Designing Great Experiences

Business Model and Drivers

So what’s the plan for Thrive ID? What products are we working on? How will we make money?  I thought I’d start off by giving a synopsis of what we’re trying to do and how.  Keep in mind the plan is continually changing as we go but this is the latest.

As I mentioned in my previous post I’ve been interested in web applications as a product category for a while now.  The characteristics of web applications are highly appealing:

  • Always on
  • Accessible from anywhere (there’s an assumption there I know)
  • Always up-to-date
  • All my data/info in a central location
  • Available from any browser irrespective of OS
  • Shareable with others

There are hundreds and thousands out there now – some of which are great, some of which are not-so-great.  Many are free, others you have to pay for.

A few months ago I listened to a talk by David Heinemeier Hansson (video)  (podcast)  where he talked about the business model around subscription-based web apps and the relatively low number of customers you’d need to have a million dollar business (roughly 2000 customers paying $40/month).  While attracting 2000 customers isn’t a no-brainer, it’s also not ridiculous.  If all you need is 2000 customers, you can go after some pretty small niches.

Beyond the opportunities in the web app space, I also see a an ever-tightening coupling between web applications and a mobile companion – whether a platform-specific app (like an iPhone app) or a mobile version of the web app.  The opportunities created by connecting web and mobile is just starting to be explored and realized.

So the approach we’re taking with Thrive ID is to develop a portfolio of both mobile and web applications available for purchase or subscription.  We’re not limiting ourselves to just consumers or just businesses or even a specific industry.  The driver is to build tools that help people in a genuine and meaningful way.  That sounds pretty gushy but I want to work on projects I’m passionate about and, for me, helping people brings out the passion.  I know in theory all products help people in some way (or they wouldn’t buy them) but a more efficient shopping app or an app to plan which football games you’re going to watch don’t rank too high on my meaningful scale.

That’s a quick view into some of the how and the why.

What are your thoughts on the future of web and mobile apps?

What drives you?

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A Designer Running a Product Company?

I’m an Industrial Designer by training (with a little Architect thrown in).  Since starting the Industrial Design program at the University of Kansas (a “few” years ago) I’ve had to learn to communicate to others what I do. Over the years I’ve found that the words “Design” and “Designer” carry a lot of baggage. Most people think of a designer as someone who makes things look good. While defining the aesthetics of product is definitely design, it’s only part of it.  I still stand by my definition of design:

The intentional configuration of elements to accomplish a goal.

(See “My Definition of ‘Design’” post for more details about the definition.)

So the same approaches, processes, and methodologies you’d apply to the design of a logo or a piece of furniture can (and should) be applied to creating a business.  I’m defining the goal of the business, the strategy for accomplishing the goal, and the parts needed to put the strategy into action just as I would for a product or website.

I’ve spent many years working in companies where a large number of the decision-makers didn’t understand the importance of the customer experience and, if they did, didn’t know how to create a great one. I’ll confess to being part of many hallway discussions among designers griping about Bob the Business Guy’s decision or Martha Marketer’s priorities and how if they’d just listen to us and do what we said, success would be virtually guaranteed.

Well now I’m Bob the Business Guy and Martha Marketer and every other role a business requires.  I’m excited about the opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching. I’ll get to see if all that designerly wisdom I tried to share was on-the-mark or not.

Thoughts? What do you think about “designers” moving into other job roles?

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Stepping Out of the Boat

As is periodically the case, my blog has been pretty quiet the last couple of months (ok, four), but there’s a good reason for that. Since being “released” with more than half our UX team from Sun/Oracle at the beginning of the year, I’ve been considering which direction to take my career.

To cover the standard “get another job” route I sent out resumes and had several interviews but I found myself generally unexcited about the prospect of going back to work for a big company. I thought about the consultant route but after talking with several people doing that kind of work I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. (Though short-term it’s been helpful.) The area of web applications has intrigued me for a couple of years, fed at least partially by 37Signals‘ approach to business and development.   So I started mulling the idea of starting a web app company.  To be frank, the idea of starting my own business has always been scary to me as it is neither safe nor comfortable. I like comfort and predictability (aka “the known”) – especially when I’m supporting my wife and four kids (and a dog).   (Not that working for big “safe” Sun Microsystems turned out to be so safe, but I digress.)  My wife and I talked and prayed about it a lot. One night while out on a date she said she was fully behind my starting a company and hoped I’d step out of the comfort of the “boat” and take a shot at walking on water (or at least building a profitable business). So, on August 25, 2010, Thrive ID, LLC was officially formed with the goal of building and selling web and mobile apps designed to help people do life better.

