July’s Semantic Web Gang Podcast and Getting The Right Interface to Build The Right Interfaces

July 25th, 2008 by Greg Boutin

As we do each month, the Semantic Web Gang gathered virtually in July to discuss a topic of interest to us in the semantic web space. This month was about the key topic of interfaces, and it can be found here.

I’ll summarize my thoughts briefly. Interfaces are front-and-center to driving the semantic web adoption. Just like VCR didn’t really make it into the mainstream until even my grandparents could figure out how to record a show, there won’t be a mainstream commercial success in the space before a basic web user can leverage most of the power of the semantic technologies in 3 clicks.

For the mainstream, the interface needs to make complete sense. Not to be confused with being simplistic. People are not stupid. They use things when those things make sense to them. Computer keyboards are not that simple but, for the most part, they do make sense, delivering a benefit — inputting words and instructions into the system — at the lowest possible cost to the user, in terms of both time and energy. That’s why people learn how to use keyboards. The same thing goes for the semantic web.

If you think developers, the same principle applies. Except that what they want out of the application is different. They expect much more versatility, and the ability to build their own application. Here the interface needs to favor modularity, adaptability, and choice.

In the end, the fact that an application like Twine got so much bad press about its interface should ring a bell with all entrepreneurs in our space. Invest in interface design. And not just that. Have the interface design process driven by your marketing strategy, so it strictly delivers on those core benefits. Most UX designers I came across are tactical creatures, who will often spend more time making sure the pages flow smoothly and have the right font (a must-do, but to be prioritized) rather than take a step back and ask themselves whether the interface best supports those benefits users will seek. You need a designer that can accept feedback from your key market strategy person, so those key strategic considerations do not get lost in the rush to get something out by the deadline.

Ditching strategic considerations is a favorite of product developers and interface designers who fear for their performance review when facing an imminent product release. It’s a mistake with far-reaching, irreversible consequences and, although empowering frontline managers is all the rage, it’s one of those cases where empowering should not be confused with granting total managerial license to people who have neither the time nor the skills to lead your market strategy.

Instead, empower professionals with your market strategy and give them the managerial license to ensure that benefits are delivered on. And make it clear nothing gets out until those benefits are delivered on, as signed off by your trusted market strategist. As highlighted in the Strategy Paradox by Raynor, the strategic direction of the company needs to drive all the operational decisions: “a corporate office that is able to direct and guide the actions of operating divisions” is a key requirement for success. This is as true in start-ups as it is in larger corporations, as it is the main mechanism to cut through the noise of all those divergent interests that motivate the execution managers, and achieve razor-sharp strategic focus.

In sum, to successfully deliver, semantic technologies urgently need 3 types of unique profiles:

  • entrepreneurs who get the importance of the interface, allocating investments so that the interface development capabilities grow at the same pace as the underlying technology development skills
  • Market strategists and strategic marketers who can frame the development efforts around clearly-articulated benefits,
  • and interface designers who can effectively interface, especially when it comes to integrating inputs on market strategy from senior management and strategic marketing

This is an important topic given the current stage of development in the semantic web industry. I look forward to reading lots of comments on our podcast and on my thoughts above.