Feature Development in Action: Broadcast Stream Messages in Socialcast

In which I describe how we discovered the broadcast stream message feature in Socialcast.

One of the guiding principles of interaction design is to support existing behavior. This means to figure out what is already happening, what activities, tasks, and interactions people are already doing, and build support for them into software.

This may not seem like a glamorous way to approach design, but from my experience it’s the fastest way to make people happy. Let them do what they already do faster/better/easier, and then you’ll have their attention in order to push the envelope after that.

Here is an example of a feature I worked on recently that supports existing behavior. The feature is called “broadcast stream messages”. It is part of the enterprise software collaboration tool Socialcast, a powerful activity-stream based application that allows people in a company to communicate in near real-time in a more efficient way than they can with email.

Here is how the feature works within the Socialcast software: When someone signs up to use Socialcast for their company, they automatically become the administrator of the account. As an admin, they can appoint others as admins as well. In many cases the initial user appoint executives of the company as admins so they have access to everything.

As an admin you have certain privileges. The new feature, broadcast messages, is a privilege that allows admins to post a message to the stream for everyone to see, regardless of who is following who. This is why it is called broadcast, because one person is broadcasting a message to all the rest. Here is a screenshot of a broadcast message I created using the account I have for Bokardo Design.

Bokardo Design | Live Stream

The message looks different than normal messages in the system. It has a blue background and a broadcast icon next to the avatar. Also, like the broadcast message itself, any discussion that starts around this message will be available for all to see.

Some people have called Socialcast “Twitter for the enterprise”, and while that does communicate some idea of what Socialcast does (it is a stream-based app), it is becoming clear that the two products are diverging. Broadcast messages are a good example of the divergence.

The feature was not received by everyone positively. At ReadWriteWeb Enterprise, Steve Walling has suggested the mere existence of a broadcast feature means the software is making decisions for people. In a piece titled Socialcast: CEO’s Status Should Be Louder Than Yours, Steve says:

“(Socialcast) thinks that HR and C-level executives deserve extra recognition in the corporate status stream. Its new Broadcast Message feature gives announcements by higher-ups priority if they want it, effectively creating the Reply All of the micro-messaging world.

For a startup whose entire value proposition is software that transforms work, the idea of enabling preexisting corporate hierarchies is an ill-considered move. Corporate hierarchy is what makes the enterprise tick, no doubt about it. But in communication, what’s needed is reducing noise, not the means to create more of it.

For our bet, the best part of enterprise microblogging is that every employee decides what messages they receive. The ability to filter and follow selectively within the company is the feature that makes it more attractive than email.

In the open world of consumer activity streams such as Twitter or Friendfeed, I think Steve has a point: no user of the system should have the power to broadcast messages to everyone. This would quickly lead to undesirable behavior. (it’s why email is so SPAMMY) But in the corporate world things are different. First off, users are invited into the system and are all part of the same company. This means there is some level of accountability in the system: bad actors can be found and dealt with. Second, in the corporate world a hierarchy not only exists (as Steve admits) but it is important to the workings of a company. If the CEO needs to get a message out, then that’s what should happen. (S)he shouldn’t have to worry about who is following who or other details about how the software works.

I can imagine situations in which the broadcast message is abused, but that would be a result of the corporate culture (or the individual), not the software. In general there are no lasting technological solutions to social problems.

So back to the feature. Here is some of the thinking around use cases we talked about when working on it.

While many people are on Socialcast much of the workday, leaving it open in a browser window or using the desktop app (for many it is an everyday app), there are several times during the day that they step away from their computer. They go to lunch. They go home for the evening. They run errands. They’re in meetings all day. Even for a highly-engaged start-up, there can be long periods each day where people are away. This is very similar to email, with a slight difference. Socialcast is more synchronous than email. Sometimes people hold conversations in near-real-time on Socialcast. This comes from the nature of the software: messages are sent very quickly and as a result more messages get sent.