Since then I’ve been writing a business plan, doing research, defining strategy, designing products, finding developers, figuring out finances, and all the other stuff you have to do to get a business like this off the ground.  Since starting out I’ve been wondering when I’d freak out and go running back to corporate America but I’ve had a great peace and excitement about it all that I can only attribute to a gift from God.  Ask my wife. Normally if there’s something to worry about I’m pretty good at finding it.

Anyway, I described all that to explain why I’ve not posted in a while and to share my plan to regularly post on different topics, stories, and learnings related to starting Thrive ID and developing the products.  So if you’re interested in reading the thoughts of a laid-off Information Architect bootstrapping introverted Jesus-following husband with 4 kids (and a dog) who is trying to start a company building and selling web apps – then stay tuned.  Hopefully we’ll all learn something – whether it’s what to do or what not to do.

If you have any wisdom or advice to share, I’d love to hear it.

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Service Experience Done Right (by a Dentist!)

I love my dentist.

That’s not something you hear too often. And after years of dreading visits to the dentist I’m surprised I’m saying it. It’s not just that he’s a nice guy (which he is). It’s the great experience he delivers consistently, every time I go. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve visited him twice – once for a cleaning and once for a filling – and I took note of what he does that makes him so great. I’ve generalized my observations so they can be applied to the delivery of any service, not just dentistry.

Some principles for delivering a good service experience:

  1. Respect me and my time
    I’ve been going to my dentist for over 10 years and I have never once had to wait more than 5 minutes past the start time of my appointment. (Unfortunately being on time is almost unheard of in the medical profession, so this is a big deal.) Once I’m in the chair my most recent x-rays are ready for review and the hygienist is ready to start. (None of this getting me in the room/chair and making me sit another 15-30 minutes.) And I’m always out on time, if not early. Nothing says, “I don’t care about you as a person or customer” as much as wasting my time.
  2. Complete focus on me as a person (I’m a person first, customer second)
    Every time he comes in to examine my teeth he shakes my hand, sits down in front of me, looks me in the eye, and asks me how I’m doing and if I have any concerns. He then explains (in non-Dentist language) what they found in my checkup and x-rays and what he recommends should happen next. When we’re finished he asks me if I have any questions, shakes my hand again, tells me it was good to see me and to have a good summer, Christmas, or whatever happens in the next 6 months.
    Focusing on the person you’re talking to communicates they’re important to you and that you care.
  3. Thorough, proactive communication
    I’ve already described some of the ways he communicates but it’s especially important and appreciated when he’s doing some sort of “procedure” like putting in a filling.  Before beginning I get a description of  what he’s going to do and why (which is always nice when my mouth is involved).  Then as the work is being done, he’ll explain what he’s doing and what I might feel.  He also tells me what I shouldn’t feel and to let him know if I do.  And the day after I had a filling he (not his receptionist) personally called me to make sure everything was ok and to ask if I had any questions or concerns.  (I was amazed.)
    Strong communication is foundational to any good relationship but it’s especially important when someone is under stress or is in an unfamiliar situation.
  4. Care and respect for staff
    I can tell his staff is cared for and respected by the way he speaks to them, speaks about them, and treats them.  Each time he concludes a checkup he thanks the hygienist (by name) before leaving.  It’s not a huge deal but it goes a long way.
    Want to make sure your staff delivers a great service experience?  Make sure they know they’re cared for and respected.
  5. Expertise builds confidence
    Great service is all well and good but if the service provider doesn’t know what they’re doing it’s pointless. It’s clear that Dr. Franz stays on top of the latest research, technologies, and techniques and applies them where it makes sense.  Whether it’s using a CNC machine to create perfectly fitting crowns or digital displays to review x-rays I have confidence that he’s delivering the best service possible.
    There are a lot of companies that have superior expertise but crummy delivery.  There are other companies that have the delivery nailed but don’t know what they’re doing.  A truly great service experience requires both superior expertise and delivery.

