Archive for the 'social networking' Category

Consumer trends in business applications?

ERP software analyst Stephen Jannise from SoftwareAdvice.com ecently emailed me with a link to an interesting post about social and e-commerce software trends that could be implemented in business-based software.  Trends he highlights include Twitter-like feeds, the ‘like’ button on facebook, and Google’s search autocomplete.

I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen’s perspective on each of the features he covers, but I don’t want to post about why now, because he’s running a poll and I don’t want to screw up the results for him by introducing bias. Having said that, his post raises some really interesting ideas, so get over to his palce and read the post and vote in his poll–once he posts the results (which he is going to make public), I’ll comment on the features myself.

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The new Facebook: Not yet unfriended by users, but close

Facebook recently made a change to their interface that was the subject of outrage for many of their users, inspiring more than 1.7 million to sign a petition to reject it.  Facebook has made some changes to accomodate some of the things users said were problems, but many of the changes (including the slower-to-render rounded corners on pictures) appear to be here to stay.

Initially I was mildly irritated by the new interface, but I put it down to my change aversion (users near-universally hate change, which is why if you’re making major changes, they better help users out substantially).  However, as time has gone on, I have become more irritated with the new interface, not less.  As I see it, there are a few problems with the new interface:

  • The proliferation of nonsense in my news feed, without an option to show status updates only.  Yes, I can turn the rubbish from every application off, if I want to, but this requires effort on my part, and will happen every time a new crop of applications becomes popular.  It’s also fairly irritating that I had to go to a help guide to even find out how to do this much, because the mechanism for operating these options is hidden unless you happen to look in the right place at the right time.
  • Another side of the same coin: having to edit applications not to publish my life story immediately upon adding them.  I don’t particularly want to bombard my friends with nonsense every time I play a turn in Lexulous.  This means I have to be particularly pro-active in editing the settings for my applications so that they don’t bombard people, and the function for editing this is reasonably difficult to find
  • The lack of automatic updating.  I know the old interface didn’t have it, but the trade off for change was supposed to be that we got automatic updating. This change has had no benefit for me, so I resent the fact that the one useful thing that was supposed to happen didn’t.

Do I think no interface should ever change their look and feel?  Absolutely not.  Do I think that Facebook should have done some usability testing before lanching this design?  For sure.  Do I think they did?  Dubious at best.  The Facebook approach, which is one that will always generate negative publicity, is to test their designs on real live users.

According to this blog post, the best way to plan change requires four steps: knowing your customers, listening to them, communicating with them, and responding to them. I think that sounds pretty good–pretty much like doing good user experience, in fact.  And Facebook didn’t do too badly, on a points system–they did warn users (albeit not in a way that most users would notice), and they did respond to some of the complaints users had (albeit not in a way that is really that satisfying).  Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose which things you want out of that list–good user experience requires all of them.

Nonetheless, I think many (if not most) Facebook users will suck up the changes, even though they don’t like them, because for now, Facebook offers them more than the changes have taken away.  Having said that, though, like I said in my earlier post about Facebook and MySpace, people have personal purposes for using social networking tools.  If Facebook continues to change in a way that breaks that purpose (as the first iteration of these changes did), they will find that users (and thus their advertising dollars) drift away.

What product or service have you used that has slowly worn away at your loyalty until you couldn’t stand it any more?

CVs, career opportunities, and connections: LinkedIn

LinkedIn, when all is said and done, is just another social network, though it has a more clear-cut purpose than most social networks: It is business and career focused. I’ve been a member of LinkedIn for some time, so while I would normally adderss the usability of the relevant tool in a post like this, instead I am going to talk about the purpose-focus of LinkedIn, and how the interface reflects that.

Let’s begin with an example of LinkedIn in action: as I said back in my post on social networks, I have it mostly so I have a CV that is online and up-to-date. Despite my skepticism in that post, though, I can now say from experience that a LinkedIn CV does open up career opportunities: I was recently approached about a job by an in-house recruiter from a large, presitigious and lucrative company looking for someone with my skills. We set up a phone meeting through LinkedIn, and I discovered that the timing of the opportunity was not right for me, however it was not a wasted call for the recruiter because (on her request) I passed her details on to two others who may be a good fit for the role. Certainly this experience gives me more incentive to keep my CV up-to-date.

So, why was it that I trusted this person enough to give them my mobile number, and why did she believe that I was who I said I was, when “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog“? Partly it works based on our connections. The recruiter was able to determine that I am likely to be who and what I say I am based on my connections to some big names in my field, and to some people in my field who knew people she knows. Sure, I could still be lying, but it is a lot less likely when I am connected to these “known” people. Equally, I was able to determine that she was who she said she was based on our connections within LinkedIn.

How is it, though, that LinkedIn encourages such a businesslinke atmosphere (including connecting only to people you know, and not engaging in “friend philately“)? Partly it is the tight control of the interface that the owners of the technology have maintained–the applications are limited , and there is no way to personalise your profile to be neon pink and yellow, and according to the New York Times there was considerable doubt about whether to allow users to put photos on their profiles. This tight control means that despite the web 2.0 style rounded buttons, LinkedIn has a text-heavy, businesslike feel. LinkedIn users are subtly encouraged to only accept invitations from those they know by the ‘I don’t Know <name>’ button at the bottom of every invitation, it is a reminder that (unlike many social networking sites) you don’t have to be friends with everyone. Not-so-subtly, in the questions and answers interface answers can be marked as “connection building spam”–friend philately is clearly frowned upon. On top of all this, LinkedIn is lightweight — because there are no built-in blogs or status indicators or anything like that, LinkedIn doesn’t generate tens of emails per day, nor is there any pressure to interact with it any more frequently than required to update your own CV; it is clearly designed as a tool rather than a playpen.

