Creating Engaged and Passionate Users, Part 2

Part 2 of an interview I did with Christine Perfetti on creating engaged and passionate users.

Note: the following is part 2 of an interview I did with my good friend Christine Perfetti on Creating Engaged and Passionate Users. You should read Part 1 first.

How can designers pinpoint areas of their social application that aren’t working?

Well, first there needs to be agreement on what “working” means. There are lots of ways something can fail to work…but usually it means that the site isn’t doing something that it’s supposed to. And ideally every design team has a list of their most important metrics…those things that really matter to the success of their product/service. I’ve found that without a clear picture of which metrics are important, design teams tend to lose focus over time and fail to continually iterate and improve.

Designers have relied on metrics since the beginning of the web. We first started with metrics such as hit counters that measured the number of hits to the web server. Unfortunately, the hits were typically meaningless because they included hits to pretty much anything, including images, JavaScript, and other files, failing to provide any real insight into what was happening. As time has gone on, however, the metrics we examine have become much more sophisticated.

The latest focus for many design teams is to understand ways to measure user engagement. These metrics include the number of return visits and the average time on site for visitors. These metrics have important implications for your business.

For example, Google wants people to spend as little time as possible each time they interact with their search engine. They want people to come to the site, find what they want, and leave. On the other hand, Facebook wants people to spend more time on their site, so they can gather more data about visitors and expose them to more ads. The time on site success metric is radically different based on the specific site’s business goals.

When building an application, it’s essential for design teams to identify 3-4 core metrics to assess the success of the application and the health of the business. If these metrics go up, it’s a sign your business is healthy.

If you just build interactions without respect to core metrics, you can get into a situation where people use your web site — but not in the way you intended. This is why free applications that were once all the rage are now being downgraded to free trials. Design teams found that so many people were using the applications without paying and it was a huge drain on a business.

In your book, Designing for the Social Web, you recommend that design teams take advantage of the funnel analysis to uncover areas of their social application that aren’t working well. How does this analysis work?

It’s really important to have solid metrics at each stage of the lifecycle to uncover where a site or application has an opportunity to improve. A funnel analysis is a good way to find out what’s broken. It can show you how well your site moves people along the stages of the lifecycle, from Interested to Passionate.

Designers can picture their site as a funnel, where at the top they have everyone who is interested in the application and at the bottom is everyone who is passionate about the software.

For example, of those people who are initially interested in your application, only a subset of them will decide to ever actually use your application for the first time. Of the people who use the application for the first time, only some will use the application regularly. Of those regular users, only a small percentage of visitors will become passionate users. By examining where users drop off in the funnel, you can pinpoint opportunities for improvement on your web site.

However, if you’ve ever done funnel analysis you know that people do all sorts of things besides progress step-by-step through a series of screens. They visit multiple times, they skip around, they email you, they do all sorts of multi-channel communication, etc. This makes it more difficult to determine what’s wrong with your funnel.

As an aside, this is why we’ve built what we’ve built at Performable, which is an events-based analytics tool. Events-based means that the tools analyzes all actions of users, not just the ones that happen in a pre-specified 4-step funnel. This is necessary to truly capture the rich experience that your users are having over time.

Have you found that social applications are evolving over time?

Social applications have definitely been evolving. Over the last few years, I’ve seen that people have really embraced these applications. Users are now used to the concept of social applications. Three years ago, people had no idea what a News Feed was. Now everyone knows what it is.

I’ve seen a lot of changes. For example, many applications are now focusing on location. Location applications, such as Foursquare and Gowalla, are doing some really interesting things. These apps are essentially erasing the difference between being online and offline.

All of the social applications are also going mobile. People are using them everywhere. With devices like the iPad taking off, those trends are only going to accelerate. It’s insane how fast mobile is growing.

So those two trends, social and mobile, have accelerated everything.

MySpace was one of the first really popular social web sites, but has since become less relevant. What happened?

A couple of things happened. MySpace was the first national social network that caught the attention of everyone. We’d hear about it on the news and people started talking about privacy. MySpace really brought social networks to the general public and millions of people were using it.

Then Facebook came along and the momentum shifted. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the shift, but I think engineering was Facebook’s big win. From an engineering standpoint, Facebook executes extremely well. They roll out changes quickly and the site always seems to work. Facebook’s uptime was excellent, whereas MySpace had a lot of problems.

From a design perspective, Facebook has always been much cleaner and much more consistent than MySpace.

From a social design perspective, it could be argued that MySpace’s themed pages was a good idea because it was offering users a unique identity. Why do you think this approach failed?

While users on MySpace were allowed to theme their pages, I believe this actually hurt the usability of the application’s design because it allowed people to make very difficult to read (and use) pages. Even though it allowed MySpace users to express themselves how they wanted, it wasn’t the best choice for the readers of those profiles.

So yes, theming a profile is important for identity. And I think on some level, this was an important feature for MySpace, at least early on, because people liked to be able to change their profile to reflect their personality. But the ability to personalize MySpace was trumped b/c Facebook rose to prominence and had more momentum…personalization is interesting but unimportant when compared to where your friends are. (And, it should be pointed out that MySpace is still gigantic and has not really failed but rather become the 2nd biggest social network.)

So, why did Facebook rise to prominence? I think the big reason is that they recognized what was most important to people and then out-engineered MySpace in building their platform.

For example, in 2007, Facebook implemented the News Feed, an activity stream. If I had to point to a single feature this would be it (or perhaps photos…) The designers at Facebook realized people were coming for their friend’s content, such as links, messages, and photos and that a stream was a much better way to display these things because it ordered things by time. While MySpace gave users the ability to statically change the background and text of their profiles, there was less sense of immediacy when people made updates. Viewers still had to go and find what was updated on their friends pages. The Facebook News Feed made these changes front and center, and set a new bar in engagement. Thus the themes in MySpace were trumped by Facebook’s realization that content sharing and status updates were much more important to users than profile personalization.

But other social networks are growing. Twitter is adding photos now and this will take them to the next level. And I think in the future more social applications will focus on specialized features for specific activity groups. For example, Dribbble is a social network where designers share what they’re working on. You have services like PatientsLikeMe, which is a social network for people living with diseases, and Ravelry, a social network for folks who knit and crochet. These services have people who are as passionate about some specific activity and are extremely active within that world (maybe moreso than on the big networks), these networks just happen to be smaller populations so they aren’t in the news everyday.

Published: June 6th, 2011