At the end of the day a business has to make money.  And making more money is a good thing.  Delivering a great service experience will ultimately deliver more money to the bottom line.  Case in point: My dentist is not on the preferred provider list for my dental insurance so I pay more for each visit than I would if I switched dentists.  But I haven’t switched because I know I’ll get amazing service and great care for me and my family.  I hope he somehow outlives me because I have no interest in changing dentists ever again.

I’m a completely loyal and devoted customer.  Isn’t that what every business wants?

 
(BTW, if you live in the area Northwest of Denver and are looking for a great dentist, I happen to know of one: Dr. Wayne Franz, DDS.)

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Cross-Channel Experience

In my previous post, one of my highlights from the IA Summit had to do with the presentations and conversations about cross-channel customer experience.  As someone with a background and interest in Architecture, Industrial Design, Customer Support, and Web Design, the idea of designing across all the channels has always been of great interest and one I want to continue to explore and develop.

I created two diagrams (gotta have pictures, of course); one showing the different pieces that make up a total cross-channel experience and another showing how the different parts map to the different phases in the customer lifecycle.   My intent is that these diagrams can help give the concept of cross-channel experience some shape and context and serve as a reference for further discussion.

Below are first drafts of each diagram.  They’re in need of feedback and iteration so let me know what you think.

The Parts

(click diagram for a larger version)
Diagram illustrating parts of the cross-channel experience

The goal here is to understand the channels with which customers interact. All the slices of the pie combine to create the organization’s overall or total experience. (aka. the organization’s brand.) The “Align & Amplify” in the center is an effort to communicate the ideas that (1) the pieces need to be considered as a whole so they are all aligned and (2)  the relationships and transitions between the various channels can and should add additional value and an even greater experience. (The whole is greater that the sum of the parts.)

Questions:

  1. What’s missing?
  2. What touch-points come to mind that don’t fit well in any of these categories?
  3. What questions come to mind?  What doesn’t make sense?

Mapping Channels Against the Customer Lifecycle

(click diagram for a larger version)

Diagram mapping customer lifecycle to channels

This diagram looks at the relationship between the channels and the customer lifecycle.  A hypothetical scenario illustrates how a customer moves through the stages of the lifecycle and how they might interact with various channels in each stage.

Questions:

  1. Where does “Word of Mouth” fit as a channel?  It’s not something organizations have direct control over but it is one powerful way potential customers “interact” with an organization and the brand.  It could be included in web but not all of it fits there.
  2. In “Customer Service” I’m including things like processes, policies, tech support, sales support, etc.    Does that category make sense?  Need a different label?
  3. What other diagrams/concept maps have you seen that illustrate the concepts of cross-channel experience?

Thoughts?  Feedback?  Suggestions?

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IA Summit, 2010: Some Highlights

I recently returned from the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ and wanted to capture some of what I learned and thoughts I came away with.  Trying to summarize the summit turned out to be harder than I expected.  What I’ve posted below seems more like several tips of the largest ice bergs rather than a thorough recap.  My notes don’t do justice to all that went on but they’re a start at least.

1. Designing for social is about designing the “negative space”.

This is an overarching concept from a pre-conference workshop I took called “Social Architecture: From Strategy to Success Metrics” taught by Christina Wodtke and Jennifer Granito Ruffner.  Unlike designing, say, a product marketing page where you control everything, when designing a social environment, you’re really designing a space where people can interact.  You can’t control those interactions or the resulting content, but the environment you design will impact what goes on in the space just as a physical environment impacts the people that live and work in that space.

I think I could have a “Top 100 Takeaways” post to summarize all this workshop covered but this will have to do for now.    See slide 29 for a great summarizing diagram.

http://www.slideshare.net/cwodtke/designing-social-iasummit

Thanks to Christina and Jenn and all those who attended for a great workshop!

Credit: Christina Wodtke and Jennifer Granito Ruffner
More details: Workshop slides

2. A strong kickoff meeting is crucial when starting a new project with a client or internal stakeholders.

Why?

  1. First impressions are powerful and lasting
  2. Roles can be hidden and unclear
  3. Time and money is wasted

Tip: Interview all stakeholders before the kickoff meeting.

