Does Facebook want to be a public utility?

August 4, 2010

“When I say utility, I mean we are trying to provide people with utility. Our goal was never to build something cool. It was to build something useful.” – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO


In the wake of Facebook’s recent privacy setting change debacle and last week’s public outing of 1/5 of FB’s user info by a well known hacker, there is a question that needs to be addressed that will have a profound effect on the future of the company:

Does Facebook want to be a consumer-based company or a public utility?

Facebook - the public utility

In its headlong rush for growth and aggressive goals for “opening up” user information for use by its advertisers, it is evident that Facebook put aside the needs of its users and their concerns for privacy.  A recent poll shows that a full 80% of Facebook users are concerned about the privacy of their personal information on the site.  But what is even more telling is that polls prior to the introduction of the confusing changes in privacy settings last May showed that a majority of users already had these concerns.

Rather than enacting policies and making statements to address these concerns, Zuckerberg seemed to do an about-face from his past statements about maintaining strict controls over the privacy of its users’ information.  Back in January 2010 he said:

“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

This seems like a particularly naive statement: where is the data to back up his idea that “social norms” dictate an opening up of personal information to be shared by all?  Independent survey data certainly did not support it.  Zuckerberg’s recent statements sound a lot like he stopped thinking about the company as a choice for consumers.  Instead, he has taken on the mindset of an 80s-era public utility CEO: we will decide what is best for our users unless and until the government steps in and regulates us.

As a user experience practitioner it is hard for me to accept that those updated user settings were vigorously tested (see this excellent chart created by The New York Times showing FB’s 170 privacy options).  A skeptic might even say that they were pretested to make sure that they were as confusing as possible to the average user.

Still, Facebook provides an incredibly powerful experience for many users (myself included) and its user base continues to grow, just passing the half billion mark. It is understandable that the company needs to increase its revenue from advertisers to fulfill its business model and reach profitability.  The question is, can the company continue on this same path without the full trust of its users or will it be bested by another technology – maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

The answer to this question is inextricably tied with the first one I posed at the beginning of this post. The future success of Facebook will be highly dependent on whether Zuckerberg and co. are able to demonstrate that their users come first and advertisers second. Some suggestions:

Test and re-test: There is a way to set up privacy settings that can satisfy both users and the needs of advertisers.  The only way to get there is to do user testing across a broad range of user personas, including those based on attitudes re: “trust.”

Hit the road: Zuckerberg should communicate to the world beyond his FB page posts (yes, old media still works – why else write an op-ed for The Washington Post?) and speak directly with users about the company’s goals for the future and its plans for securing users’ data.

Be patient: the company is sitting on a goldmine of information that can be beneficial to users in discovering cool stuff and allow advertisers to reach their target users more effectively.  But it may take some time to work out a system that will please everyone.

2010 may be remembered as the year Facebook and its young CEO grew up.  Or it could be remembered as the beginning of the end.  Only its users will decide.

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The language of emotion

June 8, 2010

While traveling  to present at this year’s Boston UPA mini conference via ferry I came across a wonderful editorial by David Brooks in today’s The New York Times.  Here is a curiosity: a Republican bemoaning the state of “liberal arts” and humanities studies in US colleges.  Evidently, in the last generation there has been a precipitous drop in student enrollment in the arts, while technical and business majors are growing.  This trend is expected to continue as the possibly years-long economic recession grinds on.

Brooks makes the point that continued study in these less-than-technical arts programs is essential for the creation of breakthrough technologies.  According to Brooks, besides improving people’s ability to read and write, the study of the humanities …

… will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.

Brooks could not be more on the money.  Creating great technologies and great interfaces requires a combination of technical skill and creativity – creativity that is informed by a deeper understanding of the human condition.  This means an understanding of your customer that goes beyond a simple “test” of what’s in front of them as they interact with your technology; it requires an understanding of what’s going on in their heads — and possibly their hearts — as they do it.

