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Usability as growth hormone for a social network

3 March 2009 | admin | Design

Here is the promised presentation I made for a mini-conference on usability on February, 28. 


Presentation script  (not connected with the slides)

The graph illustrates the number of unique visitors of photo-web sites. The journalist, who published this graph, asks himself a question: what exactly happened in September 2008, that resulted in a drastic increase of Facebook photo app visitors? The answer is redesign.  

A navigation toolbar appeared on the main profile page (where you get after clicking a user's profile), which includes feed, info and photos. So. Many of you must have ever bought a cell phone on Onliner.by. It's one and the same scheme almost every time: you come to the home page, choose product category, set filter, choose the best product, choose a seller, contact him and arrange delivery. 

This "smooth" interaction experience is a result of various major and minor project solutions concerning  the look of the site, layout, global menu points, site performance and what its possibilities. All these decisions form interaction experience.  

Analyzing this experience layer by layer we will be able to understand the mechansm of such decision-making. 

Jess Garret defines the following layers. 

Surface Layer 

On the surface you see pictures, text, buttons and other visual elements. You can click on some object with a mouse and perform some actions, others are not clickable and are simple illustrations. 

Layout Layer 

Layout is located underneath pages, it is represented by menu, tab, blocks and other elements arrangement. Good layout helps you quickly find the necessary link, for instance to an online store basket. 

Structural Layer 

Structure sets a direction for user activity on the site. A global menu, for instance, can take you to any site section. Or context page menu. These elements are a part of site structure. The structure makes it possible to organize various site functions as a whole while range of functions represents a number of site possibilities. 

Strategy Level 

Strategy in general defines the range of site possibilities. Strategy includes site owners' goals as well as users' needs. In the Onliner example some strategic goals are easy to define:  sellers want to sell their product and we want to buy it. But what goals does Onliner have?  Exactly, Onliner wants to make money by renting "the space". 

Now I would like to proceed to a certain type of sites, social networks, to be exact. 

Scientific definition of a social network: Social network is a social structure, that consists of a number of knots, represented by social objects (people or organizations) and connections between them (social interrelations). That's a sociological definition. Let's go online now. Social network here is an internet community (or communities). Internet community is a range of connections between people who have something in common (common goals, interests, views, activities etc. ). A community is based on interaction between people. 

Just like usual communities, internet communities are created for a certain aim. 

Some examples of such goals:

1) to kill time (subconscious goal)

2) to form a company or a product brand  (http://mobilkinofest.ru/)

3) to increase loyalty to a company by forming a customer club 

4) FCMG-products promotion

5) distribution and accumulation of knowledge, information (habrahabr.ru)

6) bringing people together for collective creativity  (translated.by)

7) assistance in searching for employees / customers (free-lance.ru, moikrug.ru)

8) to provide reliable information about a company  (i-worker.ru)

9) to make music available to everybody, with no agents needed (last.fm)

10) etc.

So, you want to develop your own social network (or somebody asked you to help develop a social network). How do you develop it? Where do you start? 

Development should be started by defining a strategy. Without a clear strategy you are at risk of developing a 101st social network, for everybody and for nobody in particular, like, for instance,  face.by, ludi.by, belorusy.by, parta.by, vseti.by, etc.

You should answer two critical questions first thing: 

1) What do we want to get from our web site? 

2) What do users want to get from our web site? 

The answer to the first question will enable you to define web site goals, the answer to the second one will help you identify user needs.  

Can you define the primary goal of any startup? Sure - to make money. Anyway, it's unclear, what the site should be like to reach this goal. 

Examples of more concrete goals were described above, for instance: FCMG-product promotion or company brand creation. 

By the way, let's not forget about benefits for site owners, i.e. for business and business model. How will the site generate profit: by means of media or context ads (habr.ru, koolinar.ru, etc.), paid services (linkedin.com, free-lance.ru) or by increasing profits of the company that manufactures FMCG-products? 

