For Social Networks, Usability Trumps Marketing

Did you ever notice there are a few social media sites that are HUGE, and a bunch of others that aren’t? Even if the bunch of not-huge sites have a great idea, they only seem to catch on with the technically advanced or complete social media geeks. Why is that?

It would certainly be nice if some of the lesser known sites really were huge. Ustream.tv would be a great place for people to video conference with friends, or create their own Internet shows, if only there were a lot more people on there viewing. That’s what people use YouTube for, but since Ustream.tv is, by definition, a streaming site, you can communicate immediately with your audience, while you can’t on YouTube. But in this example, YouTube wins because they have the largest user base, even if they don’t have the best technology or idea.

I think at least part of the problem is that these social media sites are vetted by us social media geeks and insiders. We know what we like, and we may even have a grasp on what the average non-tech geek user might like. However we also have experience enough to figure our way through a bad interface if we have to.

The aforementioned Ustream.tv interface, frankly, sucks. Badly. I can negotiate it, and you may be able to as well, but my parents can’t; my sister can’t; my girlfriend can’t. None of these people are “techies,” they simply go with what is easiest to use.

This is exactly why the big sites all have the easiest interfaces:

None of these sites take more than a couple of minutes to set up and post to, and the learning curve is non-existent. My non-technical background family can easily jump on any one of these sites and get posting, which means these sites have huge numbers of users – not because they have great marketing campaigns, but because anyone who tries them out will continue to use them, since there’s nothing to scare them off.

For sites like Twitter, where the functionality is pretty straightforward, there are a lot of competing sites that can do the same thing. Twitter is the leader only because they were first, so it is what the most people use. It’s competitors have found their own fans, however, so the simple, easy-to-use clones will still be popular with their own dedicated fans.

Other sites are destined to be smaller, but the niche attraction they have means smaller is probably better. Dopplr is a travel-focused site, and since people travel less often than they have something to tweet, the average number of posts is going to be smaller.

Last.fm is a network for sharing and listening to music, which people do more often than travel, but less often than, again, they have minutiae to share. However, their interface is confusing to the newcomer, so again the casual user will either turn away or not use it very often.

And the number of sites that are just confusing and difficult to use are legion. I won’t bother listing all of them, but if you go hunting for new sites on Wakoopa, I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own. There are literally hundreds of new social networks popping up all over the place these days, and I don’t think they will last long because they did not take this into account. They are pretty sites, but they aren’t easily accessed, and you need to read the “about us” to figure out why you’re there.

The moral of the story here is that a great marketing campaign for your social network isn’t what will make or break you. If it is easy to grasp why people should be doing what they are doing, and it is easy for them to do it, then you can gain a following.

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3 comments

  1. Hopefully these companies will shell out a little more to do some usability research before they come out of beta. Some sites Some sites look like they took a best guess at what people wanted and just went with it.

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