Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

Designing for the Social Web

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the London Web Standards Meetup where we discussed the book "Designing for the Social Web" by Joshua Porter. The organiser of the event, Jeff Van Campen, very kindly managed to get a couple of the books for us for free on the basis that we wrote up a review of the book on our respective blogs.

[54/365] Designing for the Social Web

On the whole, I found the book to be very good although it was rather simple and basically consisted of a similar message to the excellent book "Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug - that is to say, "use some common sense"!

The book is broken down into 8 chapters with each one becoming slightly shorter and slightly more off topic.

1. The Rise of the Social Web

This opening chapter really sets the scene by explaining what is meant by the term "social web" and investigating the move from one-way communication to two-way and then many-way communication. Joshua also looks at something he calls "The Amazon Effect"; the behavioural trait that people will quite often use Amazon for product research even if they have no intention of purchasing there. He also investigates something that I come across more and more these days; "The Paradox of Choice". This is a term given to the problem of having so much choice in front of us that in the end we actually do nothing as we spend all of our time comparing. Whilst not offering any solutions to this problem, it is worth noting that it is present in order to stop the more content happy of us trying to offer every single solution to a user when oftentimes it's better just to give them one or two - this again enforces the idea of keeping things simple.

The chapter goes on to look at how "social software is accelerating" and how at some point the entire internet will be taken over by the social movement. I have a few issues with the figures bandied about at this point (and indeed in many other similar books). The most frequently used statistic is from Technorati in that there are "120,000 blogs being added every day" thus somehow showing that the very face of the internet is changing. To my mind, this is nonsense as for every new blog being added to the blogosphere, there are probably a good few that are just fading into non-existent as their owners fail to update them or their accounts get closed down. Whilst I do appreciate that the take up of social media is indeed growing, it is nowhere near the levels that people would have us believe.

2. A Framework for Social Web Design

This is another excellent chapter that focuses on the bane of all agency-bound developers; feature creep. This is one of the key problems in current web application development as people think that more features means more users and thus a better application. This is of course completely wrong and many would do well to remember the old maxim "quality not quantity". Joshua looks at a wide range of social network sites such as YouTube, Digg, Delicious, Twitter, etc, in order to point out what their key function is and therefore highlight that the most successful social apps are those that stick to what they know.

There is, however, a rather peculiar section regarding giving social objects a URL. Apparently, Flickr was initially a flash application and it wasn't until people had their own page to show off their photos that Flickr really began to grow. The issue here is that a lot of emphasis is placed on having a URL and that this is the main reason that Flickr grew whereas in actual fact it was just the idea that somebody could have their own profile page and their core model went away from flash application to a real web application that probably increased their user base. I'm not contending that social objects should have their own URL but rather that this is fairly obvious and that it probably wasn't the defining feature that turned Flickr around.

3. Authentic Conversations

This is the point in the book that I began to notice that it was slipping away from it's titled purpose of "design" and instead looking at very general good business practice. The entire contents of this chapter can be summarised by "respect your customers and talk to them". There is quite a large section about the "Dell Hell" situation from 2005 and how Dell had basically received complaints and not responded to them. To make it worse, a blogger created a website to publicise this and they still came back and said nothing giving them a very bad image. Joshua's dichotomy of this is to show an incident in which the technical editor of the book posted a message on her blog about a problem she had experienced with Plaxo and that they had then commented on her blog to try and help resolve her problem. In it's way, it is a good example as it shows a company commenting on an issue on somebody elses blog in order to correct them. What isn't pointed out is that the original poster should have just contacted their help desk (or in fact read the instructions in the first place) rather than writing a rant on her blog which the company had to find and then correct her. However, this is probably very realistic of most online conversations as there is always a group of people (especially prevelant on YouTube comments) who will just shout loudly when anything changes. This is exemplified later in Chapter 5 with Facebook. In my opinion, the response from Plaxo wasn't particularly good either as it was far too formal a response (felt a bit auto-generated) and they had performed some rudimentary anti-spam protection on their email address (listing it as "privacy @t plaxo.com" rather than just putting "privacy@plaxo.com"). If the person complaining couldn't read the simple instructions on the task she was performing or search for the technical support when she had a problem, it is probably fairly likely that she'll just copy and paste what is there and then write a follow up article entitled "They never reply to my emails - they just send bounces!".

The chapter does move into a few interesting articles of PR situations that have gone very wrong such as Dreamhost calling an overcharge to their customers of $7.5million a "teensy eensy weensy little billing error" and a good section on how to apologise correctly. However, this isn't dealing with design and isn't what I expected to find inside this book. It's welcome advise but I would consider it to fall under "common sense" or some sort of management category rather than the encompassing role of "design" as the title suggests.

4. Design for Sign-up

Now we get back to intended idea of the book ("design") and approach how to get people over the all important hurdle of signing up to your website. I particularly like this section as it reinforces one of the first eye-opening pieces of knowledge I received about writing copy for the web; keep it very short and very simple. This method was taught to me many years ago as such:

Most people will write copy for the web as if they were writing for a broadsheet newspaper such as The Times or The Telegraph whereas it should be written as if for a tabloid such as The Sun or The Daily Mirror. Notice how tabloids tend to highlight key phrases and keep sentences short. The first thing you should do with any copy you write for the internet is delete 50% of it. Then, once you think it's the right size, remove another 50%.

This obviously doesn't apply to articles or blog posts but is a key tactic for writing easily digestible content for homepages or sign up forms. This chapter espouses this view by forcing people to state very clearly who, what, where, when, why, and how. With these key questions in mind, you can make your inviting text all the more succinct and likely to generate conversions.

