What do user experience design and a triathlon have in common?

White Lake Half Ironman Triathlon Swim Start 039
Image by cygnus921 via Flickr

There is more than you might think in common between designing social media tools and online communities and doing a triathlon. When I first took up triathlon I hadn’t a clue how it worked. I knew it involved three sports, swimming, cycling and running, in that order, but I had no idea of the logistics of transitioning from one to the other: how to set out my gear, the fastest way to transition, what to put on and in what order. It was daunting. So how did I learn? I watched others. The more races I participated in, the more I learnt and the quicker I got. As I progressed I picked up new tips, became more efficient, paired it down to what I needed to know and as a result saw my performance improving.

No longer an observer I was now an active participant.

Social interaction is pretty similar. When you are using social media tools and online communities you’re not sure what to expect, you might think it’s not for you or you may feel nervous about participating. You might start as an observer, taking a look around, see what others are saying. Then you may start to recognise familiar features and design patterns (although you might not necessarily call them this!) and you begin to formulate how you might proceed. It’s only when you find a subject that is of interest to you that you might start to actually engage and begin your social interaction journey.

So how do we make this journey easier for users? With social interaction people are no longer just consuming content they are interacting and creating it. They have a variety of ways they can do this, through blogs, forums, questions and answers, debates, ideas, and competitions. Then there are the numerous ways in which these are presented, take blogs for example, we can show the title, the date of the post, who wrote it, a content teaser (an extract of the main article), an image, social properties, such as the number of views and comments, and social actions, such as rate, comment, share, subscribe, report, like and tweet. Some blogs show all of these, some show only a few – but which are the important ones – how do we give the user enough to show that there is interaction taking place and make them in turn want to interact without swamping them with loads of data so that the user experience is not impaired?

When using and designing these features we need to ensure that the appropriate features are chosen to enable successful engagement.

Social Media Case study: Vitamin Water’s newest flavour created by Facebook fans

vitaminwater-connectVitamin Water’s latest flavour, launching in March this year, was developed and named by the brand’s Facebook fans. The black cherry and lime flavoured drink will be called ‘Connect’ and one Facebook fan, Sarah from Illinois, won $5,000 for her role in developing this new product.

The competition was interesting and unique in that it used Facebook fans to develop all aspects of the product:

  • Choosing the flavour - over the summer Facebook fans were able to monitor and add to buzz about different flavours. The more chatter about a flavour online, the higher it was rated on the Facebook page. And by mid-September the most ten talked-about flavours were put to Facebook fans for them to vote for their favourite. This is a good example of using a community to help sort and rank ideas in a co-creation process. Fans couldn’t create their own flavours from scratch, but could influence the top 10 flavours and then vote for the best.
  • Designing the packaging - when the flavour had been selected (in October last year), the Facebook fans were able to use the app to design the packaging - the look and feel, the blurb and colours used on the label. Fans could collaborate with up to two more Facebook friends to develop the packaging and the final winners were chosen by a panel of experts.
  • Naming the product - alongside the packaging and look-and-feel, Facebook Fans were asked to name the product. The team who created the winning name would be given a prize of $5,000.

This is a great example of co-creation and working with your customers and fans to help to develop your product. Using experts from the brand at critical input stages - choosing the original flavours that could be shortlisted and then selected, and reviewing and agreeing on the winning product design and name. The community was used to help shortlist and select the flavour to be produced, and to create a range of options for the design and name of the product itself. Many brands would be anxious of allowing consumers to create a product like this, but at every stage the brand and consumers were playing different roles and doing different things. It is true that some of the best and most intelligent people don’t work for your company (whoever you are) and so working with them in a controlled but creative way like this can have great results.

And for the more than one million Fans of of the Vitamin Water Facebook Page, they feel like they have had real involvement in the development of the new product. That’s one million people who feel ownership of this product. One million potential purchasers when it launches.

Read more of our Social Media Case Studies

Customers sometimes do not know what they want

Image by Darren Hester via Flickr

The promise of co-creation is that getting customers involved in the innovation process, and letting them inform the design of new products, will mean that you develop a product that is better suited to their needs and will ultimately perform better in the market. Of course, it is not always this simple. Often customers don’t know what they want. They can’t necessarily articulate how they would design the ideal product, nor can they say what is wrong with the existing product. They may never have articulated what they like nor what they dislike, but this doesn’t mean that the product isn’t perfect.

Over the weekend, the New York Times looked at this very subject following revelations from ex-Google visual designer, Douglas Bowman. In an unusual move, Bowman explained on his blog the reason he had left Google. As the New York Times discussed, his description of the design process at Google raises a number of questions:

Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?

