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Social Studies: It's the Interface, Stupid!
A report reveals numerous flaws in popular social networking sites' design for user experience--but also some good processes.
Posted Aug 9, 2007
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Social networking is a booming medium for online communication, especially among young adults, and therefore a potential gold mine for marketers who can connect to its users. But a new report from Forrester Research shows that even the most popular sites put obstacles in the way of people who wish to sign up and become part of the social networking community--specifically lack of privacy information, poor text legibility, and inefficient task flows. In the report, "Social Networking Sites Need A Usability Boost," Forrester applied a modified version of its Web-site review methodology to evaluate five social networks--Facebook, Friendster, hi5, MySpace, and Tagged--in terms of how easy it was for a new user to create a profile. Ratings for each of 10 criteria range from -2 (severe failure) to +2 (best practices), leaving a final score between -20 and +20, with +10 considered a passing grade. None of the five sites achieved higher than +4 (Facebook), and the lowest was -5 (Friendster). According to Forrester, the notable failure points included:
  • Lack of privacy and security policies. Four out of the five sites failed to present links to privacy and security policies in context when asking users to provide personal information.
  • Text that was difficult to read. Three out of the five sites failed to provide easily readable content and field labels.
  • Inefficient task flows. Friendster and Tagged exhibited awkward sign-up processes, with Tagged achieving a severe failure score in this area. Tagged required the user to add contacts to the new profile from a personal email account, and pushed for additional personal information like home address and phone number.
  • Poor error recovery. Tagged, Facebook, and MySpace all failed to present users with clear error messages that might have helped correct mistakes. Facebook and MySpace presented error messages on registration forms one at a time, forcing users through multiple attempts at submitting their information.
"Customer experience executives and site managers at social networks should take these scores to heart," writes report author Bruce Temkin, vice president and principal analyst for customer experience at Forrester. "While Gen Y consumers might enjoy fun experiences and seek out entertainment more than their elders, young adults want sites that are, first and foremost, easy to use."
Temkin says that there are two components to consider when discussing social networking sites' usability: the immersive experience and the directed experience. "The immersive experience is the reason people, especially kids, spend so much time on social networking sites," he says. In the Forrester paper, he writes, "For young adults, using social networking sites like Friendster and MySpace isn't just another activity to do online--for many, it is their life online. This is because their friends form the central point of their social networking activities, which revolve around communicating--and not media consumption." The directed experience, on the other hand, is "using social networking for an explicit goal, like finding a friend who knows somebody in the Boston area who works for Microsoft and can get me a job," Temkin says. "A directed goal, like setting up a user profile, is basic to the function of social networking, and it's easier to apply standards and metrics to understand it." Despite the overall negative evaluation Forrester levied on the social networking sites in its study, a handful of good scores emerged in individual criteria--at least for Facebook, which achieved the study's only four "+2" scores in the following categories:
  • Are essential content and function given priority on the page?
  • Does text formatting and layout support easy scanning?
  • Are form fields and interactive elements placed logically on the page?
  • Does site functionality provide clear feedback in response to user actions?
These lessons--both good and bad--can and should be taken to heart for professional communications as well. "According to TechCrunch, it's only a matter of time before Facebook meets the market need and improves its 'relationship' features and becomes more of a business platform," writes Paul Greenberg, author of the book CRM at the Speed of Light, on his blog, "PGreenblog." "What I find interesting is the anecdotal evidence supporting this. I find myself communicating with my business contacts more frequently with Facebook and, more importantly, they answer me a lot faster than either via email or via LinkedIn." Greenberg also writes that he has "almost [four times] as many contacts on LinkedIn as I do on Facebook, but Facebook seems to do the most important 'business thing' for relationships better--break down the barriers so that the conversations are human. And that is a priceless business benefit."

Related articles: Feature: Mercurial Marketing Social networking sites have bloomed in the past year or so, but just how valuable are they to marketers? Demographic Marketing Goes Web 2.0 Understanding how consumers approach social networking is crucial for marketers taking the Web 2.0 plunge. Feature: Social Networking: Getting in Touch the CRM Way CRM magazine explains technology that will understand and leverage your relationship capital. Try to Dig What We All Say It's time for marketers to understand how social networking sites cater to every generation. Feature: Y Me Members of Generation Y were the first to mature in a media-saturated, tech-savvy world--here's how to blow past the buzz. MySpace Cadets Growing popularity has marketers looking to blast off into the new social networking frontier, awash in security and clutter issues. SMBs Love Web 2.0 Small and medium businesses are quick adopters of Web 2.0, fueled by cost and performance pressures.
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