In rolling out and growing a successful social product we need to always think from the user’s perspective. Audiences don’t view the product as we do, and we should have no reason to expect them to do with our platform as we have engineered and designed it. What it does, what it’s good for, and how it’s used should simply make sense.
The catch here is that audiences will naturally follow the lead of those who use the product the most. It’s the activity and communication left behind on the site or service by those for whom it is most compelling that informs others. This is just how social engagement works. We learn from others, by recognizing what they are doing and how.
This means that in early product development, we’ll need to design for some number of core users, not for all at once. Our reasons for this are two-fold.
Firstly, we want to engage certain user types in order to populate the site with the personalities and content that inform others according to the social interaction requirements we have set up for the product. People attract other people. And since a dead tool is of no use to anyone, leveraging the engagement of early adopters has a strong shaping effect on where the product’s audience grows from there.
Secondly, we want to elicit and sustain the social dynamics and interactions that we have determined best suit our product’s adoption going forward. So once we have captured the interest of core users, their activity will lead the participation of others. This is not science or engineering, but basic sociology. Social practices organize around and reflect the higher engagement and habits of leaders and heavy users. The growth of any live social event follows the same basic patterns.
In other words, we want the engagement of a small core set of user types in order to get both usage (activity) and content (their communication, contributions, etc) in support of our product’s social goals. And we want to do so, furthermore, in order to spawn the kinds of social dynamics that are naturally socially occurring, and which reproduce themselves. Organic social use will get the product going as a viable social system.
I like to identify user types by psychological profiles, if you will. But whether or not you use a personality type, or some other description of user type, is up to you. I prefer to think psychologically because I like to get as close to the motives and motivations behind the uses, behaviors, and social interactions that core users find interesting to them.
In most cases, we begin by identifying users whose egos can get into our social product or service. These are people for whom our product best extends how they see themselves, and their place or position in the system. These kinds of people will most readily see what to do with the product, and will have the skills and know-how to do so. Think of the social product as an ego extension. Those who project most easily and richly into the experience will be most likely to get involved.
(There are possibly counter examples, such as with social tools designed for more private experiences. One could argue that dating is not about going big online. But in some ways even this counter example is imperfect — dating profiles are about how we appear, and how we are received.)
With our core user types defined, we can capture scenarios and use cases from a user experience perspective. We do this in order to validate the features and functionalities we have planned (and which often serve our business needs). How do our users want to see themselves? How do they want to appear? What do they want to see of others? How much do they want to interact directly with others, indirectly with others, and to what extent should this activity be captured, preserved, and structured? What’s best experienced in realtime, and what is best saved?
These and many other common distinctions required of social tools can be laid out in scenarios written from a strictly user-centric and experiential perspective. And these, not a tight narratives that focus on the tool alone, but as broader stories that relate the user’s daily habits and pastimes.
With these scenarios in place, we can enumerate some of the social dynamics that are likely to emerge as the product’s audience grows. The shift to celebrities on twitter, for example. Which could have been anticipated by many of twitter’s early users, but was viewed almost as a cultural shift and threat to twitter’s community’s identity when it happened.
If trust, loyalty, reputation, celebrity, respect, collaboration, conversation and other social pastimes are essential to both the functionality of your social product and critical to its longevity as a source of quality content and experience, then think through these social dynamics. A core set of users will indeed bias future growth in some directions more probably than others.
This exercise, of defining core user types and identifying key social dynamics, is an important early stage step in road mapping product development of any social tool. Everyday activities of users are enabled by our social tool’s features. In identifying user types and scenarios, we then set up our thinking about social design constraints. By then, if we have been successful, we will have actual users and cultural and social practices with which to steer forward growth.