The feel of paper, the convenience of bytes

The feel of paper, the convenience of bytes

I buy one newspaper a week, the Weekend FT. I suppose it is partly because I enjoy walking to the shop to buy it on a Saturday morning and partly because I like the feel of turning the improbably large pages at the breakfast table. It is an illogical and impractical habit, but I don’t plan on changing it any time soon. In fact, for someone like me who reads almost everything else in digital form, the paper medium is one of the big attractions: it marks this activity out as something different from all the online reading I do during the working day.

However, this anachronistic tendency comes with problems. As I digest the paper over the course of the following week, reading a few pages each day, I’ll often come across an article I want to save for future reference or share with a friend. Currently, this involves taking out my phone, laying the paper flat on the table, getting the lighting just right, standing over the pages and trying to get all the text in focus and in the camera’s field of view. It usually takes several attempts to obtain something legible which I can then save in my own digital notes (usually Evernote) or email to a contact.

I’m not sure whether I’m technically allowed to do this, but there it is. I am sure, however, that I’m not alone in this, as someone who has purchased a physical item at retail because I value that experience, but still wants a way to link it with my digital world.

The desire to create a convenient link between the physical and the digital which enriches the experience of both extends beyond the publishing industry.

A recent conversation during some advisory work with an organisation which sells to tens of millions of retail customers every month revealed that they too are struggling with this challenge. Despite also having a major online presence, complete with individual customer accounts, they have no way of understanding the link between those who buy at retail and those who buy at online. For their users, this is a common pattern of customer behaviour, but the organisation’s systems don’t reflect this. As a business, they’d jump at the chance to allow their users to easily log physical purchases into their digital accounts, but the complexity of building this architecture and the fragmentation of link methods has thus far prevented them.

Back at the breakfast table, and my practical problem with the newspaper, there are numerous existing technologies for treating the symptoms:

  • A QR code which triggers a link to the digital version of each article
  • An NFC tag embedded in each copy of the paper, authorising my access to the digital edition
  • A better image recognition app, capable of detecting the article and the paper, and sending me back a properly digitised copy

The problem is: they’re all pretty stupid.

Publishers have tried all of these in various guises already and, unsurprisingly, none of them have worked at scale because they merely are ways of treating symptoms, rather than delivering a better overall experience which meets the users’ needs.

The irony is this particular newspaper already has infrastructure in place to enable a better experience. I pay for the paper through a quarterly subscription and every 3 months, a book of paper vouchers turns up in the post. On a Saturday morning, I tear off a voucher and walk to the local shop, where they scan the barcode on the little scrap of paper to verify it is a genuine item and hand me my copy of the paper. By way of a reminder, we are still in the 21st century, I promise.

In technical terms: a token (the voucher) which ties me as an individual (the user) to a specific set of payment and identity data (my subscription account) has been validated by an independent check (the retailer). It is, of course, an inelegant system in its current form, but one which could produce a more elegant outcome with little additional investment.

Once a user has an account like this, there is nothing to stop the newspaper seamlessly making available a searchable digital edition, so that I can access and manipulate that content through whichever medium – physical or digital – happens to suit my particular usage mode at that moment in time. Indeed, there is nothing to stop this content becoming properly integrated into my digital search experience, so that when I type a couple of keywords from the article into Google, it would know enough to validate that I am indeed a subscriber to the newspaper and give me access to the article where others would find it locked behind a paywall.

In my case, the validation would have occurred because I subscribe directly, but it could work equally well for one-off customers, so long as there was some way of verifying them at the retail checkout. Apple Pay, anyone?

For now, however, the physical and the digital editions remain separate entities – something I suspect is reflected in the organisational culture of the publisher too – and the opportunity to enable users to link physical objects with their digital worlds remains untapped. It is a key link for future businesses based around consumption principles and I await the day an elegant, universal solution emerges.

Note: new consumption experiences are a key theme at MEX on 24th/25th March 2015 in London, with expert speakers and in-depth creative team sessions on this topic.

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