When people come back to the software after a break, they go through an updating activity, getting acquainted with what happened while they were away. We observed that when people do this they often skim extremely fast to find out if they missed anything. The slight fear of missing something important is a motivator in lots of social software, so it is with the corporate stream.

Over time, as people settle into using Socialcast and find an equilibrium they are comfortable with, their following habits normalize. Some people only follow those they work with on projects. This is powerful way for them to increase the signal/noise ratio of their stream. If the only people they follow are the ones they are working closely with, the messages they see are on average very valuable to them. This is the power of the asymmetric, or follower model of relationships.

However, we observed that this behavior also created another problem, especially in some of the very large organizations who are using Socialcast. In some cases when an executive made a company announcement or had important news to share, some people didn’t get the message because they weren’t following.

It didn’t always have to be super important, either. For example, on one friday an executive of a relatively small, distributed company decided to give everyone the afternoon off to go see The Watchmen. The message went out to everyone following the boss and they were aware of what was going on. Some people were working remotely (an increasing trend) and not following that particular boss. They simply didn’t get the message. They were expecting to have people at the main office to work with that day. Well, they found out too late that their afternoon was going to be vastly different than what they had planned.

This is simply one instance of the follower model breaking down. (a relatively innocuous case) We have since seen several more cases like this. While the follower model is powerful it wasn’t supporting broadcast messages very well. Our resulting broadcast feature is designed to fix this. To put it another way, people were used to being able to send messages with relatively strong assurance that they would be read by everyone. That was the existing behavior. Once we identified it, it was easy to come up with the new broadcast message feature.

Since the feature has gone out, we’ve seen some interesting uses for it. Here are some of them:

  • Emergency Alerts
    Emergency alerts at a University campuses that require faculty awareness and frequent updates.
  • Companywide Congratulations
    Congratulating a team on the major accomplishment of finishing off a multi-year project.
  • Breaking News
    Lots of teams have used the feature for breaking news, from mundane things like changes in company policy to important things like crisis response.
  • Help & Support
    Helping people become aware of new resources on the intranet that they may not have found themselves.
  • Company-wide Initiatives
    Relaying organization-wide initiatives, informing all users of conversations being held by leadership, increasing transparency and diminishing ambiguity.
  • Calendaring Updates
    Sending quarterly meeting dates and basic agendas for people to put on their calendars and prepare for.
  • Tool Tips & Tricks
    Explaining best practices for Socialcast to all members. Depending on the organization, there is a wide variety of people who may or may not have experience using streaming systems. Teams are helping each other out by pointing to resources and best practices.
  • Required Reading
    In an effort to get everyone on the same page, some companies have required reading lists. We’ve seen the broadcast feature used to inform folks of the latest readings that will be discussed at upcoming meetings/events.

In general, we’re seeing uses of the feature that we didn’t anticipate. We think this is a good sign, as it suggests that broadcast messages are providing value in different ways. And, because all of the messages and resulting conversation are archived in a single place, it’s easy for people to reference going forward. (unlike email, where everyone has their own, incomplete copy)

While I was writing this piece I ran across another review of it from Bill Ives over at Pistachio Consulting. He also views broadcast messages as a good thing in general. He says:

“Broadcasting is one examples of an emergent capability not appropriate for use on the broader web, that can work well within the enterprise. This feature would not even be relevant to Twitter because users have access to only one follower pool and the system depends on its distributed nature. In an enterprise you can have layers of participation and parallel systems for those who aren’t microsharing yet. This feature can provide a greater sense of community within the enterprise as all levels of the organization can now respond to breaking broadcasted news through a channel that provides greater collaboration than email. We look forward to more innovations like this one within the market as it adapts to the needs of the enterprise.”

Bill sees the potential of broadcast messages: as a small, helpful feature that solves a particular problem in enterprise software. But, as with all features this one is a work in progress. For more information about the broadcast feature and the collaboration tool in general, check out Socialcast.com.

Published: August 21st, 2009