While LinkedIn has been very successful in deliberately designing a businesslike interface, some people that I work with have found the lack of space to create their own content or have “nuanced interactions” offputting, one even said that LinkedIn caused them to realise that they were not a professional and they did not care.

So what would be a good balance? Is it okay that the LinkedIn interfaces alienates some people with the purposefulness that makes it so effective? Are those people likely to join anyway, since interactions are so lightweight? The answer is likely to be different for different users, and without testing a wide range of professionals, it would be impossible to tell exactly where this balance falls, but I hope that LinkedIn haven;t gotten it wrong and disenfranchised a whole class of creative professionals. What do you think?

The point of social networks: Perhaps there isn’t one for everyone

I’m a member of nearly every site dedicated specifically to social networking and available in the English language (but apart from Facebook and LinkedIn, don’t bother looking because I use a pseudonym). I have Bebo, MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn…I used to have Friendster I think, but I have long since forgotten my log in, and at one point I was a member of the now-defunct SixDegrees. I am or have been a member of special interest communities too — I’m in three book-based communities, I was a member of 43 Things and 43 People (I had to close my account because I kept being mistaken for someone else), I’m a member of Flickr, last.fm and Youtube.

Before you write me off as a slave to every next big thing, I’m a member of most of these things for research-related reasons — investigating how people share media and opinions, or share interests in special-interest communities. I was going to write about my thoughts on the differences between two of the major online services — namely Facebook and MySpace (thoughts that were crystallized by reading an essay by the guru of social networking research, danah boyd).

Instead of unpacking the differences between MySpace and Facebook from a non-US perspective, however, I decided to think aloud here about the point of social networks. I was inspired in this endeavour by fellow 23 things bloggers JWA, who finds it hard to go back to Facebook after blogging, Sara, who is engaging in social networking with some trepidation, and Trees, who finds the only thing worse than Facebook is the staff professional development software.

Of all those social networking things I am a member of, I only look at four of them with any regularity, and I use those four for completely different reasons:

  • LinkedIn: I believe being a member of LinkedIn, and being associated with some of the prominent names in my business could possibly be good for my career. It also forces me to keep an online CV up-to-date, which (despite never being headhunted in my life) I am told is a good thing.
  • Bebo: My step-sister and one of my favourite bands are on Bebo. The band I do keep up with in other ways (see below), but when my step-sister’s cat died earlier this month, the easiest way to get in touch with her and let her know how sorry I was was Bebo.
  • MySpace: MySpace is ugly, and has a reputation for being full of predators (though danah boyd wonders if this s a social kneejerk), and is absolutely ridden with advertising, but it is a way to keep up with the absolute latest on some bands that I like — some of these bands don’t actually have any other websites. Because Myspace is so interactive, bands often post more updates here than on their own websites (where else could I learn that on Thursday my favourite band is ‘at home’ and feeling ‘calm’). Most of the time that is the real hook MySpace has for me, but there are times when it is also nice to be able to talk back to the band — like when one of the bandmembers quit a band I love, I could leave them a message of condolence. The band probably doesn’t read it, but it made me feel better. MySpace has also been a venue for music discovery — some bands have sought mer out because of my friends list, and a very few of them have even been interesting to listen to.
  • Facebook: Facebook is the social networking site I use most regularly, and the one that I have the most friends on — and they are all people I know in real life (which is a big drawcard for Facebook). It is also one of the only sites where I use my real name, largely because of the hugely flexible privacy settings. Now, Facebook has a lot going for it; the applications are especially interesting — one of the ways I spend most time on Facebook is playing Scrabble with Scrabulous — feel free to track me down and challenge me to a game). What keeps me on Facebook though is being able to get in touch with friends and familywithot remembering phone numbers or email addresses, and without even really having anything to say — I can “poke” them to let them know I am thinking of them, I can post a news item some of them might find interesting, or I can change my status (which will appear in their “home” page).

So, what is the point of all these social network things? Well, in the US, social networking sites are used by teens much the same way mobile phones are here in Australia (at least according to the teens at a recent social networking symposium) — for private inter-teen communication below the parental radar. There’s all the old stuff that is trotted out about all Web 2.0 things, you know, that “they’re interactive, they allow users to create, share and discuss content”. They’re actually the only web 2.0 styled site where (by their very nature) everyone must be a producer — at a bare minimum everyone must produce a profile. Certainly they are making scads of money for their owners and creators by selling the platforms and selling eyeballs to advertisers.

So, in answer to Trees’ question “what’s the big deal about Facebook?“, well, frankly, there isn’t one — unless you find one (and like all social networking sites, it will die a death if it can’t find a way to keep you coming back after you find one). For JWA, a social network is not as interesting as her blog, maybe because she gets more discussion on her blog, or maybe because she enjoys the process of writing. For Susan, social networking has become a way to connect with her children and is therefore a good thing. Teens (and maybe adults, too) use social networking to try on identities to see if they fit. I use social networking sites to connect, and to pass the time. While the basic driving “point” of social networking centres around connection for most people, social networking is postmodern (much to my surprise and no small amount of embarrassment at liking it) . There is no point without context, and the context is what wants, preconceptions, and social norms individuals and their groups bring from experience. So if you’re worrying about not knowing the point, you can stop worrying now, because there isn’t one (at least for you). On the flip side, if you social networking so much that you want to set a social network up, you better make sure your user experience is really good, because the experience is the whole point for the early adopters (who will drive the later success or failure of your social network as “cool” or not).


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