Creating Passionate Users: An Interview with Josh Porter, Part 2

Social web sites and applications are everywhere: Facebook, YouTube, Craigslist, and Digg are just a few of the web sites taking advantage of the power of the Social Web. Social web sites are the fastest growing properties on the web for good reason: they connect people, motivate, and engage them. As a result, they grow very quickly and successfully.

We hear all the time from clients working on all different kinds of products, ranging from e-commerce web sites to financial web applications, who want to take advantage of social features to get people engaged and excited about offerings. Unfortunately, most teams aren’t sure where to begin.

We recently talked with interface designer, Joshua Porter. Josh is the author of the wonderful book, Designing for the Social Web, and focuses on helping organizations incorporate social features into their designs. We’re also thrilled Josh will be teaching his one-day workshop, Designing for the Social Web, in Boston, Massachusetts this October.

In part 1 of our interview, Josh introduced readers to the Usage Lifecycle, the four main stages users traverse with web sites and applications. In this second installment, we discuss the evolution of social applications and how to effectively measure the success of applications.

Here is what Josh had to say:

How can designers pinpoint areas of their social application that aren’t working?

Well, first there needs to be agreement on what “working” means. There are lots of ways something can fail to work. But usually it means that the site isn’t doing something that it’s supposed to. And, ideally every design team has a list of their most important metrics, which are those things that really matter to the success of their product or service. I’ve found that without a clear picture of which metrics are important, design teams tend to lose focus over time and fail to continually iterate and improve.

Designers have relied on metrics since the beginning of the web. We first started with metrics such as hit counters that measured the number of hits to the web server. Unfortunately, the hits were typically meaningless because they included hits to pretty much anything, including images, JavaScript, and other files, failing to provide any real insight into what was happening.

As time has gone on, however, the metrics we examine have become much more sophisticated.

The latest focus for many design teams is to understand ways to measure user engagement. These metrics include the number of return visits and the average time on site for visitors. These metrics have important implications for your business.

For example, Google wants people to spend as little time as possible each time they interact with their search engine. They want people to come to the site, find what they want, and leave. On the other hand, Facebook wants people to spend more time on their site, so they can gather more data about visitors and expose them to more ads. The time on site success metric is radically different based on the specific site’s business goals.

When building an application, it’s essential for design teams to identify 3-4 core metrics to assess the success of the application and the health of the business. If these metrics go up, it’s a sign your business is healthy.

If you just build interactions without respect to core metrics, you can get into a situation where people use your web site, but not in the way you intended. This is why free applications that were once all the rage are now being downgraded to free trials. Design teams found that so many people were using the applications without paying and it was a huge drain on a business.

In your book, Designing for the Social Web, you recommend that design teams take advantage of the funnel analysis to uncover areas of their social application that aren’t working well. How does this analysis work?

It’s really important to have solid metrics at each stage of the lifecycle to uncover where a site or application has an opportunity to improve. A funnel analysis is a good way to find out what’s broken. It can show you how well your site moves people along the stages of the lifecycle, from Interested to Passionate.

Designers can picture their site as a funnel, where at the top they have everyone who is interested in the application and at the bottom is everyone who is passionate about the software.

For example, of those people who are initially interested in your application, only a subset of them will decide to ever actually use your application for the first time. Of the people who use the application for the first time, only some will use the application regularly. Of those regular users, only a small percentage of visitors will become passionate users. By examining where users drop off in the funnel, you can pinpoint opportunities for improvement on your web site.

However, if you’ve ever done funnel analysis you know that people do all sorts of things besides progress step-by-step through a series of screens. They visit multiple times, they skip around, they email you, and they do all sorts of multi-channel communication. This makes it more difficult to determine what’s wrong with your funnel.

This year, you launched the web site, What would you like to accomplish by publishing the results from these tests?

Over a year ago, I started seeing lots of blog posts with results from A/B Tests. It occurred to me this is really valuable information to help design teams make informed decisions.

Last year, Dustin Curtis wrote a blog post about changes he made to the call to action on his site to get readers to follow him on twitter. In the post, he talked about how slight modifications to the wording led to an increase in the clickthrough rate.

This post was hammered with traffic and people were really interested in the results. Seeing there was a strong interest in this type of data, I approached David Cancel about creating to help people test their web sites and share that knowledge with others. With the site, people can see other people’s test results and publish their own results to share with others. David Cancel, Elias Torres, and I eventually started Performable and we’ve been building many of the learnings from into our product.

Have you found that social applications are evolving over time?

