ARCHIVE: September, 2007

Improve your online sharing

A large part of social design is sharing. How do you encourage sharing? What should you let people share? Is there a way to improve the act of sharing? How do you know if sharing is successful?

Sharing is a pretty straight-forward process. Someone finds something interesting/controversial/useful enough to tell someone else about it. Breaking down this process into smaller steps can help you design better methods for sharing.

  1. Something worth sharing
    First, you need something worth sharing. It could be an object, like a video, slideshow, picture, or URL. Or it could be an idea or process, like a new way to cook spaghetti or a better way to design web sites. Ideas, however, need to be distilled into an object as well…since we’re on the Web most of the time the objects are URLs.
  2. Pivot points for sharing
    A good question to ask is: what are the pivot points on which this thing is shared? Here’s an example: most TV shows are shared not by the network they’re on, but by the title of the show. This suggests that network doesn’t matter as much as the show, and so giving people the tools to share the show is a higher priority. However, if you notice when you’re watching a TV show, there is a ton of network advertising…but nobody really shares at this level so it’s just not that effective…

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The Value of Visualizing Information

Here’s a question: if you can’t illustrate an idea visually…is it really a clear idea?

I’ve been thinking lately that it might not be…that the ability to visualize is what makes an idea reality in a sense. I’ve heard many stories of how Einstein could visualize his theories (balloons and rubber tables, etc). There was also that amazing 60 Minutes segment on Daniel Tammet, the guy who saw every number as its own picture…he could memorize amazing amounts of things by simply seeing them as differentiated images in his mind.

Tufte's Skiers

Maybe its because I finally saw Edward Tufte this past summer, whose work is quite misunderstood by a lot of folks. They say…what is he really adding to the design field? But to see his work is to understand that humans are visually conceptual beings, once we see something in a form that makes sense we’ve learned it, and can apply it as necessary. If you’ve never seen Tufte’s passion talking about Galileo’s notebooks then you must try to at some point. Tufte is an academic, to be sure, and his demeanor exposes the academic haughtiness for which he is often maligned. But to hear him talk about Galileo is to hear him as a student, in awe of a master.

Or maybe it’s because of all the social graph talk going on. What is a social graph? Well, show me why don’t you. The image I used the other day wasn’t very strong, a commenter immediately pointed out that I didn’t have bi-directional lines between the people. Besides meaning that I should have spent more than 5 minutes on the illustration, it’s actually a good sign that they pointed out I was wrong…it means that they’re on board with the visual, when they can find something wrong with it. In other words, they completely get the concept and get it so well that they recognize what’s wrong with it.

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The #1 Problem in Web Design

The world of web design is actually a gigantic game of telephone.

There are two messages involved in every web design project. One is the desired message, the message that the site owners want to deliver to their audience. This message probably has something to do with the value of participating, of using that tool or service to make your life better in some way.

The other is the actual message, the one that actually gets delivered. This message is usually some form of the desired message, but often has a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty thrown in. In the worst cases it is actually not the desired message at all but an unintended communication that means something completely different.

The number one problem on the Web today is a mismatch between the desired message and the actual message being delivered.

Remember the game of telephone, the one where you sit in a circle and whisper a message to the person beside you? That person then tells the person beside them, and once you get all the way around the circle you compare messages. Rarely are the messages the same. In many cases it is funny what we end up with. After all, it’s just a game.

But on the Web it isn’t so innocent…

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Should designers optimize for page views…or user experience?

An interesting quote from Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, when asked if Facebook’s news feed feature, which aggregates disparate profile information into a single view, reduces page views (and presumably advertising revenue).

“our thinking is that if we give people more controls, they can share more information. As people shared more and more information, Facebook found that it creates a more component experience that brings them back to Facebook more often. Page views and traffic went up 50% within weeks of the launch of the news feed.”

Wow, that stat is amazing. A simple interface design feature, thought (by traditional thinking) to decrease page views, actually increased them and fast.

Facebook vs. MySpace pageviews

Page Views vs. User Experience

Zuckerberg’s response underlines a real distinction between the old page view approach to the Web and the new user experience approach. The difference lies in what you optimize for…

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Community Building isn’t about Features

This list of ways to build community features is interesting as much for what it leaves out as for what it leaves in

So two weeks after I called out Derek Powazek to write a 2nd edition of his book Designing for Community, his wife Heather Champ has put together a nice list of ways to build community, Flickr-style. (via Derek himself)

Businessweek: Ten Ways Flickr Builds Communities

Here’s the list…

  1. Engage
    Don’t just listen to your community. Engage
  2. Enforce
    Let the community help set standards and policies for appropriate behavior-then enforce them
  3. Take Responsibility
    Fess up immediately when you make mistakes
  4. ….

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    Interesting Social Feature: The Yelp Elite Squad

    What’s the most interesting way you’re promoting your web site or application? Have you considered throwing a real-life party for it?

    That’s what is doing. A San Francisco-based review site, Yelp has been throwing parties for users of the site they call the “Yelp Elite” in various cities across the country in order to build up buzz.


    At first, these parties seem a bit silly (see the Yelp Blog for post-party details). Hosting a party around a site on which you read reviews? Doesn’t sound too exciting. It’s certainly not as compelling as the eBay Live! event, which is put on for people who use the auction site. Those people are definitely motivated to attend, eBay is how they make a living.

