Monday, November 11, 2013

Playing with the future - Part 3 - Context Engines

As a starting point of our 3rd post in this series of "non-binding futuristic plays", I'll start by telling you a secret that everyone except Marketing seems to have realized. Actionable analytics already exist, and they've been around for quite a while.

Yes, it's true. I keep hearing some babble babble from Marketing people on how they need actionable analytics, and we (IT guys with a clue) keep on asking them "how do you want to use them?".

You see, we have the data. We have had the data for many years now. The challenge is not there. The real question you (Marketing guys with a clue) should be asking is "how do I use the data we have without having to call you every time I need to change something?" So, basically, what you need is not actionable analytics. What you need is a way for you to act on the data, and a way to know which data you have, that doesn't involve calling me or some other IT fellow unfortunate enough to be on your quick-dial list.

OK, guess that's enough to set the stage for what I want to talk about today: Context Engines. Back in August we released (rather silently, I admit, and for good reason) version 1.0 of the SDL Context Engine, and we're now finalizing version 1.1 (to be part of SDL Tridion 2013 SP1 and available for 2011 SP1 as an add-on, if that's what you were going to ask) and I am really impressed with what we were able to cook so quickly.

What does a context engine do?

I believe that modern sites should be able to answer, within milliseconds, a very simple question: why did I come here? Understanding the reasons that drive someone to open up a given URL gives us the insight required to serve that visitor's request quickly and without wasting their time (i.e., providing a good web experience). And there's no other way to understand why you're here than by understanding the context that made you come here.

So, what is context?

That's a very open ended question, so I'll answer it in 2 ways:

  1. Context is everything
  2. Context is a collection of data points that can be used programatically to determine why you visited a web page, and let you act upon this based on configurable rules.
 A Context Engine does the following two things:
  1. Determines the properties of the current context
  2. Evaluates the context and executes a certain contextual path or rule

In the current context we determine that you are using an iPad 2, it's 10 in the morning, it's the second time you came to our site today, and the last product you looked at was coffee.
Based on this information we can:
  • Make sure you see the tablet optimized UI for our site (server-side, with optimized images, not only RWD)
  • Give you a coupon for the nearest starbucks
The beauty of this is not that it can be done. I (and most other Web people out there) could have written code for this back in 1999 (well, not really the tablet-optimized UI part). The beauty of it is that this rule was created by a content editor, using perhaps something as simple to use as SDL Customer Analytics (or who knows, Tridion Target Groups) and the Context Engine simply chose the most appropriate path based on your rules.

Now if you extend the data awareness of a context engine to include data from your purchasing history (or interaction-with-my-brand) you suddenly open the door to way more ways to provide a contextual experience to any visitor, and you start being really good at understanding why I came to your site, and, who knows, maybe you'll even be able to sell me that great vacation I clearly need.

This is - again - not new. SDL Fredhopper, for instance, is an amazing Context Engine. What I think will be new by 2020 is that most sites will be using a Context Engine or similar technology to determine the context and decide what your experience should be. I also expect to start seeing cloud-based Context Engines (someone called them Context Brokers in the past) with all the serious privacy implications this includes...

One last note. As part of the development of the mobile aspect of Context, I've come to realize that most people ignore the fact that the device you are using is only a part of the context, not all of it. The WCM industry seems to be focused so much on how to show nice buttons on an iPhone that we seem to forget the bigger picture: why are you using an iPhone to come to this site? Are you on the move? Are you having a smoke outside? Are you right outside my shop? Are you in my competitor's shop doing price comparison?

If experience was determined by UI alone, then nobody would ever use craigslist. No, well-designed Context Engines put editors in control of selecting the right content for the right context.

No comments: