Compelling Social Design


With the success of social websites being so widely reported in the media, more and more companies are feeling pressured to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. But will mashups, tagging and blogs really lead to a good experience for your users? Will you see a return on your investment? And if you are implementing Web 2.0 features in your website, how can you encourage users to participate?

Web 2.0 trends

In 2006, Gartner produced an emerging technologies hype cycle diagram which put Web 2.0 in a prominent position at stage two of the cycle, also known as the peak of inflated expectations. Stage two is described as “a frenzy of publicity that typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations”. Gartner’s report goes on to caution that “there may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures”.

Successful social applications

Over the last two years, social web applications and community sites have proliferated, innovated and grown in popularity. The “Web as platform” is definitely a phenomenon that is here to stay and new networks of readers, critics and communities of interest are emerging all the time. In 2007, Forrester Research estimated that 21% of all UK online consumers visited social networking sites at least monthly.

Audience participation

In contrast, however, only 3% of the UK’s online audience (adults) write a blog, and only 3% subscribe to RSS feeds. Greater proportions of people will criticise or comment on other people’s content than will create their own. Using survey data, Forrester Research have built a profiling tool that describes how people from different countries participate and interact in dialogues with content on the Web. Forrester’s data reveals that a high proportion of the UK’s online audience do not participate or generate content on the Web at all. The more common ways of participating online are to respond to content provided by others using ratings, reviews or comments. Collecting (tagging or subscribing to feeds) content is not so commonplace.

Designing for the Social Web

There is no standard or secret recipe that will encourage users to generate content and form a community or network around your website. Different design solutions will succeed in different contexts or scenarios and there can be great value in being the first to do something different. To make a social website work you need to conceptualise and create new and better communication channels for both human-computer interaction and human to human interaction. Creating a compelling social website can sometimes be about the detail and consideration given to these communication dialogues. Sometimes a social website is successful simply because it addresses an existing user need in a new way, or brings people together using a different common interest. For example, Dopplr provides people with travel recommendations using the power of established social networks. Social websites also need a strong and differentiated online identity. Here are some more ways to encourage users to contribute content.

1. Enable people to exchange ideas or information in new ways

An application that has worked on Facebook won’t necessarily work on your website. Requests for comments, ratings, stories or reviews must be relevant to the goals of the users who are reading and engaging with your content. The online T-shirt retailer Threadless invite users to rate T-shirt slogans as either “I’d wear it” or “Stupid”. Making the rating relevant to the goals of the website (in this case creating and selling T-shirts) encourages users to participate and gives the website personality. Think about extensions or variations of commonplace interactions and try to make your invites to participate online more meaningful, personable and engaging.

2. Ensure that registering is really worth it and also hassle free

People hate filling in registration and profile forms. They present a barrier to getting things done. If your site is trusted then you could give users the option of importing their profile information from other sources such as Facebook. People also need to see or comprehend the benefits of your site tools before registering. Think carefully about the features and benefits of your site that users can take advantage of without logging in. Also work out the advantages of registering from a user’s perspective. Digg added a recommendation engine to their social bookmarking website. This takes your activity (digging, burying), and compares it to others, then makes article recommendations based on similarities. The more you tell Digg through your interactions with the website, the more useful it will become. Digg only asks for a minimum amount of data from users before they begin using the recommendation engine, although there are benefits to registering. By the time the user comes to sign up, they have already invested in Digg and seen the benefits, making them more motivated and less likely to abandon the site.

3. Humanise your website’s language

A website that manages dialogue between groups or networks of people needs to feel personable and friendly. The interface for adding comments or reviews shouldn’t feel like a database entry form. Don’t overload people with too many questions at once and use relevant, personable language. Visual design features can be used to stimulate reactions from participants. For example, the You Say / We Say designs on the Daily Mail’s website highlight opposing viewpoints and encourage readers to think about an issue and then join the debate.

4. Ensure your community generates enough content to be sustainable

If your website relies on user generated content, investigate the likelihood that your current or target audience will actually invest the time to contribute.  It needs to be really easy to create content and to benefit from using other people’s content.

5. Design for people not for recognition

The technologies that are really useful to people will be the ones that catch on.  Be wary of just adding interactions because other competitors or websites have done so already. There are many sites out there with prolific ‘comments(0)’ links. Comments are useful to other users when they stretch, twist, debate or extend a writer’s thinking.  Don’t add user generated content opportunities everywhere. Instead, determine the benefits of different kinds of interaction from an audience perspective. Data from Forrester Research Technographics® surveys, 2007. For further details on the Social Technographics profile, see