    But looking more closely at Yelp’s parties we can see a tactical reason why they might be doing this: they need to as a result of the nature of their site.

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    How to be an Empathic Web Designer

    “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

    Part of being a web designer is trying to understand and make sense of how people are using your design. Therefore, being empathic, or having the ability to share and understand the feelings of another, is a valuable trait to have. The more empathic you are, the more you can understand how people are using your design, how they think and feel about it, and what you need to do to make it great.

    But how do you become empathic? What if you’re not naturally an empathic person? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I feel like I’m getting too far away from the people I design for.

    Keep an open mind

    It is a great irony that the people who claim to have open minds probably have closed ones, and the people who fear most a closed mind probably have the most open ones. But fear in this case is an enabler, as it allows the designer to keep up their energy and watchfulness for something new, something they didn’t understand before, something that is key to the success of their design. Once you have everything figured out, it’s time to stop designing.

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    The Social Graph and Objects of Sociality

    Why our relationships can’t be explained without the objects and experiences that we share.

    One of the biggest problems on the Web is joining a new social networking site. To do so means going through the painful effort of creating a profile and adding all of our friends, something we’ve done over and over…at least once for each social networking site we already belong to. This is quickly becoming an issue for everyone who uses social networks.

    This problem has led to a flurry of activity, highlighted by LiveJournal creator Brad Fitzpatrick’s missive: Thoughts on the Social Graph, in which he clearly outlines the issues involved as well as some worthy goals to shoot for. Brad’s piece was followed shortly after by the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, which among its rights is the right to allow users to syndicate their own profile and friend data. This, of course, would alleviate the squeaky wheel.

    Social Network

    In addition there are countless groups getting together to try and solve this problem. The microformats folks are working on building formats to help with this. The DataSharingSummit is an entire event focused on this and related problems. All of this activity is centered around one idea: that people have a social graph that can be represented in software. In other words, we can recreate our offline relationships online and let everyone know about it by sharing some sort of file or feed.

    The major axis of the social graph, as Fitzpatrick points out, is relationships between people, or more simply, a list of friends. My social graph, for example, consists of my friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances. These people I know to some extent or another, some I talk with daily, some I know only online, and some I would rather not speak to. 🙂

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    The Business of Design: Are our expectations changing?

    Businessweek’s Bruce Nussbaum, in a recent talk he gave at Innovation Night at the Royal College of Art in London. Definitely worth the read. (although I don’t buy his notion that CEOs need to be designers)

    “The second great trend that will soon have an impact on design is social networking. Social media is upending relationships between customers and corporations, brand owners and brand creators, consumers and producers, centralized authority and anarchistic periphery and—pay attention here—designers and their audiences. People want to design their own experiences, or at least have a big voice in it. With Web 2.0 technology and blogs, they get that voice. People are increasingly designing their own shoes and clothes, their own screen pages, their own interfaces, their own homes. And when they’re not, they want designers and managers to really understand what they have to say. Nike is changing the way it designs and manufactures because of social networking. So are dozens of other companies. Yes, we will always have our brilliant geniuses who intuit their audiences and create wonderful experiences for them. Ive and Jobs at Apple. Bang & Olufsen and its incredible designers and designs. But even Apple is getting hit very hard on the sustainability issue because it isn’t listening to its social networks. Brands have ideologies. They stand for things. People believe in those things. When the culture of Apples’ customers changes, as it is happening today, it has to move with it. You, as designers, can’t just do ethnology anymore. You have to join with those you’re observing to be in their culture and create with them.”

    Nussbaum sees the audience changing and demanding more because of the software they use and the culture of interaction they’re in. Their expectations are changing because of their experiences with social networking and the closer conversation between companies and customers. In short, Nussbaum sees the realization of the Cluetrain in social networking software.

    In addition, and perhaps more interestingly, Nussbaum suggests that companies mine their own social networks for signs of where their businesses should be trending. He doesn’t give any details of how that might happen, though…

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    The Danger of Aggregate Displays in Social Software

    Where is the ethical line drawn when designing interfaces that show popularity?

    One of the most important results of people interacting socially online is that we can measure the effect of social influence. A ground-breaking study by Columbia professor Duncan Watts showed how this could be done. (I wrote it up in How Aggregate Displays Change User Behavior) This is one of the most important studies I’ve seen…it clearly shows a relationship between people’s actions and the aggregate information that’s shown to them in the interface.

    iTunes Top Songs

    For those not familiar with Watts’ study, it showed that when faced with an interface showing what other people did we are definitely influenced by that behavior. If we are shown a list of the most downloaded songs, as in the study, we cannot help but give more weight to those songs downloaded more. We’ll be more likely to download those songs ourselves. This echoes countless studies from social psychology that show how we are affected by our environment.

    Dangerous Territory

    But one dangerous effect of aggregate displays might not be apparent at first. After we realize that our displays are affecting people, the next question becomes: which aggregate displays do we show and when? This is a question a lot of design teams are grappling with as they build out their social software.

    But taking it even further we get into ethical territory. This was made plain to me by a question that someone asked me the other day after we were discussing Watts’ study. They asked: “If people respond to aggregate displays, and change their behavior accordingly as they’ve done in Watts’ study, aren’t those people also in a position to be manipulated?”

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