Why Cards Matter Today
Cards have become mainstream.
They are now inescapable across every social network, including being a central part of Google’s Now offering. If this is a new term to you, take a quick peek at your favorite social service and you’ll easily see content is presented in card-like visual elements – small snippets of information that give you an overview of a topic. It’s a simple concept, but it has given content providers and designers an uncontested way to offer information in a concise, visually appealing way, easily consumed on any device. Cards are in use today across Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and more – and they’re working their way into online products and services everywhere.
Some might dismiss cards as simply a user interface design metaphor. However, don’t underestimate them; cards will in all likelihood be a key player in the digital ecosystem of the near future. Based on real-world cards – playing cards, business cards, index cards – while also paying some homage to previous digital cards efforts such as Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard, the concept is completely new.
More recent efforts on the web have focused most on using cards as containers for bits of content — what Chris Tse, in his Card Manifesto, describes as "the gist of" information; that is, a teaser of information on an idea or topic so you can decide if you’d like to see more. Matias Duarte, Google’s lead Android mobile designer, expands on this when he describes cards as "a single atomic contextual piece of information; essentially, a suggestion, a prompt, a call to action." In either case, the cards of today furnish visual containers, summarizing a condensed form of a discrete concept, idea, or resource that the reader can dive into further if he or she wishes.
Cards provide several UI qualities that work well across devices. User experience experts at Nielsen Norman Group approve: "On the watch, the deck of cards is preferable to the alternative list interface," wrote Raluca Budiu in "The Apple Watch: User-Experience Appraisal." The appeal of cards is not difficult to see: they’re bite-sized and fit today’s information consumption patterns; they’re aggregated into a visual display that is easy to scan - and simple to dismiss if not relevant; and they’re flexible in visual design, size, and interactivity.
However, here's something you should not to overlook: from a software architecture perspective, cards are just the presentation. But, to use the common Model-View-Controller design pattern perspective, we need to address the model underneath the card. I contend that it is some form of microcontent.
If the content is a blog post, then that microcontent might simply be the title, author, summary, and URL; for email, the microcontent would be the headers (to, from, subject); for weather, the current conditions and a link to the forecast, and so on. Again, cards are the presentation and the microcontent is the model of that content.
Card views characteristically sit in some interface the user will consume. The user can then take whatever actions the app or browser allows (actions also dictated by the interactivity allowed by the card itself) but typically that’s it. Microcontent is different. It is a data structure. It can be shared, moved, stored, aggregated, filtered, shortened, and so on. Microcontent also can be delivered to a social service or website, and displayed as a card, among other uses (some mentioned above).
We’re seeing things already moving in this direction. Google recently announced it would open up its Google Now API to third parties in the future, and by doing so, will allow other content producers to push card content into the Google Now ecosystem. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where cards could go. I’m suggesting cards will soon become true first-class objects on the web, allowing them to be created, curated, aggregated, transferred, and shared at will.
About the Author
Co-founder of CardStreams and former CTO of Disney Online, Eric Freeman is a widely respected computer scientist who originated the idea of lifestreams and timelines, with David Gelernter, that is pervasive in today’s online landscape. Eric holds a Ph.D. from Yale University. Eric is also one of O’Reilly Media’s top-selling authors on developer technologies. Follow him on Twitter @erictfree.
Managing editor of Enterprise Technology. I've been covering tech and business for many years, for publications such as InformationWeek, Baseline Magazine, and Florida Today. A native Brit and longtime Yankees fan, I live with my husband, daughter, and two cats on the Space Coast in Florida.