Gartner Research Vice President Ray Valdes recently published a report, Social Experience Design Is Becoming a New Imperative, and he elaborated on his argument in an interview recently.
All sorts of websites, not just the major social networks, are incorporating social features into their applications as a way of promoting better user engagement, Valdes said. For example, many online stores have made user contributed ratings and reviews an integral part of their product catalogs. Smart enterprises can take advantage of similar dynamics to make both public and internal applications more engaging and useful, Valdes said, but to do so successfully application architects and designers must study the emerging field of social experience design.
"Social experience design will become as important as user experience design for enterprise application development," Valdes said. Strictly speaking, social experience design is a subset of user experience design--and yet social applications are different enough from ordinary applications "that you can be good at one and not good at the other, just like you can be a good poet and a bad novelist even though those are both about creating words," he said.
That much is evident from the experience of Google, which is renowned for many aspects of its user experience prowess but failed to generate much enthusiasm for its social media efforts until Google+ came along.
Most enterprises and enterprise software vendors still struggle with the basics of good user experience design, so social experience design will be an even greater stretch for them, Valdes said. "It's not going to be the majority of companies that will succeed with this," he said, but that's just why smart companies ought to invest in it. "There is a potential for sustained competitive advantage. If you can be the one out of 10, or maybe one out of 100, you will have an advantage over the 90% that can't do it," he said.
Like general user experience design, social experience design starts with some basic elements:
-- Craft: technologies like HTML5, plus established design patterns and user interface conventions.
-- Science: an iterative design process guided by objective data about user behavior.
-- Art: the extra pizzazz that makes for an attractive, compelling, and engaging experience.
Where social experience goes further is in its attention to specific social elements:
-- People: profiles and representations in software.
-- Connections: modeling of the social network.
-- Objects: photos, locations, events, and products represented partly by their relationships with people.
-- Rules of social interaction: the ground rules for establishing connections, for sharing versus privacy, and so on.
Some of the most subtle but important decisions in the architecture of a social application are not in the user interface per se but in the logic and rules for interaction, Valdes notes. Facebook started out with a rule that you needed a Harvard.edu email address to establish an account--and later any university email--which was one of the ways it created an aura of exclusivity. Today, Facebook and some other social networks establish connections between users only by mutual agreement, while Twitter has established a different personality by allowing asynchronous connections where in general any user can follow any other user.
Another variation comes in the form of game mechanics--techniques for adding rewards and recognition that give an application more of the addictive qualities of a game. Vendors like Badgeville have emerged specifically to provide social gaming widgets you can plug into your site or application, such as a leader board for recognizing the most active participants in a community. Game experience design is distinct enough to be considered yet another specialty, Valdes said, but enterprise architects should be thinking about where this "gamification" should be applied.
Gamification has made a clear difference in the adoption of public services such as Foursquare, which leapfrogged other location-based services that weren't as much fun. Although Gartner is still developing its official consensus opinion on the enterprise applications of gamification, Valdes is personally skeptical. "Gamification as applied to the enterprise sounds good in theory, but in practice I don't think it works out that well," he said.
Overall, gamification may be a technique best used judiciously, Valdes said. "It could be like other fads--3-D, or multimedia splash pages, certain kinds of banner ads--where if it's not done well, users learn to screen it out. Fatigue sets in, perceptual fatigue, and then they don't see that anymore."
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