Backdoor advertising or how not to improve your product

In a rather curious article Nieman Lab wonders why users do not like Context, Evernote’s new research feature. Hidden in the article lies the answer. Context is advertising cleverly disguised as generic search results.

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Evernote is an app for digital note taking, that synchronizes itself between your various gadgets. For most people Evernote is a product you either love or hate. I do not like it, but use it for my Saturday shopping list because it synchronizes without hassle between my pc and mobile phone and I am too lazy to look for an alternative.

Chaos and data insecurity

Distractions seems to be Evernote’s unique selling point. The app’s interface on my phone differs from the one on my desktop but both are equally chaotic. The dominant colour is bright – in your face – green, most likely designed to keep your eyes away from your notes. The various areas and buttons feel random, making sure you never find what you need where you expect it. The coup de

All of that would be acceptable if the app gave you full control over your information. Unfortunately the software does the exact opposite, which is unacceptable. It has a lot of built in intelligence doing all kinds of smart things you neither want nor need, but are unable to understand or turn off. It rather annoying by default automatically copies from your clipboard, adds all kinds of unwanted data if you do a manual copy paste and is an overall nightmare. I simply do not trust it with sensitive information.

Reinventing the wheel

Evernote also has a premium version without adds for which they now have developed a research tool called Context. Read the newspaper and stumble upon advertisements, thinly disguised as partner content. In a way the research suggestions are partner content from publishers who signed up with Evernote to promote their content. Basically what Evernote has done is create a search engine a la Google, the difference being that some content is available from behind a pay wall you cannot access through a search engine. That advantage quickly disappears once you realize that access to a few newspaper archives is no match for all the information out there on the internet. Add to that the fact that suggestions are backward looking – based on what you type – rather than what you want to know. Not surprisingly many users compare the new feature to an advertisement, which, of course, it is. Without realising Evernote basically admits as much:

“Unfortunately, ads take so many forms these days there’s no way to design a space that could not be perceived as an ad,”

The word perceived may tell more about the companies intentions than it would like to. Context was added to Evernote without the ability to turn the feature off, a quality it shares with most advertising. In what reads like partner content Nieman Lab pitches the product. Publishers get access to and audience that is otherwise hard to reach and the near geniuses at Evernote optimize the user experience bringing it to dizzying new heights.

“For publishers, Context is a unique, if niche, way to get their content in front of engaged, professional eyeballs. What Evernote hopes to offer those users attached to those eyeballs is a productive, predictive way to work the likes of which they’ve never experienced before.”

Yet in its subtitle the author started out wondering why people do not like it. Perhaps because it is superfluous feature that does not deliver. A search engine is still the most effective way if you are looking for information. Many business users, for instance bankers, have lots of paid databases at their disposal with all kinds of information. You can only add so many bells and whistles to a program before it looses all sense of direction, a risk not uncommon to journalism either.

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