This is what we practitioners mean by testing the user experience and what we at DIG strive for in every project we do for our clients.  And, it’s something that I’ll be talking about tomorrow during my presentation at the UPA event.  Companies that create usable products and interfaces will continue to make money.  But the real winners will be those that understand how to deliver experiences that move the soul (not just the needle) and provide real meaning for their customers.

For those of you that can’t make it to Boston on June 9th, here is a link to the slides: Fast, Cheap and In Control: Using an Online Diary/Focus Group Methodology to Gauge Meaningful Experiences


Reasons to be grateful: “random acts of generosity” for ecommerce

June 22, 2009

Interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about Hyatt’s new “random acts of generosity” marketing approach:  by offering their guests random freebies like free massages and drinks during their stay, Hyatt hopes to win over grateful customers and keep them loyal.  From the article …

Its even better to give ...Jeff Zidell, the vice president who oversees Hyatt’s Gold Passport program, underscores the importance of surprise — both that the favors are “unexpected” and that there’s no discernible pattern to which customers will get them.  The hope seems to be that these grateful customers will reward the chain with future business and also spread positive word of mouth.”

Building generosity into ecommerce

Companies building online interfaces for e-commerce should take note:  inserting seemingly random acts of generosity into the online experience could add up to big wins in terms of enhanced user experience.  Some of the ways companies can do this might include:

  • Save some “specials” or “giveaways” for later in the shopping process, perhaps during check out rather than promoting them up-front.  Specials might include price off or free shipping, a discount off of an additional item, etc.
  • A free coupon for their next order inserted into the package or even a free (low cost) item included right in the box.  Sort of like getting a “free” prize in the Cracker Jacks box, only you weren’t expecting it.
  • A follow up email after the purchase of a high ticket item with a generous offer attached.
  • Random “notes of kindness” sent via email to loyal customers with a coupon offer attached – even if it isn’t attached to a particular sale.

As Hyatt and the researchers that have studied the role of gratitude as it relates to customer loyalty have  discovered, customers like it when companies offer them an unexpected benefit.  And these random acts can add up to big benefits for your company at a time when customers have less money to spend and more places to spend it.



Capturing the spirit of Web 2.0

June 8, 2009

The new world order?

As I head off to this year’s national UPA (Usability Professionals Association) conference in Portland, I got to thinking about all of the hype around Web 2.0 and how it is changing EVERYTHING.

Image from tangyslice.com

Image from tangyslice.com

As the above tag cloud illustrates, Web 2.0 can be defined in a number of ways and can be pretty confusing to the uninitiated. However, one thing is for sure: if you are a marketer and you haven’t embraced the idea of technologies that support customer collaboration, sharing, and control using so-called “social media” then you are in the dark ages.  Right?

Sure, you say, that’s fine for those cool new music sites and iPhone apps but what if I am selling shipping services, heart valves, or cupcakes, what then? I can set up a company or brand Facebook page, allow customers to digg a page on my website, or send them Tweets about new stuff we’re doing. But is that really taking advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer? And, what if my customers are reluctant to participate in these new social media?

Choosing a Web 2.0 strategy

One of the pitfalls of trying to keep up with this new world order is to be too reactive.  Companies want to stay competitive and may be attracted to some of these new tools or services and then try to fit them into a vague strategy that demands Web 2.0 type of interaction with customers. But which tools?  And what do customers really want?

Now, which ones should I pick?

Now, which ones should I pick?

The problem with this “follow the wave” approach is that you may be spending money on stuff that nobody cares about or that just isn’t a good fit for your company.

Whether you are already fully invested in Web 2.0 or just getting started, here are some suggestions for meeting the challenges of the Web 2.0 world:

1) First define your brand: Recognize that your customers still have the same needs they had before – i.e., they want to be listened to and treated well. Choose any new services or tools based on this simple premise and keep coming back to it. Ask yourself: does this cool new (tool, service, etc.) support great customer experiences and my vision for my brand?  If not, then maybe it’s not right for you.

