

Context

I swear there’s some kind of quantum entanglement going on between Ethan’s brain and mine. Demonstrating spooky action at a distance, just as I was jotting down my half-assed caveat related to responsive design, he publishes a sharp and erudite explanation of what responsive design is and isn’t attempting to do. He uses fancy learnin’ words and everything:

When I’m speaking or writing about responsive design, I try to underline something with great, big, Sharpie-esque strokes: responsive design is not about “designing for mobile.” But it’s not about “designing for the desktop,” either. Rather, it’s about adopting a more flexible, device-agnostic approach to designing for the web. Fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries are the tools we use to get a bit closer to that somewhat abstract-sounding philosophy. And honestly, a more unified, less fragmented approach resonates with my understanding of the web on a fairly profound level.

Meanwhile Mark has written a beautiful encapsulation of the sea change that responsive design is a part of:

Embrace the fluidity of the web. Design layouts and systems that can cope to whatever environment they may find themselves in. But the only way we can do any of this is to shed ways of thinking that have been shackles around our necks. They’re holding us back.

Start designing from the content out, rather than the canvas in.

Both Ethan and Mark are writing books. I can’t wait to get my hands on them.

In the meantime, I wanted to take an opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings I keep seeing coming up again and again in relation to responsive web design. So put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea while I try to gather my thoughts into some kind of coherence.

Breaking it down

To paraphrase , web design is filled with quite a few known unknowns. Here are three of them:

  1. Viewport: the dimensions of the browser that a person uses to access your content.
  2. Bandwidth: the speed of the network connection that a person uses to access your content.
  3. Context: the environment from which a person accesses your content.

Viewport

With the proliferation of mobile devices, tablets and every other kind of browsing device imaginable, there’s a high number of possible viewport sizes. But here’s the thing: that’s always been the case.

For over a decade, we have pretended that there’s a mythical perfect size that every person will be using. To start, that size was 640x480, then it was 800x600, then 1024x768 …but this magical ideal dimension was always a phantom. People have always been visiting our websites with browsers open to varying dimensions of width and height—the rise of “mobile” has simply thrown that fact into sharp relief.

The increasing proliferation of different-sized devices and browsers means that we can no longer cling to the consensual hallucination of the “ideal” viewport size.

Fortunately this is a solved problem. Liquid layouts were a good first step. Once you add media queries into the mix it’s possible to successfully deal with a wide range of viewport sizes.

Simply put, responsive web design solves the viewport question.

But that’s just one of three issues.

Bandwidth

Using either media queries or JavaScript, we can test for a person’s viewport size and adapt our layouts accordingly; there is no equivalent test for the speed of a person’s network connection.

This sucks.

The Filament Group are experimenting with responsive images and I hope to see a lot more experimentation in this area. But when it comes to serving up different-sized media to different people, we are forced to make an assumption. The assumption is that a small viewport equates to narrow bandwidth.

‘Tain’t necessarily so. If I’m using my iPod Touch I’m surfing with a fairly small screen but I’m not doing it over 3G or Edge—same goes for anyone idly browsing on the iPhone or iPad on their work or home connection.

Likewise, just because I’m using my laptop doesn’t mean I’m connected with a fat pipe. When I took the train from Seattle to Portland there was WiFi available …of a sort. And many’s the hotel connection that pushes the boundaries of advertising itself as “high speed.”

Once again, the “solution” to this problem for the past decade has been to ignore it. Just as with viewport size, we engage in a consensual hallucination of ideal bandwidth. Just as with viewport size, the proliferation of new devices is highlighting a problem that was always there. Unlike viewport size, the bandwidth issue is a much tougher nut to crack.

Responsive web design doesn’t directly solve the bandwidth question. I suspect that the solutions will involve a mixture of server-side and client-side trickery, most likely involving clever for nice-to-have content. I’ll be keeping an eye on the work of Steve Souders.

In the meantime, the best we can do is stop assuming a best-case scenario for bandwidth.

Context

You don’t know what a person is doing when they visit your website. It’s possible to figure out what viewport size they are accessing your content with and it might even be possible to figure out how fast their network connection is but short of clairvoyance, there’s no way of knowing whether someone is in a hurry or looking to spend some time hanging out on your site.

Once again, this has always been the case. Once again, we have up ‘till now ignored the problem by pretending the person visiting our website—the same person with the perfect viewport size and the fast internet connection—doesn’t mind being served up dollops and dollops of so-called “content”, very little of which is directly relevant to them.

The rise of services like Readability and Safari’s Reader mode demonstrate that the overabundance of page cruft is being interpreted as damage and routed around.

The context problem—figuring out what a person is doing at the moment they visit a site—is really, really hard.

Responsive web design does not solve the context problem. It doesn’t even attempt to. The context problem is a very different issue to the viewport problem—which responsive web design does solve. As Mark put it:

It’s making sure your layout doesn’t look crap on diff. sized screens. Nothing more.

He was responding to Brian and Kevin who I think may have misunderstood the problems that responsive web design is trying to solve. Brian wrote:

anyone that claims “responsive design” as a best practice clearly has never actually tried to support multiple contexts or devices.

Those are two different issues: contexts and devices. The device issue breaks down into viewport size and bandwidth. Responsive design is certainly a best practice when tackling the viewport issue. But Brian’s right: responsive design does not solve the problem of different contexts. Nor did it ever claim to.

As I’ve said before:

The choice is not between using media queries and creating a dedicated mobile site; the choice is between using media queries and doing nothing at all.

If responsive design were being sold as a solution to the context problem, I too would be annoyed. But that’s not the case.

The mythical mobile context

As with the viewport issue and the bandwidth issue, the context issue—which has always been there—is now at the fore with the rise of mobile devices. As well as trying to figure out what a person wants when they visit a website, we now have to think about where they are, where they are going and where they have just been.

This is by far the toughest problem.

Bizarrely, this is the very known unknown that I see addressed as though it were solved. “Someone visits your site with a mobile device therefore they are in a rush, walking down the street, hurriedly trying to find your phone number!”

Really?

The data does not support this. All those people with mobile devices sitting on a train or sitting in a cafe or lounging on the sofa at home; they are all in a very different context to the imaginary persona of the mobile user rushing hither and thither.

We have once again created a consensual hallucination. Just as we generated a mythical desktop user with the perfect viewport size, a fast connection and an infinite supply of attention, we have now generated a mythical mobile user who has a single goal and no attention span.

More and more people are using mobile devices as a primary means of accessing the web. The number is already huge and it’s increasing every day. I don’t think they’re all using their devices just to look up the opening times of restaurants. They are looking for the same breadth and richness of experience that they’ve come to expect from the web on other devices.

Hence the frustration with mobile-optimised sites that remove content that’s available on the desktop-optimised version.

Rather than creating one site for an imaginary desktop user and another for an imaginary mobile user, we need to think about publishing content that people want while adapting the display of that content according to the abilities of the person’s device. That’s why I’m in favour of universal design and the One Web approach.

That’s also why responsive web design can be such a powerful tool. But make no mistake: responsive web design is there to help solve the viewport problem, not the context problem.

Update: Of course the usual caveat applies. Also, here’s some clarification about what I’m sugguesting.