Widgets Deliver New One-to-One Opportunities

My last column discussed meeting consumers’ unmet needs through life-hacking techniques. Often, people enhance their productivity through software and special tools to manage information flow in their lives.

With the recent consumer launch of Windows Vista, it’s not a coincidence that consumer interest in desktop widgets and gadgets is growing. In addition to those built into Vista and Mac OS X, there are thousands of third-party-generated downloadables from Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and Google. Adoption of these technologies and interfaces proves users are interested in ambient displays of information that are tailored directly to their unique interests.

Desktop widgets are small computer applications that provide quick bits of information based on RSS feeds from various data providers and consumer Web sites. The same information that powers an RSS feed can also power a widget. The most popular widgets tend to be subtle, ambient dashboards and displays for instinct-based information and media, such as the current weather, stock market quotes, and world time. In other cases, widgets provide quick interfaces for lookups, like package tracking and currency conversion. Other widgets deliver customized information, such as a Flickr widget that displays the most recent upload for a never-ending desktop photo gallery.

Widgets don’t stop with content publishers. They’ve become a popular new platform for user-generated content. Brand fanatics are rushing to create widgets they hope will be adopted by their communities. Prior to the Nintendo Wii launch, there were multiple fan-generated Wii countdown clocks available. Now, you can download an iPhone widget that provides Apple brand news.

There are only so many pixels on the user’s screen, which limits the amount of available widget real estate. It’s important to respect user choice and provide an exceptional experience in regard to function and design. When a user installs a branded widget, he’s likely to be a heavy user or a fan of the brand in question. He’s now engaged in a true one-to-one, real-time relationship with your brand. This may be one of your best digital opportunities to convert that fan into an evangelist. Don’t discount the word-of-mouth, or desk-to-desk, media effect that will happen if a user’s screen is observed by another and creates a “hey, what’s that thing on your desktop” conversation.

What should you do to get in the widget game?

  • Read your reports. Discover trends about your Web properties and find out what brings people back to the site and what areas people are deep-linking to. Chances are they’re coming for some sort of dynamic information, such as pricing, inventory availability, and news.

  • Leverage your insight. Develop your widget around your findings. Chances are the information people want is already available via RSS (if it isn’t, you should probably start there). Plan feeds around your intended functions.
  • Design for the context. It’s a widget, and people like to collect them. Respect the environment in which it’s going to live, and build an easy-to-use interface that works two ways. First, it must deliver information subtly. If your information is about fluctuations, change colors so all it takes is a quick glance to understand what’s going on. Second, user choices should be simple and limited. Widgets are directly connected to your Web site, so if someone wants more information, you can always embed links into the widget.
  • Write it once, make it available everywhere. There’s no widget standard, only a consistent development approach. When you’re done with your first widget, port it to other platforms. This won’t take a long time, but it’s important to remember the consumer is king in the widget world. He can choose what widget platform he wants to run. In addition to Apple’s Dashboard Widgets, and Microsoft’s Desktop Gadget, there are the dual platform choices of Yahoo Widgets Google Gadgets.
  • Distribute everywhere. Release your widgets to widget download galleries and communities. Promote their function. Messaging should reflect function first, as that’s your key selling proposition. Demonstrate how you’re making access to your brand (and features) even easier for your customers.

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