The other half of this chapter details how to "reduce sign-up friction" which basically boils down to making your registration form as small as possible. One thing that is missing here which should definitely have been mentioned is the removal of captcha forms and human readable tests. There is no reason at all why companies should still be using these ridiculously outdated methods of spam prevention. They are inaccessible (I have trouble reading a large number of them) and time consuming yet more to the point they are completely useless as a spam bot can be fooled easily by simply having a hidden field named something enticing like "email" and then have your script check to see if it's full. If it is, you'll know it was a spam bot as there is no way for a human to fill it in. To prevent humans submitting applications over and over, use an automated system such as Akismet (which I use for spam prevention on this blog) or just impose an IP limit so you can't have more than one registration from the same address every 15 minutes. This will slow down spammers enough that they won't bother but won't interfere too much with those on shared networks, etc.

5. Design for Ongoing Participation

This is another good chapter as it focuses a lot on the psychology of users and essentially on the mass insecurity they have and the need for them to be able to create their own little home on your site. Any social network these days has to have a profile page and again I find it strange that this needs reiterating as this is surely a given.

There are one or two good points made about encouraging efficacy (a way of giving active users a boost in reputation) and in giving people solid control over privacy options (something that Facebook neglected initially to the general outcry of the public) but these things really are fairly obvious to anybody intent on creating a social network. I think this chapter could have offered a bit more constructive advice and maybe a few more case studies of sites doing the right and wrong things in order to make it as good as some of the previous chapters.

6. Design for the Collective Intelligence

Collective Intelligence is a term used to describe how social applications can be shaped by the users of the system in order to make it work as they would like it and promote content that they would like to use. This is highlighted by the real world example of Digg which obviously works based on the idea of collaboration and in voting on particular pieces of content to move them up and down the social chain.

There is an excellent section on "leverage points" which goes into detail on how your social application will have many points at which the users can control something and how this can be managed correctly e.g. how a homepage of content voted on by users is displayed, what happens when somebody votes, etc. but I would contend that this is all fairly obvious to anybody who has used a social application before.

7. Design for Sharing

Sharing on the internet has supposedly boomed with the invent of networks such as StumbleUpon, Delicious, and Digg yet I am a firm believer that social network badges and sharing forms don't actually get used by the majority of users. This is also true of RSS feeds as I've mentioned in a previous blog posting as these are still mainly the domain of geekier users of the net. It is true that most websites around at the moment have these social badges or sharing forms but I don't think it is true of most social applications that people are going to be building. If you look at the title of the book, you are almost expecting to be taught how to make the next Delicious, not on how to integrate it. There are few social networks that have badges for other social networks on them as they are all very precious about their own traffic (although this has changed to a certain degree with Facebook Connect). This chapter is focusing on entirely the wrong angle as most social apps don't make sharing easy - blogs certainly do, but apps don't.

The one part that interested me was the criticism of too many social network badges which has become a phenomenon of the growth of social networks. As there are so many to choose from, how do you keep all your bases covered? More and more blogs are moving over to systems such as AddThis which do show all of the badges in a hidden button overlay but again this is still rather clunky and doesn't generate much conversion as people are overwhelmed by choice (as discussed in Chapter One). Having said that, I have written a jQuery plugin called jTardis which allows you to show only social networks that the user subscribes to thanks to some javascript trickery but I'll be blogging on this in more detail in the future!

One of the things that frustrated me about this chapter was the fact that the sharing forms that Joshua had designed and used as good examples were in fact really bad! All of the examples look like they had fallen out of the pre-dot com era of web design and didn't really show the basic simplicity of sending a page to someone else. He does note that most people tend to copy and paste the URL and just email. However, writing a form or widget to do this is not difficult yet he seems to have not done it particularly well - I'm sure there are better examples he could have used.

8. The Funnel Analysis

The final chapter is one that to my mind is far too short and doesn't really have a place in this book at all. It is a chapter designed to show how you can monitor the statistics of your social network via funnel analysis - a basic way of monitoring where people drop off from your site (e.g. are they falling at registration signup or at registration confirmation?). This is all very well and good but the chapter is far too short when you consider there are books of many hundreds of pages that still only scratch the surface of site analytics. There are also numbers used to show what small percentages of people actually sign up to certain sites but these are totally irrelevant as the apps involved aren't mentioned and every app is different so your figures could be differ greatly. They may as well have been made up!

I also found this chapter to be a little strange as I read the final sentence about how funnel analysis helps to illustrate that people do drop off as they progress through the site, and then turned the page to immediately drop off... into the index. The book was over with no summary, no recapping of the key points (remember the "writing for a tabloid" I highlighted earlier?). There was just a feeling of "oh, it's finished".

Conclusion

Overall the book is fairly good and does highlight a few interesting ideas. However it strays far too much from it's key focus of "designing for the social web" and thus fails to meet one of the key things it espouses; keeping your application simple by basing it around a single piece of functionality. The book was supposed to be about design and specifically on how to build great social web apps, yet too often the conversation moved to general business ideas such as "talk to your customers" or looking at how to analyse your web stats when it should instead have focused on the key components in a social app and how they work. To an extent this does happen (particularly in chapter 4) yet I don't feel it happened enough.

If you haven't used a great many social applications and are interested in a broad overview rather than a detailed analysis of the social web, then this book might be worth the £28.99 list price. However, if you are looking to build the next great web app and are already an avid user of the social web, then this is probably one you can afford to miss as it will just be covering well-trodden ground.

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