The segmentation of my slime trail

My connected life is starting to drop into distinct buckets. Now that I have my choice of connecting through my smartphone (an iPhone), my tablet (an iPad), my work computer (a MacBook) and my home computer (a Windows box), not to mention the new Smart TV’s we bought (Samsungs), I’m starting to see my digital footprints (or my digital slime trail, to use Esther Dyson’s term) diverge. And the nature of the divergence is interesting.

Take Netflix for example. It’s finally come to Canada, although with a depressingly small number of movies to choose from. My Netflix account stretches across all my devices, but the things I watch on my iPad are quite a bit different than my choices on an iPad. And there is yet another profile for the things I choose on my MacBook (mainly when I travel). On the iPad, it’s typically an episode of Arrested Development, Fawlty Towers or, if I have a little more time, Mad Men, (and yes, I realize those three choices create an interesting psychological profile of myself) that offers some respite when the women of my household commandeer all available TV sets. On the new Samsung, it’s usually a movie intended for viewing by myself and at least one other member of my family.

Kindle offers a similar divergence of reading patterns – again, one application that’s spread across multiple devices. And, like my movie watching, my reading habits vary significantly depending on what I’m doing the reading on. I almost never read on my laptop, but it’s my preferred platform for research and annotation. My favorite reading device is my iPad, but it’s primarily used at home. I only take it on the road for extended trips. My fall-back is the iPhone, which gets called into duty when I have time to kill when travelling or in between my kid’s volleyball games.

Jacquelyn Krones, from Microsoft, did a fascinating research project where she looked at search habits across multiple devices. She found that our searches could be grouped into three different categories: missions, excavations and explorations.

Mission is the typical task based single interaction where we need to get something done. The nature of the mission can be significantly different on a mobile device, where the mission is usually related to our physical location. In this case, geo-location and alternative methods of input (i.e. taking a picture, recording a sound or scanning a bar code) can make completing the mission easier, because the outputs are more useful and relevant in the user’s current context. This is why app-based search is rapidly becoming the norm on mobile devices. Missions on the desktop tend to be more about seeking specific information, when then allows us to complete a task beyond the scope of our search interaction.

Excavations are research projects that can extend over several sessions and are typically tied to an event of high interest to the user: health issues, weddings, major travel, home purchases and choosing a college are a few examples. The desktop is the hands-down winner for this type of search engagement. It provides an environment where information can be consolidated and digested through the help of other applications. Krones calls this “making knowledge”, implying a longer and deeper commitment on the part of the user.

Finally, we have exploration. Explorations are more serendipitous in nature, with the user setting some fairly broad and flexible boundaries for their online interactions. While excavation can become a part of exploration, the behaviors are usually distinct. Exploration tends to be a little more fluid and open to suggestion, with the user being open to persuasion, where as excavation is more about assembling information to support an intent that is already decided upon. Tablets seem to be emerging as a strong contender in the exploration category. The relaxed nature of typical interaction with an iPad, for example, supports the open agenda of exploration.

What this means, of course, is that the trail I leave behind on my mobile device starts to look significantly different than it does on my laptop or tablet. Each fits a different use case, as they start to become tools with distinct capabilities, over and above the fact that they’re all connected to the internet.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider June 2. 2011