Further, we are developing the site not for ourselves, but for users. Therefore, in order for a site to be appealing, we need to find out who our users are and identify their needs. I won't repeat my colleages, who told us about methods of analyzing. I will just provide a list of usability-methods needed for user audience analysis:  

1) Interview

2) Polls

3) Field surveys  

4) Activity analysis 

5) Usability-testing 

6) Characters

7) Marketing research

8) Focus groups

9) etc.

Last paragraph that I always include into a document, describing the concept of any project (including social networks), contains a clause about project image. There I briefly answer the following questions:  

1) Who needs this web site (target audience) 

2) Why do they need this site (needs of the target audience) 

3) Key advantage, main reason for using the web site 

4) Main competitor 

5) Main distinction from the competitor and advantages of the new web site. See the book by Karl Wiegers "Software requirements. Practical methods of collecting requirements and their management when developing a software product" for details. 

Sample of a project image clause: For people who want  to know everything about a company they are going to work for,  site "Rabota" will become a single source of  information in Runet, that accumulates both official information about companies and employees and unofficial information, opinions and gossip from people, who worked or work for these companies. Site "Rabota!" will become a place for meeting and communication of professionals from different spheres. It will become a means for professional, career and personal growth. As opposed to the existing social networks (moikrug.ru, webby.ru), which are used to store contact information and search for professionals, site "Rabota!" will become a bright and dynamic community due to the activeness of its users seeking to satisfy their "information thirst" (I want to know everything about a company) and trying to achieve a fair game between colleagues and companies. 

Before proceeding to the next level - the level of function range - I would like to point out a typology of social networks from the functional, not strategical,  point of view (by Yaroslav Greshilov, lj user: yagr) 

1. Self-presentation and communication "Presentational and communicational" web sites. Classic bloghostings and their variations (livejournal, twitter, tumblr), personal "mini-sites" (myspace, rambler.planet). Satisfied need: to present oneself, to meet new people and communicate with them.  

Needs can be absolutely different. doldoeb hardly looks for new people, as well as tema hardly communicates with his friends. 

2. Social networks. Projects based on the principle "Everyboy knows everyone through 6 handshakes". Most vivid examples of such networks are facebook (its clone - vkontakte), linkedin (its clone - moikrug) and classmates (its clone - odnoklassniki). The need satisfied - keeping in touch with people. 

Again, needs can be absolutely different: to find music, to view nude pictures, etc. 

3. Social containers. Storage of various data and its presentation to the world and internet community. Data may include video (youtube, rutube), photos (flickr, photosight, яндекс.фотки), bookmarks (del.icio.us, memori), music (imeem) and content of any other type.  The need satisfied: to share photos, video, music, pictures etc. 

Needs may be more concrete, of course: to present your portfolio, to find a wedding photographer etc.  

4. Social media. An opportunity to become a journalist and a newssource. Examples:digg, newsland, smi2.  The need satisfied: to share news and your point of view on it. 

There can also be absolutely other needs: to create a gossip, to promote a site, to change brand perception, to "pump" a profile etc. 

5.Recommendation services. Recommendations created on the basis of search for people with similar tastes (netflix, trustedopinion, imhonet). The need satisfied: to give advice, recommend worthy things and receive advice. 

6. Social databases. Those are places for storage of information, generated from all over the world. Wikipedia is the most famous example of public encyclopedia. The need satisfied: to generate and collect knowledge together.  

7. Social navigators. Such projects help stay oriented in a particular sphere by interacting with others. Examples: movie spout, book shelfari and music  last.fm. The need satisfied: help each other stay oriented in the world of ideas, content and things.    

These are actually recommendation services by nature.  

And another scheme in conclusion, which represents basic functional elements of a social network (author: Gene Smith):

1) Identity  –  requirement  for representing user's personality and individuality (e.g. profile, number of contacts etc.) 