Bowman’s suggestion is that that answer to all of these questions is “yes”. That Google relies too much on data, as a proxy of customer input, and not enough on design skills alone. As the New York Times article report:

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

This kind of user-input into the design process is what many think of when they think of working with their customers on new product development and design. They think of presenting a number of options to customers (or indeed to potential customers) and then asking them to evaluate each one and choose the one they prefer (or in this case to take their use of a particular design as a proxy for this choice). Of course, this is not necessarily the best way of co-creating with your customers.

Rather than asking people what they think about a particular set of designs they prefer (or which they use most), you can often get a more useful level of insight by engaging with them. Don’t ask them about solutions to a problem but observe what they discuss and say about the problems themselves.

Imagine you are a company designing kitchen equipment. You could involve your customers in the design and innovation process in one of three ways:

  1. Ask them what they want - ask what new equipment, tools or gadgets would make their life in the kitchen easier or allow them to do new things
  2. Ask them to choose between a set of prototypes - present a set of potential new products to them and ask them to choose which they want.
  3. Ask them to talk about what they do in the kitchen, what equipment they use and what problems they have

The last of these is most likely to produce the most insightful outcomes. Rather than asking people to get involved in the actual prototype products themselves, or to tell you what they want, get them involved further up the innovation funnel. Engage them and talk to them about what they use in the kitchen - what makes their lives easier, what would they like to be able to prepare and cook but can’t. Don’t talk to them about the equipment that, you hope, will solve their problems. Talk to them about their problems themselves.

By watching what people do you can then interpret this and begin a design process based on this information and this engagement. Then, rather than just presenting three options to people of potential new designs, you can approach them based on what they have discussed before: “there was a lot of discussion about x, here are some ways we think we could help with that. What do you think?”

This kind of engagement is where online communities really come to their fore. They let you engage your customer in a sustainable way. You can get to know them, their lives and the problems and challenges they face. It isn’t just a short-term process to “do some co-creation”, rather it is long-term engagement that fundamentally changes the way you innovate and develop new products.

Customers sometimes do not know what they want. It’s a fact. They do, however, know how they use what they have, the problems they face and the things they would like to be simplified. Understand what they do know rather than forcing themselves to make choices about things they don’t.

  • Design: it’s not all about you. (designmind.frogdesign.com)
  • Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At Twitter [Design] (gizmodo.com)
  • Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism (news.cnet.com)

Design matters. Understand who you are designing for.

We’ve posted before about how and why good design matters in online communities. We spend a lot of time at FreshNetworks understanding the audience the online community is aimed at so that we can design a community that will appeal to them and help them to achieve what we want them to do.

This process of understanding who you are trying to attract and how you want to engage them is a critical step in designing the online community. It’s a critical stage in designing any content that you want to engage people, even if it’s a PowerPoint presentation.

Last week I came across this great presentation on good design in presentation from Alex Osterwalder. It’s required reading at FreshNetworks this week, and looks at a process for designing an engaging PowerPoint presentation. I see real parallels with the way we design our communities so that they engage the relevant audience.

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Good design makes a difference in online communities too

When a good friend moved to Australia last year, he left me a book they knew I liked, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything. It’s a great book, if only because it emphasises something that I truly believe: good design really matters. If you combine good design with inspirational content then you have a significantly better product that you might otherwise have had.

Recently I received a copy of another book that emphasises this: Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company from Robert Brunner (who set the groundwork for much of Apple’s design) and Stewart Emery. The book shows how firms can get significant competitive advantage from good design, and how a design-driven business can help you to meet your customer’s needs more often. It is at times quite practical, showing how to develop design-driven techniques for managing and growing a business. Useful stuff in it’s own right, but I’ve been reflecting on what both of these books can teach us about how to build and manage online communities.

At FreshNetworks, spend a lot of time when we are working on a new online community with clients to understand the very people that the community will be aimed at. It’s important to understand these people in quite some detail, including what their interaction with the brand is and how and why they would want to engage online. Part of this process is to explore their habits and behaviours, and the benefit is to make all decisions and base all discussions in the shoes of these people.

With this real understanding of the people the community is aimed at we can develop content and features that will appeal to them and help to achieve our client’s objectives. We can also work on the design of the site. The appropriate content and features are important, but it is the design that will make people want to explore the community and find out what is going on. When somebody first lands on the site they need to combination of appropriate and striking content with good design to make them want to engage.

So spending time on design is important in online communities and that’s why no two communities we produce look the same. Making changes to the look and feel is an important tool we have when we’re planning and building the community. People react and respond to design and we have to get it right. And it’s only by understanding who we are trying to attract that we can do this.

  • Some Q&A; on virtual private communities
  • Social Media Tools Don’t Matter
  • Meet the designer of Amazon’s Kindle [Robert Brunner]
  • At Last! PC Industry Gets Serious About Good Design
  • Designers Need to Be 3 People at the Same Time!
  • Jonathan Ive on Apple’s Industrial Design Strategy