Social applications have definitely been evolving. Over the last few years, I’ve seen that people have really embraced these applications. Users are now used to the concept of social applications. Three years ago, people had no idea what a News Feed was. Now everyone knows what it is.

I’ve seen a lot of changes. For example, many applications are now focusing on location. Location applications, such as Foursquare and Gowalla, are doing some really interesting things. These apps are essentially erasing the difference between being online and offline.

All of the social applications are also going mobile. People are using them everywhere. With devices like the iPad taking off, those trends are only going to accelerate. It’s insane how fast mobile is growing.

MySpace was one of the first really popular social web sites, but has since become less relevant. What happened?

A couple of things happened. MySpace was the first national social network that caught the attention of everyone. We’d hear about it on the news and people started talking about privacy. MySpace really brought social networks to the general public and millions of people were using it.

Then Facebook came along and the momentum shifted. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the shift, but I think engineering was Facebook’s big win. From an engineering standpoint, Facebook executes extremely well. They roll out changes quickly and the site always seems to work. Facebook’s uptime was excellent, whereas MySpace had a lot of problems.

From a design perspective, Facebook has always been much cleaner and much more consistent than MySpace. While users on MySpace were allowed to theme their pages, I believe this actually hurt the usability of the application’s design.

From a social design perspective, it could be argued that MySpace’s themed pages was a good idea because it was offering users a unique identity. Why do you think this approach failed?

Theming a profile is important for identity. And I think on some level, this was an important feature for MySpace, at least early on, because people liked to be able to change their profile to reflect their personality. But the ability to personalize MySpace was trumped because Facebook rose to prominence and had more momentum. Personalization is interesting but unimportant when compared to where your friends are.

Then why did Facebook rise to prominence? I think the big reason is that they recognized what was most important to people and then out-engineered MySpace in building their platform.

For example, in 2007, Facebook implemented the News Feed, an activity stream. If I had to point to a single feature, this would be it. Or perhaps, photos. The designers at Facebook realized people were coming for their friend’s content, such as links, messages, and photos and that a stream was a much better way to display these things because it ordered things by time.

While MySpace gave users the ability to statically change the background and text of their profiles, there was less sense of immediacy when people made updates. Viewers still had to go and find what was updated on their friends pages. The News Feed made these changes front and center, and set a new bar in engagement. Thus, the themes in MySpace were trumped by Facebook’s realization that content sharing and status updates were much more important to users than profile personalization.

But other social networks are growing. In the future, I think more social applications will focus on specialized features for specific activity groups. For example, Dribbble is a social network where designers share what they’re working on. You have services like PatientsLikeMe, which is a social network for people living with diseases, and Ravelry, a social network for folks who knit and crochet. These services have people who are as passionate about some specific activity and are extremely active within that world (maybe moreso than on the big networks). These networks just happen to be smaller populations so they aren’t in the news everyday.

In October, you’ll be teaching your one-day workshop, Designing for the Social Web in Boston. How will the workshop go beyond the material you cover in your book?

I’ll be talking quite a bit about how to design for the Usage Lifecycle. Although the idea of the usage lifecycle came from my book, most of the content in the workshop is new, coming from more recent consulting work as well as a lot of the work we’re doing at Performable.

We’ve been learning a ton of stuff building a tool to help others improve their customer experience, and I’ll share some of what we’ve learned during the workshop. Here is an example of the type of stuff we’re learning: Why A/B Testing isn’t just about Small Changes.

In the book, I also focus on having authentic conversations with your audience. I address how to design authentic web sites by taking advantage of testimonials and sharing features. However, one of the things I didn’t cover that I’ll emphasize in the workshop is the role of email in applications and the interaction between the people who use the application and people who support the application. That’s a big part of authenticity.

Going beyond the web site, a huge part of an authentic conversation is the support calls and the emails you send to customers. For example, the emails you send should correspond exactly with where people are in the lifecycle.

In marketing, there’s a notion of drip campaigns, which are becoming crucial to engage users. With drip emails, you initially send users a thank you email and then a short period later, a getting started email. After these welcome emails, you send another email sharing information about your application’s specific features.

Currently most teams schedule drip campaigns a few days after people sign up. Eventually, these drip emails will be based on specific user actions with software. For example, if people use email software and had lots of bounces, the application will share contextual answers to address the problem, such as 5 ways to combat bounces.

In many ways, the application will be a sentient being that recognizes where you are and what you do. In the workshop, I will dive deeply into recommendations for optimizing these email messages.