What is your Key Differentiating Experience?

How Platforms are Redefining UI, UX, and Content Strategy

With the new normal of today’s e-commerce and endless streaming, we may feel that there is too much choice. Yet, it seems like the right choice often eludes us. Those who research “choice” have found that satisfying a checklist has little to do with what we really want. Instead, what we want is defined by what we experience.

John Keats expressed a similar concept when writing, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” Today’s innovators should remember this mantra: Extraordinary experiences are hard to discount.

Over the past decade, importing behavior-informed design became the defining success for most new technology adoptions. Researchers have documented the dramatic relationship between good user design for content and product success.

Now, as tech companies and content providers compete to occupy the finite attention bandwidth of internet users, creating a winning Key Differentiating Experience (KDE) for users has become crucial for product success.

Media Selection and Personalization

“Media selection” is an under-studied subject in user experience (UX), user interface (UI), and content strategy. The UI/UX field usually aims to elevate accessibility and information in an object-oriented user environment (e.g. How do we guide users towards our product and to stick with it?).

However, media selection addresses an important phenomenon: How users’ life worlds and personal beliefs — explicit and implicit — shape what media they consume. Media selection brings attention to the larger issue of why some media are selected by us over others, not just how.

Media selection is a complex issue for many reasons. Largely because it demands exacting qualitative research that may leave us with few answers if not well designed and, if any, bad ones at that. More importantly, media selection acknowledges that users often choose certain media for reasons that are not entirely “logical” or “rational.” A 2006 study about media selection detailed this with an unexpected finding: that users’ accounts of media they choose differed greatly from their actual media selection.

In other words: What we say we watch and why we watch it is different than what we actually watch. And what we actually watch enables us to experience the sense of who we want to be.

Researchers at major tech companies misinterpret these rich qualitative findings to justify the reliability (and affordability) of behavioral testing methods. But, behavior rarely explains or articulates beliefs that drive us. Instead, behavioral studies tend to explain one’s circumstances, affordances, priorities, and strategies. This has little to do with motivation and the private ideas governing short- and long-term choice motivation.

What that means is we all have a story about our media appetite — why we watch this and don’t watch that, what our spread is, what our indulgences are, etc. But, that story doesn’t always represent our true media selection history.

This isn’t simply about denying our guilty pleasures. Media selection tells us that many of our media choices are motivated by unarticulated, unconscious interests — the parts of our agency that are emergent or latent.

Media selection shows us that choice isn’t an entirely rational exercise and may run much deeper, especially when immersive stories and expansive experiences are concerned.

Such studies about this behavior and belief gap point us towards a surprising fact: That lending our attention involves a choice system that is more deliberate, sophisticated, and complex than has been historically recognized by cognitive psychologists, technologists, and (recently) UI/UX researchers.

Personalization and the Key Differentiating Experience

So, what does media selection tell us about UI, UX, and content strategy? I like to consider how it addresses the tension between the paths we like to design for users versus the paths users wish to design for themselves. This reflects the perennial dissent between systematization and individuation — what the system wants for you versus what you want from the system.

Having conducted user research at Valve Corporation, the London School of Economics, and the University of Oxford, I have noticed that technology designers have started undercutting the importance of how users make a product their own. By creating product design experiences that over-prioritize the bottom line, the UI/UX field is losing sight over what it means to strategically cultivate long-term relationships with users. When I co-designed a meditation game several years ago, implementing this kind of long-term relationship development was central to the success of why users found our product meaningful.

In this sense, the “personability” of a tech product — the capacity of a technology experience to adjust to the unspoken and unnoticed inclinations of users — is essential to why personalization was so important for normalizing a mobile-first internet age.

Now, in the age of surveillance capitalism, lending space to user personalization can mean losing out on comparative user behaviors that give big data their big value. This fact in many ways represents a huge turn for the UI/UX field; as a way to engage and expand big data practices. In other words, UI/UX is now as much about accommodating the tech platform as the tech user.

The rise of platforms is why a Key Differentiating Experience (KDE) is quickly becoming the market value definition of good UI/UX nowadays. Can you enable the platform and user simultaneously and proportionally? Is such a feat truly possible in a time with growing concerns about user privacy, digital freedom, and content ubiquity?

Key Differentiating Experiences in the Streaming Wars

The Streaming Wars features great examples of how content is granted momentum by strategic, Key Differentiating Experiences (KDEs). Platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock, and YouTube Premium have all designed unique retail formats that provide users distinct choice experiences for content.

So, how do the media selection titans — the Streaming Warriors — fare in this broader landscape of complex user choices and intuitive interests? Next week, I will post an analysis of how Key Differentiating Experiences (KDEs) are shaping the landscape of the Streaming Wars.

With millions of Americans moving away from cable and COVID-19 accelerating the adoption of new streaming platforms, accounting for how users are defining the war for attention is critical for understanding the power of users and platforms and their relationship at this moment. Moreover, identifying trends and shifts with how streamers strategically incentivize attention and how users strategically enable certain content over others will help map the changing terms and conditions between technology and people.

Aarshin Karande is an Audience & Narrative Advocate who writes about beliefs, technology, policy, and global affairs. He previously worked at Ernst & Young and Valve Corporation and studied at the London School of Economics, Oxford, and the University of Washington Bothell.

Audience & Narrative Advocate — Writes about tech policy, beliefs, and global affairs. Studied at LSE, Oxford, and UW Bothell. Indian Classical musician.

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