The runaway successes of YouTube, MySpace, and Flickr have completely changed the landscape of design. One huge change is the rise in socially-enabled web applications, applications that connect users in new and more explicit ways. Witness the trend of “going social” on news sites, where they give their community the ability to comment on and even participate in the news. The design team behind the USAToday.com web site, for example, recently enhanced their site with new social features including comments, reviews, discussion forums, and the ability to make recommendations. Just this past week ABCNews did the same.

So what are the core benefits of making this change? Why invest in social features? Although the benefits will vary depending on the business and the audience, here are some core benefits of investing in social features that apply broadly across many areas:

Amplify Customer Opinion

Humans are social animals. Therefore, it is likely that there is social activity happening around your content or service whether you want it to or not. People are sharing their stories, complimenting about what’s good, complaining about what’s bad even if you aren’t listening. By adding social features to your web site, you’re enabling them to do it in a way that you can listen to.

Companies with strong products users love will help them share those experiences with others. For example, something as simple as a “share this” feature on a news site will allow people to let someone else know about what they find interesting…amplifying their enthusiasm about it.

Similarly, companies with products users hate will have that amplified as well. If someone posts a horror story like Jeff Jarvis did in his famous “Dell Hell” blog posts, lots of people will get wind of it.

This is a crucial situation brought to bear by social features…when users complain you are given a clear choice: either ignore that feedback or act on it in a positive way. Companies that treat it as an opportunity for improvement will probably improve. Companies that treat it as a public airing of dirty laundry will probably suffer…

Data, Data, and more Data

Perhaps the least talked about benefit of social features is that they are wonderful precursors to a data-driven design strategy. Every time someone saves, shares, or comments on something, you have more data to go on regarding what they find valuable.

We’ve been doing this at UIE for some time. When someone shares an article at UIE we count it. The 10 most-shared articles on UIE.com, therefore, tell us what our readers find “share-worthy”. This is an important metric for us, as we use it to plan future pieces.

The benefits of data-driven design are huge for teams having trouble separating personal opinion from project decision-making. (we find very few teams where this isn’t the case). When decisions are based on actual data, they become much easier to make. Politics fall by the wayside and good design practices often emerge as a result.

Reduce Support Costs

Social features help reduce support costs by recording help issues publicly and letting customers help themselves. Talk to any support call specialist and you’ll find that their lives can be very repetitive, answering the same questions over and over again. This doesn’t have to be the case. When you add social features like support bulletin boards, for example, most of the conversations are recorded for all to see. Users can then search for the topic that they’re interested in, and if someone has had a similar experience previously they can start reading there. Bulletin boards, of course, have been around even longer than the Web itself. But making them public and searchable makes them valuable resources for everyone.

Additionally, systems like this allow users to help themselves by giving them the power to answer other people’s questions. Sometimes the users of the products are as knowledgeable about a product as the support people are. Social features allow them to help out and make the community stronger as a result.

Some sites like Apple.com’s Support Site have more advanced features whereby people can rate the responses they are given to their questions. That way, if one response by the community really helped the person who asked the question, it will be flagged and easily found by future readers. This helps users filter out bad responses, further reducing support costs.

Engendering Trust

Opening up communication channels with customers engenders trust, and that can be priceless. Sites that might otherwise be seen as closed-up and insular can open up communication channels where none existed before.

When you implement social features, it is a signal that you care what people have to say. It declares a “we are here and we’re listening” attitude. Putting comments on a news article, like USAToday.com did, suggests that they are interested in letting people voice their opinion about the news.

Sometimes just telling someone their opinion counts is enough to engender trust. They’re much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when the sky turns dark. Of course, backing up your features by actually listening is necessary for the long-term health of your site, so the activity doesn’t end with implementation.

Going Social is a Long-term Experience Design Strategy

In addition to the explicit benefits for the site owner, implementing social features means building a community around shared experiences. The notion of “shared experiences” is difficult to define, but the benefits of increased participation and caring are clear. People respond best to communities where they believe they’ll find like-minded people and where they feel their ideas and opinions matter. This trust is the real benefit of social software.

Therefore, adding social features isn’t so much a leap of faith as it is an investment in a long-term experience design strategy. Of course, the costs of building social features aren’t negligible and the return on investment might not be immediate. It may take months before a social support site starts to take over support activities from a call center. Therefore, it is critical to plan out the maintenance and support of social features over time.

When all the benefits are combined together and your customers now see your site as being run by human beings instead of nameless droids, and they feel invested in the site, you’ll realize that social features are only surfacing what exists already, and it’s really just a human-centered way forward.

Want to Learn More from Joshua Porter?

UIE's Joshua Porter put together a seminar, Social Design: Designing for the Social Lives of Users for folks who recognize the incredible value of social features, but aren't sure where to start. He describes 9 principles that will give you a solid foundation for adding social features to improve your users' experiences.

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