Credit: Kevin M Hoffman
More details:  Slides from IA Summit, Web Site: goodkickoffmeetings.com

3.  Simple “back of the napkin” diagrams can be a powerful way to think through ideas and communicate those ideas to others.

  • From Keynote by Dan Roam, author of “Back of the Napkin”
  • Dan talked about the power of even a simple sketch.  A sketch can communicate an idea like no amount of words ever could.  (A picture is worth more than a thousand words I guess.)
  • He also emphasized that you don’t need to be Leonardo DaVinci to create effective and impactful drawings.  Just simple lines, shapes, and text are usually all that’s needed to clearly communicate an idea.
  • Dan and a friend sat down to try and visually describe the healthcare bill.  He posted slides showing their diagrams which have had over 215,000 views.  The networks asked him to present his diagrams.  Then the White House called asking for advice.  The power of a sketch indeed.

Credit: Dan Roam
More Details: Healthcare slides, Overview slides, “Back of the Napkin” book

4. Many IAs and designers are migrating toward creating interactive prototypes instead of static wireframes.

As usual, there was good discussion/debate about the merits of prototypes vs wireframes.  Prototyping tools have a ways to go until they easily do all that we’d ideally want them to do but some of them could now be considered viable for real project work.  At this point Axure seems to be the leader and one of the presentations at the conference described one firm’s transition from wireframes to prototypes using Axure. The transition seems to have been a success with no plans to go back.

Given the increasing levels of interactivity we’re creating in web applications, social sites, etc., a good interactive prototype seems to be the only way to communicate how something will work.  Wireframes will probably still have their place in the tool box but prototyping is and will be invaluable.

Credit: Kevin Wick
More details: Axure, UIE article: “Prototyping: Picking the Right Tool”

5. Design of multi-touchpoint interactions

Designing the experience across all of an organization’s touchpoints has been high on my interest list for quite a while.  It was great to see the topic surface at the IA Summit in a pre-conference workshop (wish I’d taken that one too), a presentation by Samantha Starmer, and a general topic of discussion.  As IAs we obviously focus on the web touchpoint but the web is only one way that customers interact with a company.  Advertising, call centers, physical brick and mortar environments, processes, catalogs, packaging, products, and the web all contribute to a person’s perceptions of a brand.  IAs and UX designers have an opportunity to apply our knowledge and methods outside the web to improve the larger over-arching customer experience.  There is opportunity to not only align the touchpoints but also to create something more impactful than just the sum of the parts.  It’s an area I definitely want to dig into more.

Credit: Samantha Starmer, Jess McMullin
More details:  Workshop slides: “Leaving Flatland…”,

6. Understand and use social design patterns.

The importance of knowing and using design patterns was reiterated through several different conversations and presentations.  Patterns are not a specific implementation with specific look and feel, copy, positioning, etc.  Instead they’re a general description of the basic interaction(s) users have come to expect.  And they’re not plug and play.  Depending on the specific situation the pattern may have to be adjusted so it fits the context.

Building on their book, “Designing Social Interfaces”, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone created a poster with a new concept model that attempts to capture the world of social interface patterns and I think they did a pretty good job.  Also included on the poster were several concept models generated over the years showing the change and refinement in thinking and capabilities.  Pretty cool.

Social Ecosystem poster by Crumlish and Malone

Credit: Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone
More Details: About the poster, the poster (pdf)

7.  There is a gap between people’s offline and online social networks.

Paul Adams from Google presented some of his research comparing online and offline social networks.  he had several interesting findings but a couple that stick out in my mind are:

  • In real-life, people tend to have about 4-6 different social networks/circles that, for the most part, do not overlap. However, in online networks, Facebook in particular, all those separate networks get thrown into one big pool.  This can often cause problems for users.  They might want to share something with only one specific group of people but don’t have an easy way to specify who will see it and who won’t.  (See slide 15.)  We need to design to support the fact that we have different types of relationships.
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” talked about “Influentials” who have extra levels of influence on a large number of people.  The idea is that if a corporation can get the attention and “love” of an Influential, they’ll influence an inordinate number of others.  Paul’s research is showing that’s not entirely true.  Friends tend to also have a lot of influence.  If an Influential says “buy Nikes” but two of a person’s friends say, “Pumas are the best”, the person is more likely to buy the Pumas.  (See slide 138.)

