Keep Widgets Real!

I had an interesting day last week. I participated on a panel with some agency peers at Widgetcon in New York City. I’d been looking forward to this event for the past few weeks because widgets are a platform I believe in, as I’ve discussed quite extensively. While the conference was well organized and attendance was strong, it was dominated by advertising and sponsorship conversation instead of the demonstrations of innovative technology and new platforms I’d hoped for.

I still believe in widgets, but based on conversations I participated in, I fear all this media and advertiser talk could create a new “now!” media vertical that could sully the waters of this great Web tool.

Here are some observations I made during my time at Widgetcon.

What’s a Widget?

Widgets have a single, simple purpose: to connect you to a primary source of information. A weather widget looks up your local weather from a source like weather.com so you don’t have to. An interactive widget may let you participate with a site while you’re on another.

However, the industry likes to call different things widgets, so let’s start with a lexicon clarification (thanks to my new friend Joanna Pena-Bickley from TLP for helping me reconstruct my memory of Rodney Dangerfield being told what a widget is):

Thorton (Rodney): What’s a widget?

Professor: It’s a fictional product. It doesn’t matter.

Thorton: Doesn’t matter? Tell that to the bank.

There are different kinds of widgets. You could have a Web widget on your blog that manages a user poll, a list of del.ico.us links, or even Flickr photos. You could have a desktop widget that captures the latest MLB headlines, provides calculator functionality, or even offers quick driving directions. Mobile widgets can run on your phone or a wireless communication device like Nokia’s Widsets project, to provide mobile access to Web services. It could also be simple code embedded in a consumer appliance that provides local weather while you’re making coffee.

The industry needs a little bit of clarification, so I’m pleading with this new vertical medium to better qualify its offerings before speaking with marketers. Otherwise, you may only be adding to the collective confusion.

What’s an Ideal Usability Experience?

Widgets’ essence, regardless of format, context, or intent, is usability. That’s their primary reason for existence. Widgets that are too complicated violate their own intent. Widgets must be simple or they won’t serve their prime directive.

How Do I Make a Widget?

Widget development isn’t rocket science. Most Web developers will tell you developing widgets shouldn’t take very much time if you’re working with content that’s already syndicated via platforms such as RSS feeds. Advanced functions require more advanced skills, but if you’re already making services and content available, you’re halfway there. Widgets should also be considered part of an overall Web production strategy.

Widgets are for people who want to be directly in touch with your brand. If you offer e-mail newsletters and RSS (as part of your Web development strategy and budget), you should also include widgets. There can be some variable costs, such as media streaming fees if you include rich media. However, as I said at the conference, I’ve never met a client who wasn’t more than happy to pay for success.

How Do You Make Widgets Relevant for Different Platforms?

Furthering the point about usability, widgets must be contextually relevant and respect the user’s environment. Desktop widgets reside on the desktop, so they can afford to be interface-rich and offer more options. A mobile widget, on the other hand, must be simple to reflect the complexity of a mobile user’s situation: simple interface, immediate access, and lightweight results.

In consideration of context, it could be the development and use of widgets that could make the Web browsers on home video game consoles relevant — optimized interfaces for living room content: YouTube video viewers, weather, and more. Widgets can help bridge the gap by giving users unique interfaces to get the information they want, when they want it, but in a contextually appropriate format.

What About the Users?

Users are at the heart of all of this. Let’s not forget about them. Remember, they’ve downloaded or copied the code to bring your widget along. They like you and what you’re offering. Respect users and be happy they’ve agreed to spend more time with you. They shouldn’t have to suffer a flurry of advertising or over-communication. Users have let you in to their world. Instead of spending more against them, why not invest time and money in a deeper relationship? Enhance your widget’s functionality and give them a reason to spread the word.

This isn’t the apex of widget hype. Widgets will continue to grow, and with Vista slowly moving to corporate America’s desktops, increasingly more people will understand desktop widgets’ power. Apple’s new Leopard operating system will allow consumers to make their own with drag-and-drop tools. Google recently launched an incentive program for Google Gadget developers, and Adobe’s AIR is now in public release.

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