Have you noticed a subtle change in how you browse some content online?
For many sites, you no longer have pages of content that you need to navigate with "next" and "previous" buttons. Instead as you browse the content and start to reach the end, new content is simply loaded in underneath. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are big users of this technique, as is Google if you're searching for images.
Infinite scrolling as it's technically known is also being used by some commercial sites. Amazon for example is trialling a version of it with it's Windowshop offering which is still in beta. Although it works on standard PC browsers, it comes into its own on a touch based tablet such as the iPad where the Windowshop app allows you to simply explore the store by navigating what appears to be a borderless page jammed full of visual eye candy.
And it's this eye candy that really works well, enabling us to scan through hundreds of images until something catches the eye. There is no purpose to it - sure you can search, but that kinda misses the point. This is all about the browse experience. You're supposed to just sit back and window shop, literally.
Amazon describe this as "[a] new experience [..] designed to make exploring everything from books and toys, to video games and gym equipment easy, fun, fast and convenient for iPad owners"
It would be wrong though to see this as simply another way to view content; instead, this immersive discovery moves the user experience from a functional activity to a leisure activity.
Whereas you would normally go to Amazon to make a purchase and would use it's search functions to find the item you were looking for, the Windowshop is instead something you do with almost no purpose - like watching TV, browsing a magazine or watching the sun set - it's about filling time with something enjoyable.
This is a really interesting difference and something I think could be leveraged by anyone with a large amount of content, whether retailers, publishers or even loyalty programmes with rewards. Moving the users mindset from "doing" to "enjoying" has the opportunity to create greater engagement and give you a slice of if that finite resource - attention.
One of the leaders in this area has to be Pinterest. It has turned immersive discovery through its infinite scrolling from a convenience feature into a real engagement mechanic.
At over 97 minutes on average per month spent on the site by each visitor, Pinterest is a highly sticky user experience - and all it does is let you browse images. This compares to just 21 minutes for users on twitter and 3 minutes for those on google. Only the behemouth that is Facebook exceeds this time - by a mile -at 405 minutes per month per visitor. When viewed per visit though, Pinterest does even better, clocking up 15.8 minutes per visitor on average compared with just 12.3 minutes for Facebook.
So what's different?
Well Pinterest have taken infinite scrolling to the next level by using different image heights and laying these out with what is known as the masonry layout. This essentially allows them to show images in a more natural, engaging layout that doesn't feel like a fixed grid. The real benefit though of the masonry layout is the fact that there is no clean cut line - no easy place for the user to abandon from. By showing the following images just peaking out from below the fold, the user is more likely to be intrigued by something they can't quite see and will scroll down a little more - and so the process repeats.
Another thing that works for Pinterest is the fact that there is essentially no ordering from good to bad. In a traditional search result, the returned set is ordered by something such as ratings, value, recency, etc. This means that after a few pages, if you see results that you're not sure about you'll feel like you've hit the bottom, even if there is more content to go. With Pinterest however, the pictures are all mixed, some good, some bad, some intriguing, some boring.
You don't know what you'll find on the next page, but you get a peak of it thanks to the masonary layout.
This is the difference between searching and browsing; between doing and enjoying.
With search, you want to bring back the minimum amount of results matching the search criteria - it's about pinpointing exactly what the user is looking for. With browsing however, the user experience is very different. The user is simply looking for something that catches their attention and so if you put all the good stuff at the top, they are unlikely to keep browsing. However, if you seed the good stuff, the most popular items throughout the browsing set then the user will continue to be surprised. They won't know what's coming next but they'll want to find out more, to browse more - to engage more.
Sure, let the customer find exactly what they want when they want it - but also just let them explore and have fun. Its the immersive discovery experience you're looking for and it fills a different need for consumers.
I think Pinterest has set the bar high on immersive discovery using its clean design, masonry layout and infinite scrolling - but it has also shown a new way engaging people and engaging with content. Changing the user experience from one of "doing" to one of "enjoying" and gaining a greater share of attention makes this something really worth exploring more.