Monday, June 9, 2008

Five Tips for Effective Social Design

I came across this a while ago. It's short -- just the summary of a conference presentation -- but it's a goldmine of insight into web community building:

Let's look at those five tips, one by one.

1. Personal value precludes network value: To make a strong social site, you've got to start by making a good personal site. If the features you offer don't serve a solo user, it's unlikely your users will stick around long enough to become social.

This is an easy trap to fall into when you're designing community features: you build out something that will be great among a group of friends, without ever addressing the question of why that group will be coming to your site in the first place. "If you build it, they will come" -- all well and good, but you need to reward visitors on their very first visit, or there won't be a second visit, and the odds are excellent that initially they're coming as individuals, not as members of a group. So as much time and money as you've put into that excellent event-planning tool, with all the social networking gizmos you've plugged into the back-end, your home page had better attract clicks to content and tools of value to individuals, or those individuals won't be around long enough to become members of your community.

The key here: think about customer lifecycle. People will come to your site in every moment within that lifecycle. Some will be vaguely interested in your site/product and looking to learn more, others will be engaged and looking for specifics, some will be committed members looking to get full value from what your site offers, and then there will be the post-users who are bored/burned out on the experience and need some reason to come back into the fold. Look at your home page design: is there something on that page for every one of these people? If not, you probably need to revise your design, or figure out some way to engineer different entry points for the various points in the customer lifecycle.

2. Tie behavior to identity: What you do on the site should describe you more than what you say about yourself in your profile.

Historically, one of the primary obstacles to online communities is the way people tend to behave when they're online. If you've spent more than 10 minutes on Usenet or some other online forum, you know what I'm talking about: people online tend to be jerks. Flamewars break out because otherwise reasonable people, when cloaked in online anonymity, check their social conventions at the door and act like jerks. Racism, homophobia, sexism, obscenity, professions of extremist political beliefs, immature behavior: it's all to be found online, and sometimes it's so prevalent that it's hard to locate the wheat amid all that chaff.

The challenge for those of us who would like to build online communities, then, is to find some way to protect our users from mistreatment at the hands of other community members. Moderation is one option, but that can get expensive, and it can introduce a time-lag in the experience that substantially degrades the member's experience. (Not to mention the outcry that will certainly result as soon as a member is banned or a forum post is rejected for a reason that the community finds to be unjust or otherwise insufficient.)

Or you can take another route: lessen the anonymity. Allow your users to select any username they like -- and by all means don't make it mandatory for them to disclose real-world information about themselves -- but build your site in such a way that their actions persist and follow them around the site. Wikipedia vandals are outed by the fact that their edits can be uncovered -- a fact which has proven embarrassing for a number of companies and politicians caught falsifying their own entries. YouTube uploads are associated with the user who uploaded them. Ebay sellers or buyers who tend to piss people off will find their ratings a serious drag on their commercial success. When your actions follow you around, you'll be more careful about the way you present yourself.

In a nutshell: community depends on trust. Give your members a means by which they can tell whether or not they can trust the next guy, and they'll be more open to joining your community.

3. Give recognition. When your users contribute to the site, applaud them for it. Make those contributions publically visible. But make it temporary: once a user is recognized as a top contributor, let them fall off the map if they don't stay active.

This blends into something that's become my mantra of late: you can't build community, you can only enable it. You can design a terrific site full of wonderful features, but if no one uses them, you have a ghost town. Community doesn't exist until you have a multitude of people acting on their own and choosing to interact with others. You don't build community, in other words -- your members do, using the tools you've given them. Their contribution is critical, absolutely indispensable, so how could you not recognize and celebrate that?

Digg is the poster child here; its members compete with one another to fill the site with the most engaging content, because they crave the recognition they receive in doing so. But the same principle works on a much smaller scale. Think of a forum. Let's say that, when you look at a post, you can also see how often the person who posted it has contributed to the site. Towards the bottom of the post you can rate it on a scale of zero to five stars; now the poster has a cumulative rating, based on how well his or her posts have been rated. Those two features are all it takes to celebrate the most active and well-regarded members of your forum community. They do something nice for you, and you do something nice for them in return. (Or, if they choose to vandalize your site, the same system works to stigmatize them.) It's all good.

4. Show causation: If you're going to ask people to participate, make it clear what participating does for them.

This might be the #1 failing of the corporate site: it puts its own interests ahead of the user. Companies build community sites because they expect, in the long term, those sites to produce higher sales or greater customer satisfaction or some other measurable outcome. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that; most companies are not in the business of doing stuff for free. But in my experience that situation lends itself to a company-first mindset: we build our sites and our features to address company needs, not user needs. And that is why so many corporate sites fail.

It only takes a moment to understand why: most customers couldn't care less about your company. They want to know what your site does for them. If your site doesn't cater to their needs, they'll find another site that does. Simple as that. So if, when you think about community, all you see is dollar signs, you're in trouble. Ask, instead, what your online community provides to its members. If you're not giving them reason enough to come back time and time again, you're already dead.

The moral: start first with the question, "Why will users come to my site rather than all the others out there?" Give them a reason to come, and then give them many reasons to come back. Then, once visiting their site has become a part of their lives, you can think about marketing to them.

5. Leverage reciprocity: People contribute to social sites because they want to see what other people say about their contributions. Make it easy for people to leave feedback, compliments, and awards.

We all want to be appreciated. When we contribute something, we want to be thanked for it. When we create something, we want people to like it. No matter how thick your skin might be, there's a part of you that wants to be loved and appreciated and embraced. In fact, that's a pretty good picture of community right there: it's the group of people whose opinions matter to you and who value your opinion in return.

The good news is this is dead easy. At the bottom of every forum post, there should be a mechanism for rating its contents. You should always be able to rate user-generated content (and flag it if the content is objectionable), and allow people to add comments as well. Create online friends lists that allow your users to signal personal connections. When you give people a means of adding approval or disapproval to the actions and contributions of your community's members, you create a very strong incentive for your members to make frequent positive contributions. And that, in a nutshell, is the picture of a thriving community.

So there you have it: five tips that might not make your community site the best thing since sliced bread, but I can guarantee that they will improve your site significantly.