What is “social by design?”

Mark D'Arcy - Facebook

The web is going through an exciting transformation right now because it’s being rebuilt around people.  The web’s first iterations were focused on content and products.   The reason social is so hot right now is that the social web is evolving into a closer reflection of how humans have always interacted.

Most brands are currently in the process of “adding social” as a bolt-on approach to their existing websites.  These brands start with a pre-existing product-centric structure, then add ‘social features’ like “like” buttons and social sharing widgets.

Is a website that includes social sharing widgets “social?”  Mark D’Arcy of Facebook compares conventional bolt-on approach to adding salt to French fries.  The French fries themselves don’t change at all; you’re just sprinkling on some social.   The result is mediocre.

The next step is rebuilding your business from the ground up so that it is “social by design.”   Social by design means focusing on people first, then technology and products; the core experience is the social element, not just an afterthought.

Example of a share widget

Spotify is a recent example of a product that is social by design.  The music sharing application offers a core value of sharing music.  The secondary experience is playing and enjoying music.   Users login to Spotify with the Facebook ID to see their friend’s playlists, even real-time gestures of what their friends are listening to, ie “Dave is listening to enter the sandman by Metallica.”

Another example of social by design is Facebook Photos.  Facebook prioritized photo tagging over core photo editing features like red eye correction and filters.   What’s important to Facebook users is the person in the photo and the context of the photo, not the quality of the photo itself.   Early photo sharing applications like iPhoto and Shutterfly focus on photo editing as the core value (features), but lack any contextual sharing functionality (people).  The key is not to re-invent desktop-like photo editing tools within social networks, but to focus on a more simplified and shareable approach to photo publishing on Facebook.

Another great example of social design is a “gift ideas” experiment at Etsy.  Etsy’s experimental “Gift ideas” feature let’s you search their library of content based on what your friends have liked on Facebook.  You can select a friend and see a visual search result of gifts that match their Facebook likes.   Brilliant.

The theme here is that products and services are being rebuilt from the bottom up to focus on people.   New sexy ecommerce business models are all people-centric, rather then just another marketplace or online shop.   People are what make brands compelling, whether it’s service staff, friends who recommend that brand, or other shoppers who endorse the brand.

How does the lesson of social-by-design apply to product configurator design?   The design experience is usually too daunting for users, which is why many mass customization businesses fail.  Design-your-own has to be as easy as selecting, comparing, and shopping.  Customization experiences that are social by design and dead simple will be the  most successful.

(NOTE:  This post was inspired by talks by Paul Adams – Researcher, product manager, designer at Facebook, and Mark D’Arcy, Director of Creative Solutions at Facebook.)

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