Lean-forward vs. lean-back media

Back in the late 90s, usability expert Jakob Nielsen came out with a series of articles about how people consume media on the Web. These articles were profound in that Nielsen realized fairly early that people consume content differently on the Web. In order to communicate effectively over the Internet we need to format the media to fit the medium.

I’m not sure why this might come as any surprise to anyone who produces content that could end up on the Web. We have been reformatting media for different mediums for decades. A newspaper story is structured differently than a radio story – than a broadcast story – than a magazine story. Why shouldn’t we format stories specifically for the Internet?

Guy in front of the computerOne article by Nielsen that I think tends to often get overlooked is when he used the terms lean-forward and lean-back mediums.

The idea behind lean-forward mediums is that people are engaged when they use the Web. They are in scanning mode, actively looking for content – and their attention span is much shorter. People use the Internet with purpose. Articles should be shorter and get to the point sooner, videos should be snippets or separated into clips of only a few minutes long.

Lean-back mediums on the other hand are the times we sit down and veg out watching TV, read a book or flip through a magazine. Our attention span is much longer because these are passive mediums and we are in a consumption mode. This is why most long-form doesn’t work on the Web.

The iPad is a particularly interesting device, because it aims to bring the Web into the living room where it could become a lean-back media device. I think this is why so many magazines are excited about delivering their content to the iPad. With tablets, people might actually spend time consuming media rather than frantically searching.

At the recent Apple presentation for the next iPhone software, Steve Jobs spoke about the future of mobile advertising and introduced a new product called iAd. At one point Jobs said that the average user spends an average of 30 minutes using apps on the iPhone, and they rarely use search tools like Google. It’s not about search, but about consumption of content. This really plays into the idea that mobile devices are in fact lean-back mediums. Apple is really smart in positioning itself as a leader in advertising innovation in the mobile space, because ad dollars tend to gravitate to lean-back mediums.

On the storytelling side, the news industry should start taking these ideas of lean-forward and lean-back mediums into consideration when creating content. Unfortunately, I don’t have answers on how that can be done logistically with the state of the industry and all of the cut backs. But, it’s interesting to think about.