Credit: Paul Adams
More Details: Slides, Paul’s blog

8. Being a good influencer is crucial for creating successful projects and businesses but being a good influencer is more about listening and empathy than talking and power.

Note: Listening and empathy are core attributes of a good IA/designer.  Approach in influence opportunity as a design project.

Note (2): Jess’s talk was great but what I remember most is that when I asked a question at the end, he called on me by name after we only briefly met the day before.  Talk about listening.

Credit: Jess McMullin
More Details: Slides from IA Summit, a good summary by LukeW

9. The IA Summit is a fantastic event made so by a community of smart, curious, helpful, friendly, passionate people (who also happen to be information architects).

The presentations are great brainfood but the conversations and relationships are what make it special.

Whitney Hess’s Plenary presentation, “Transending Our Tribe”, is a great example of some of the challenging and inspiring presentations and discussions.  Definitely worth a look/listen.

A great group of people.  A worthwhile experience.  I’ll be back.

Credit: Jennifer Bombach and the whole planning team.  Whitney Hess
More Details: IA Summit web site

More resources:

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A Great Experience from Qwest

I recently switched to Qwest for DSL service and wasn’t sure what to expect as far as customer experience.  I wish it wasn’t such a surprise, but pleasant surprises are better than bad surprises.  I was really impressed with their do-it-yourself installation and setup process.  Here’s a rundown of my experience.

When I opened the box I was greeted by bright, friendly colors, a packet of information, and three clearly labeled compartments.

Qwest DSL box

 
The instructions, though a little large when completely unfolded, were clear and easy to follow.

Photo of instructions

 
I was especially impressed with the way the instructions described the various items in the box and referenced the color-coded chords. (Black for power, green for phone, and yellow for ethernet.)  Someone clearly put some thought into this.  And, incredibly, a phone number for a help line is listed once on the inside of the box and 4 times in the instructions.  They are obviously focused on delivering a great customer experience, not avoiding phone calls.

Once the the hardware was connected, I was automatically connected to the online configuration application.

First I was presented with a friendly welcome screen with brief instructions (in plain language) on how to navigate through the various steps.

Screenshot of welcom screen

 
On the next screen, they did a good job of heading off potential problems and/or confusion by telling me what to do if my firewall software appears.

Screenshot of firewall warning page

 
The page also has some other helpful elements including a progress indicator, “Tell me more…” link (makes optional, more detailed info available without cluttering the page), a live chat icon (instant help), and a help icon.

After completing a few more steps in the process I was asked to indicate which modem I have.



 
Ideally the system would be able to figure this out without asking me but, if they have to ask, providing photos of the modems is much more meaningful and helpful than just listing a bunch of names.  (Especially since they have names like “ActionTec M1000″ and “2Wire 2700HG”.)

Once the setup process was completed I was presented with a final screen listing important account information.  It was nice to have it all in one place rather than have to dig for it later.

Screenshot of Qwest info screen

 
Qwest has had a reputation for a terrible customer experience but in the last couple of years they’ve really improved.  Their modem setup experience was excellent and I think illustrates some principles that can be applied almost any experience.

  • It’s ok to have fun
    Qwest’s packaging and web UI were colorful and somewhat playful in appearance and language.  Any time you can inject fun into an experience, do so.  (Assuming it fits with the offering and branding).
  • User conversational language (if appropriate)
    Standard corporate language is boring and sometimes hard to understand.  Don’t use fancy words.  Just say what you’re trying to communicate.
  • Coordinate the elements
    Qwest did a good job of making sure the hardware in the box matched what was described in the instructions and that the modem was actually in the list of modems in the web UI.  They even went so far as to specify the color of the power cord, phone cable, and ethernet cable and then referenced those colors in the instructions.
  • Tell people where they are in the process
    A basic common courtesy.
  • Warn about (or better yet, help avoid) potential problems and stress points
    Qwest knew that customers’ firewall software could potentially try to block the modem setup process.  They warned users that the problem could be coming and what to do if it happened.  If users know a potential problem could be coming and how to deal with it, it’s much less stressful when it actually appears.
  • Offer liberal help options
    Qwest made phone numbers, chat button, and help icon clearly visible throughout the installation process.  Don’t try to hide access to a live person just so you can save money.  Avoid help calls/chats through great design and processes rather than by hiding a phone number or chat button.
  • Give me pictures
    If you’re going to ask me to identify something, give me a picture if at all possible – especially when dealing with hi-tech products and their cryptic meaningless names.