2) Presence – requirement for presenting information if the user is online or not (user status in chat window) 

3) Relations –  requirements that allow users to make contacts (friending, search for people, inviting others to join etc.) 

4) Communication – requirements for user communication on the site (chat, forum, wall etc.)

5) Communities  – requirements that allow users to form communities (create a community, enter a community, photo/video communities etc.) 

6) Reputation - requirements that allow eveluate user's relevancy in terms accepted in social networks 

7) Sharing  –  requirements that allow to share access to certain data (e.g. photo, video, music hosting etc.) 

Well, it's time to proceed from an abstract question "Why do we create a social network " to a more concrete question "What are we going to create". 

All social network requirements are divided into groups (“Social Networks Research Report”):

1) Attracting new user to the site 

2) Creating interrelations between users 

3) Generating of content by users 

4) Increasing the number of social contacts


1) Attracting new user to the site

a. We show a user his personal benefit from registering with the site (screenshot of home page of  xing.com or moikrug.ru)

b. We give an opportunity to have a quick look inside the social network (a screenshot of userlist on moikrug.ru, a video recording of  moikrug.ru)

c. Site tour (video recording of xing.com)

d. Invite and search for friends (a screenshot of a profile block on facebook.com):

i. An opportunity to send a link to a friend 

ii. An opportunity to send a direct registration link (by icq, skype, etc.)

iii. Search for those already registered in the socila network by e-mail contacts (make a video of  xing or facebook)

e. Show people with similar characteristics to the user  ( screenshot of my main profile page on moikrug.ru)

2) development of interrelations between users 

a. Profile is a basis of social network, it allows a user to tell about himself 

b. No requirement of filling in every field during registration (screenshot of registration page on moikrug.ru, xing.com or facebook.com)

c. Constantly "ask" user to fill in the profile (Facebook: «Complete your personal information and upload a photo so that your friends can easily find you» or xing: «complete your profile and make it easier to find you»).

d. From time to time (like once a year) ask user to update his profile information 

e. The more informal your socila network is, the easier it should be to add a user to friends (on i-worker for instance a user can be added to friends with one click). More formal social networks,like moikrug.ru, require user's aproval 

f. We show a number of user's contacts so that other can evaluate his status and decide whether to interact with this user 

3) generating of content by users. If there's no content in the community, there's nothing to discuss, people won't be able to find common interests and relationships between people won't develop. That's why it's necessary to do everything to motivate users to generate content. 

a. Users, who write reviews or leave comments about unknown companies should be praised (on i-worker, for instance, an unknown company is a company that has a few or no reviews at all). A thank-you e-mail can be a good motivator. 

b. Enable user to order or ask for a company review. If other user sees such a request, he might be more likely to leave a comment (an example of moikrug.ru) 

c. Stimulate a flame - people like to argue (on  i-worker.ru for instance, every topic rating depends on a number of comments) 

d. Give users feedback from his communities as ratig or number of views of his content 

e. Give examples of community leaders and show their contribution to the community  (number of topics published etc.)

f. Show the number of profile views by other users  

g. Moderate content to prevent spammers and trolles from posting their pathetic messages and to improve content quality 

h. Send e-mail notifications about reply to the user's comment , new comments to the user's topic or topics the user is subscribed to 

4) Increase of number of socila contacts Social contacts are something that makes a community. The more opportunities for social contacts, the more chances for people to meet each other. "Community" is derived from the word "common". A group of people can be called a community if they have something in common.   

a. Common interests for informal networks (divide them into sections, search for people with similar interests or group of interests) 

b. Shared experience (after an event people want to discuss it, share their opinions, pictures, videos). Research shows that memories last from a couple of days up to a week. 

c. Common education (a kindergarten, a school, a college) 

d. Photo and video albums 

e. My guests (voyeurism) 

f. New colleagues 

g. Communities 

h. Links to objects from a topic or a comment 

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