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Social design explosion: Polls, quizzes, reviews, forums, chat, blogs, videos, comments, oh my!

Why do social products tends towards clutter?
One of the toughest design problems for people working on social products is the inevitable path towards cluttered interfaces and diluted brands, as you try to build more social activities and richness within your product. As a result, these products tend to drift towards “portals,” “hubs,” or “platforms,” rather than clean, single-purpose destinations. This might be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint, but it certainly introduces a number of design challenges when every central “entity” on your site (be it a video page, or profile) has dozens of jumping off points for more complex interactions. Or when you have a “tab explosion” as you bolt on common social application paradigms like blogs, chat, or whatever.

For MySpace, this manifested itself as a massive top menu detailing all the different ways to interact with the site, including Classifieds, Music, Games, Video, Forums, and others. For Facebook, they had to build the Windows-like application bar that shows up on every page and allows access to chat and commonly used applications. It seems as though this clutter is almost inevitable as you try to centralize a wide variety of social activities.

Users push you towards more social activities, not less
The central driver, I believe, for this social activity explosion is that people want to have LOTs of different ways to interact with their friends. These different activities let them have very nuanced interactions that have deep and meaningful social signaling.

Let’s take an offline activity, for example, an invitation to a date – there are lots of nuances that can be read into asking someone to:

  • have a quick mid-day coffee
  • come over and have a nice dinner
  • go to a movie
  • have a drink mid-week versus Friday/Saturday
  • go out with a group of friends to a music show
  • having brunch with your parents
  • etc.

All of the above activities provide different social signals based on how big of a time commitment it is, who’s involved, what time of week it happens, how expensive it is, etc. And if you were to build online equivalents of these types of activities, it would be better at each step, since it allows for richer interactions.

As a result of this, your users will always like any new social interactions you push out, and will often suggest/demand new activities.

The social web laundry list
As a result of the demand for new social activities, you inevitably get a series of bolt-on design patterns that recur across many different social products. An incomplete list might include:

  • polls
  • quizzes
  • reviews
  • comments
  • forums
  • chat
  • blogs
  • videos, photos, and other multimedia
  • avatars
  • leaderboards
  • private/public messaging
  • status messages
  • etc.

What else am I missing? Suggest some other ones in comments, and I’ll be happy to continue extending this list :-)

Either way, there’s probably some rule that if a new social product these days decides that, “hey! What our product needs is polls!” then the design philosophy of the product probably should be reevaluated. It’s a powerful indicator that the product roadmap is overly focused on short-term user engagement versus a long-term market position.

Drawing the line between “core” versus other
These mechanics are so easily bolt-on-able that it destroys the differentiated value of a product – this happens through clutter, confusion, and overduplication of features relative to other sites. It becomes a trap that weakens the brand long-term, while producing higher engagement in the short-term – quite the devilish dilemma.

Ultimately, to avoid this fate, every product needs to draw a line in the sand on what is core, and what are extraneous social activities that should happen off the site. Or, if not off the site, in a carefully cordoned-off area. Either way, these choices need to get made, otherwise clutter ensues.

Potential solutions
Several companies have dealt with this design problems in different ways – let’s go through all of them:

Solution 1: Build everything
In the MySpace example, the site ultimately decided to incorporate a very large chunk of all the functionality they could think of. Just explore the top menu bar, and I think you’d be surprised by how much product is sitting inside of there.

Solution 2: Open up the CSS/HTML layer
Interestingly enough, MySpace also used another method of allowing users to extend their profiles by allowing people to just copy and paste arbitrary CSS/HTML. Another company that did this is eBay, as well as many blogging sites. Outside of the obvious security issues, the nice part about this is that this is a really simple integration that works with many different kinds of tools and widgets.

Solution 3: Provide a rich onsite platform
This is the Facebook/OpenSocial approach, where applications exist on a site rather than off of it

Solution 4: Create off-site APIs and activities
To some extent, this can happen by itself with an API or not, as passionate users will create forums, mailing lists, blogs, and other social structures about your product. But as Twitter and blogs show, you can build an API which allows off-site applications and websites to build richer functionality. It will be interesting to see if Twitter eventually creates an on-site API a la Facebook, or if they will always make their onsite experience very simple and clean.

Solution 5: just focus on one thing
And the final solution is just to ignore your users, and focus on the main value that your product provides. This certainly has a nice charm to it, but obviously few companies follow this – more ambition leads to more features, typically, even though the user experience might suck as a result.

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