By creating an easy and enjoyable setup experience Qwest accomplished three things.

  1. They delivered a great experience that reflects well on their brand image.
  2. They decreased the load on their call centers.
  3. They made their service more appealing by lowering the cost.  (I didn’t have to pay an extra $86 to have a Qwest technician come install it.)

Nice job Qwest.  I hope they and the rest of us can keep building on great experiences like this one.

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37signals Thinking

I’ve been using 37signals’ Basecamp for a couple of years now and have been sporadically reading their blog and some of their book for even longer.  Over the last couple of months I’ve been reading their blog more regularly and listening to their podcasts and I have to say I find their story, thinking, and approach both refreshing and inspiring.  Some of my favorite ideas and insights (summarized in my own words):

  • The default response to new feature ideas should be “no”.  New feature ideas should go through a lot of scrutiny before being implemented.  Keep it simple.
  • Ditch the functional/UI specs.  They chew up a lot of time and don’t ad much value.
  • If you start a new company: (a) you don’t have to take out a loan or get VC funding, (b) remember that the work patterns you set early will probably continue permanently,  (c) don’t start out giving away your product for free.
  • Don’t try to become the next Facebook or Twitter.  The odds are very small that it will happen.  Shooting to become a $1M is much more feasible.   If you charge a monthly subscription rate of $40 and have 2000 customers, your revenue would be about $1M.  That’s pretty reasonable.  If you address a niche really well, 2000 customers should not be a huge problem.
  • Avoid chopping up your day with meetings, email, IMs, etc.  You are much more productive with a few large blocks of time than you are with multiple small chunks.
  • There are a lot of large, old companies around.  It seems as though most startups have the goal of prepping the company to be bought by a large old company.  All the fresh thinking and ideas inherent in a startup get squashed by the large old company.  What’s going to happen in several years when we no longer have startups growing into large new companies?  Much of the potential innovation will be lost.
  • Treat your customers like people.  Shoot straight and speak/write/act like a human.  (Something near and dear to my heart.)

There are more but these are the ones that have stuck with me.

I appreciate 37Signals’ candor and their willingness to share their ideas and lessons learned.   Questioning long-standing assumptions and the status quo is always good.

Recommended reading/viewing/listening:

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Rethinking the "Community" Label

Examples of "Communities" links on corporate sites
A “Community” or “Communities” link is now appearing on the home page or in the main navigation of many corporate sites.  (At least on the corporate tech sites I reviewed recently.)  As someone who wholeheartedly believes in the power of online community tools to connect corporations and their target audiences with each other, it’s great to see community get more visibility. But from an Information Architecture and usability standpoint, should we really be using the term “Community” as a navigation and/or category label?  Assuming our goal is to enable users to accomplish their tasks as quickly and easily as possible, does it really help?

I don’t think we should be using “Community” as a link or category label.  Here’s why:

  1. Its definition is unclear
    If you asked 100 people for their definition of “community” in the context of a website, I bet you’d get 100 different answers.  So when a user sees a link labeled “Community” they may associate it with tasks and functionality that are very different from the way the corporation intended.  For example, at Sun “Community” is a term used to describe functionality like forums, wikis, blogs, etc., but it’s also used to describe a collection of content aimed at a specific audience such as Developers or Parters. (The “Developer Community”.)  In contrast, terms like “Downloads” or “Documentation” have a much more narrow definition are a closely tied with specific user tasks.
  2. It’s a catch-all term
    “Community” is really an umbrella term that describes a category containing a wide variety of tools, content, and functionality.  It can (but not always) include forums, blogs, wikis, groups, user profiles, videos, photos, podcasts, comments, reviews, ratings, polls, etc.  What a user would expect to find in the bucket depends on their definition of “community”.
  3. It’s not helpful
    Users come to your site to accomplish a task.  But no one is going to come to your site for the sole purpose of looking at or joining your community (except for people like me).  Tools that fall under the “Community” umbrella can definitely help users accomplish their tasks but the user is left to figure out what the corporation means by “Community” (see #1 above) and then guess as to whether the tool they need will actually be there (see #2 above).  Best-case, using “Community” as a navigation label is inefficient.  Worst-case, it’s misleading.

