Creating Custom Social Networks

November 1st, 2011
Published on
November 1st, 2011

Organizations and niche networks large and small have long been playing around with the idea of using social media to leverage user engagement around specific ecosystems. But in these new, hybridized territories, what can UX designers expect?

Creating and launching a custom social environment can be a little like crossing your fingers and hoping the stars align.

While Facebook employees no doubt have Facebook profiles, it’s tough to imagine that they use their own social platform to communicate within the office, especially about company projects, important proprietary data, and so on. What is Facebook’s internal Facebook? Do Google+ engineers use Google+ to chat with each other about secret Google projects?

Creating a specialized or focused social media platform is tough from all angles. Users don’t adopt them quickly, and if they do, interaction and engagement falls off quickly (see iTunes Ping, Walmart’s The Hub, Vital Skate, and many more).

Without getting into the deep, deep ins and outs of why specialized social networks fail, let’s consider the types of specialized social networks where users can’t opt out: large-scale businesses.

The way of the [business] world

The social giants (yes—I’m making the leap to call Google+ a contender) may very well use secure versions of their platforms for organizational communication and networking, but companies without their own social networks don’t have this luxury. They are concerned with keeping their organizational data, ideas, and development secure and in a controlled environment. Aside from productivity concerns, security is one of the primary reasons for limiting employees’ public social media site interactions.

Because businesses—especially as they scale up—are realizing a number of things:

  • Statistically speaking, the majority of their employees are on some social media site. And they like it.

  • It’s impossible to oversee or control the exchange of organizational data and ideas on public social sites.
  • Employees might be sorely underutilized, especially in larger scale organizations.
  • To leverage the best of both worlds, some IT giants like HP, IBM, Infosys, and Jive have entered in a solution: enterprise social media platforms (eSMPs). These options allow for the controlled exchange of ideas and social interactions of employees within the office.

    But finding the middle ground between corporate and typical social interactions has proven difficult for developers of eSMPs. In other words, releasing employees into a newly-minted social platform and telling them to “act naturally” doesn’t always go according to plan. In fact, it tends toward the “huge disaster” end of the spectrum.

    And it’s giving corporate-minded UX professionals something new to think about, whether it’s from a design and development or community management perspective.

    What exactly is an enterprise social media platform?

    I’ll take the obnoxious route and explain first what an eSMP isn’t. Most importantly, it’s not a Facebook or Twitter clone. Even in these early stages of development, the developers of eSMPs understand that employees are looking for different kinds of engagement within a workplace than they are at home. Next, these platforms are not primarily collaboration tools, such as Basecamp and FlowDock, both of which best serve relatively smaller organizations as a meeting ground for project-based communication and file exchange. While eSMPs can certain help employees organize projects, this is not their sole function.

    eSMPs primarily function as a way to engage employees in the workplace (though other iterations of these platforms can facilitate customer service and a number of other communications-based activities). The idea is, give ‘em a platform to open up, and let the magic happen. By creating an “online water cooler,” companies try to capitalize on the knowledgebase and skill sets of their employees by allowing them freedom to work things out beyond their cubicle or department. Meanwhile, organizations can oversee the interactions, monitor the exchange of company information, and watch as new ideas and innovations emerge. In the words of Lew Platt, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable.”

    Businesses hope that eSMPs will give managers and officers insight into what their employees know, and how they can capitalize on it.

    Where problems arise

    This all sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course, releasing employees into a newly minted corporate social network doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll use it the way it’s intended to be used. One of the biggest issues occurs when companies buy these expensive proprietary platforms, have them customized, and launch, all without considering what the users (read: employees) actually want from a work-based social platform.

    This is where the user experience professional comes in—or should, rather. The problem often arises, though, that no matter how excellent the actions of an eSMP are designed, the community that this social network is aimed at still needs a reason to participate.

    Deployment – a checklist

    Getting people to open up in an otherwise contrived environment is, to say the least, a user experience challenge for all involved. Therefore, I’ve created a user-oriented checklist that’s applicable to both developers of social platforms and those looking to deploy them. Oftentimes when businesses use highly customizable eSMPs —from IBM, Jive, and others that scale highly—those in charge are must do some makeshift interaction design of their own.

    Determine need

    We’ve talked a lot here at UX Booth about asking “why?” A good designer, of interactions or otherwise, always asks such questions before embarking on a long design trip. As I discovered first in a discussion with the crew at Effective UI, it’s always important to first ask “do I really need this feature?” before going nuts.

    This is where most businesses go wrong. Instead of asking whether or not their employees would engage within such a platform, or whether they should, they dive in wholeheartedly like magpies after shiny things. The allure of new technologies (well, new when it comes to enterprise systems) is blinding, and if the employees aren’t taken into consideration, those in charge may be stuck with a very expensive mistake.

    Everyone loves consistency

    Sure, the big, bad, new and awesome social network could come out of nowhere someday soon and trump Facebook, Twitter, and every other player in the game. But don’t try and make a number one contender out of an eSMP. Users already expect a certain type of interaction when using a social network, and an enterprise social network is no place to try and break new interaction or engagement ground.

    Trust is a must

    By nature, an eSMP already feels a little bit like a prison—a way to ensure that employees behave under company supervision. It’s imperative early on to educate users on the principles behind the platform, that its purpose isn’t to be a monitor, but a uniter.

    Provide freedom

    One reason Facebook is so ubiquitous is that it allows users to share whatever content they wish to share (barring that you wish to share pornographic content) from any source they wish to share it from. An eSMP should do the same, which also plays into the need for consistency discussed above.

    Listen to feedback

    Like with any new feature rollouts, those in charge of an eSMP rollout need to put on their user research hats and actually pay attention to the feedback of the platform’s users. Check out comment boards. Look at forums. Comb through emails and other messages. Perform search analytics. This may go without saying to many, but it’s an easy thing to sweep under the rug or simply forget about—especially for those new to their role.

    As a bonus, not only will such feedback provide insight into what does and doesn’t work, it’ll also make the users happy. After all, people love being listened to.

    Getting the conversation started

    As the role of user experience professional bleeds into many other job titles, from community manager to director of customer engagement and so on (and so on, ad nauseum), it’s important that a conversation get started between those folks and interaction designers.

    As you, loyal reader, may or may not have noticed, UX Booth hasn’t run too many corporate UX articles, and it’s because user experience roles within large-scale organizations aren’t tidy. There are interaction designers, user experience designers, community managers, directors of customer engagement, internal community moderators, and so on, ad nauseum. All deal with the overarching User Experience, and should therefore be considered within the same principle boundaries.

    We’d love to hear any first-hand accounts with enterprise social media platforms, from any perspective—if you’ve got ‘em, share them below. With such relatively new ground, it’s a great time to hone in on best (and worst) practices.