2) Give and take: Provide a feedback loop that will bring you good information about how your customers are feeling about you and that makes customers feel as though you care about them. Don’t give them the tools for communication/collaboration and just sit back and watch. Stay in touch.

3) Build the spirit and sensibility of Web 2.0 into the online experience: Although your customers still have the same basic needs, that doesn’t mean their expectations haven’t changed.  Web 2.0 has raised the bar re: customer expectations of the quality of the online experience.

Use “polite interfaces” and/or “adaptive interfaces” that speak to your users in real life language and give your website and your brand some personality. Provide a level of personalization that creates real value. Even if you don’t offer popular Web 2.0 tools, you can create pleasurable and meaningful experiences for your online users in other ways that don’t require a large investment (I’ll go into more detail about this in a future post).

4) Learn from your mistakes: Don’t be content with the status quo. There is going to be something new right around the corner that your customers might want. If participation rates slump for a particular tool, move on. Be willing to adjust as technology and customer desires change.

5) Do research: William Goldman’s famous quote about the entertainment industry is relevant here:  “nobody knows anything.”  Don’t assume that your competitors have this thing all figured out.  The only real way of knowing  if you’re making the right decisions is to do research.

Once you embrace the spirit of Web 2.0 there are a number of ways of collecting and analyzing information that can provide insight and are cost effective.


It’s not that you’re painting the wrong picture, it’s the frame

April 11, 2008

I’ve been doing some research for an article I’m writing about the importance of breaking down the barriers that exist between user experience practitioners and marketing researchers, and I’ve come to  an important realization. 

As much as the experts rail on about the importance of making “customer experience” a core competency within organizations, things are not going to change until the stakeholders force a change in the “frame.”  

I’m not talking about HTML frames.  I’m talking about frames as they are used in langauge.  According to George Lakoff, professor of Linguistics at UCLA, Berkeley and founder of the the Rockridge Institute,

“a frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking.”  

Rakoff goes on to say …

“reframing is telling the truth as we see it – telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation. “

Some examples that Republicans have used to reframe issues in their favor (with the help of the much maligned GOP researcher Frank Luntz) include:

Old                                       New
Tax cut                                 Tax relief
Estate tax                             Death tax
Global warming                    Climate change
Logging/Clear cutting          Healthy forests initiative

Although Lakoff’s and his progressive institute’s main concerns are the framing of political language, particularly that used by Democrats to counter the Republican successes of the past eight years, framing can be used by anyone to score points for their side. 

Like the Democrats, most of the folks on “usability” or development teams have been using the wrong language to make their case, ignoring the power of framing when they speak to management.  When it comes time to ask for funds for “usability testing,” managers from the various business units who otherwise claim dedication to “usability” often come up short when it’s time to commit dollars.

I have a suggestion: instead of asking to fund “usability,” practitioners should reframe the issue by asking managers to support and enhance the ongoing satisfaction of the customer experience.  If a product developer asked a manager in one of big three car companies for money to improve the stabilization system in their best selling car in order to improve the driving experience wouldn’t she get the funds?  When film directors ask producers for more money to blow stuff up in their movies to improve the viewing experience don’t they usually get it? 

Those involved in creating online customer experiences have to start talking about the funding of their goals in broader terms.  They have to emphasize the importance of creating satisfying customer experience across all touch points with their customer, with the online experience as an essential piece that helps drive a stronger relationship with the brand.  And, as with successes seen in the political realm, this reframing has to be consistent and persistent.   That means using this new language in every piece of written communication and every interaction with stakeholders.

Reframing the issue in this way may go a long way to increased understanding of the importance of creating usable and persuasive interfaces for customers.

View the excellent PBS “Persuaders” series:  a must see for anyone communicating within organizations …
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/view/

George Lakoff’s lecture on “Moral Politics” and language targeted to values rather than issues:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=5f9R9MtkpqM