So what’s the solution?  In the spirit of fully integrating community tools and content into the corporate web presence, the individual tools should be pulled out of the “Community” bucket and labeled and located in ways that best support user tasks.  A couple of examples:

  • Wikis are a great platform for managing content that changes frequently as well as enabling multiple people to contribute and collaborate.  So in some cases wiki technology might be used to present a page of information to users that is also easy for the content managers to update.  The users don’t know or care that it’s technically delivered by a wiki platform.  All they know is that the information is always up-to-date.  In other cases the company might want to encourage users to contribute to a technical article or some documentation.  In this case users might see a link that says “Contribute” or “Collaborate” which would catch the attention of those who want to perticipate.
  • Forums are a powerful way to (among other things) enable people to find answers to questions.  The term “forum” is becoming more common and the tasks it supports are more or less understood (especially among technical audiences), so using “forum” as link label is probably okay depending on your audience.  But there are other terms that better describe what a user can accomplish in a forum such as “Discussions”, “Find Answers”, or “Get Help”.  Along with appropriate labeling, inks to forums should be displayed in relevant locations.  Integrating links into places where users will likely have questions they want answered such as product or support pages gives users a smooth path to what they need.

Some of this may seem pretty obvious and actually, there are sites that do some of this already.  But I think it’s worth taking the time to think through the community-related terms we’re using on our site and make sure they align well with what users are trying to accomplish.

So what are your thoughts?  Do you disagree?  Are their contexts where using “Community” makes sense?

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Community Integration on Corporate Home Pages

To build on my previous thoughts about integrating community into corporate sites, I did a quick analysis of the home pages for eleven large hi-tech companies.  (Cisco, Dell, SAP, Microsoft, Intel, HP, IBM, Oracle, Sun, VMware, and NetApp.)   On each company’s home page I looked for:

  1. Links to community-related pages/sites (forums, blogs, wikis, etc.)
  2. Community-generated content (from forums, blogs, etc.)
  3. Social tools (such as RSS subscriptions or Share functionality)

I put together a slide deck with screenshots and notes.  (Viewing full-screen recommended.)

[slideshare id=2771901&doc=communityonhomepages-091223154807-phpapp02]

Some Observations

  • All the home pages I looked at had at least one link to a community-related page or site.
  • Community-related links most commonly displayed on home pages included:  (Numbers indicate number of sites displaying that link out of total.)
    • “Community/Communities” (9/11)
    • “Forums/Discussions” (6/11)
    • “Blogs” (6/11)
    • “RSS” icon/link (6/11)
    • “Wikis” (2/11)
  • “Community/Communities” links went to either a routing page (listing links to various community-related sites) or to a community space (an integrated platform including discussions, docs, profiles, groups, etc.).
    • Routing page (6/9)
    • Space/platform (3/9)
    • Notable unique ideas:
    • “Manage Your Profile” link in footer on microsoft.com
    • “Social Media Guidelines” link in footer on intel.com
    • Using “Connect With Others” instead of “Community” in main nav of hp.com
    • Icons to share a specific page via multiple social channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, etc. in standard footer on ibm.com
    • Display title of a specific blog post on netapp.com
  • Level of community visibility:
    • Most visibility: NetApp
    • Least visibility: SAP
  • Lots of variation in terminology, placement, and display of community-related links, content, and tools.  No apparent standards, patterns, or best-practices yet.  (Not surprising.)

This is obviously just a snapshot in time of a handfull of sites but I find insights (and more questions) can be generated through an exercise like this.  As the integration of community spaces, content, and tools into corporate sites continues to evolve it will be interesting to see what types of patterns and best-practices emerge – or if any will emerge.

Are there patterns you’re beginning to see take shape in certain industries or types of sites?  Are there any examples you believe are effective and think should become a pattern?  Other thoughts?

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