According to Nielsen Online, social networks and blogs are now the 4th most popular kinds of online activities. 67% of the world online population are now visiting them and the time they’re spending on them is growing by three times the overall growth rate of the internet. Social networks are now visited more often than personal email is read. Some social networks have grown to such enormous proportions that they rival entire countries in terms of population—if Facebook, for example, was a country, it would be the fifth-most-populated in the world (right between Indonesia and Brazil).
There’s a lot of variety out there in the realm of social network design. Some sites keep a very professional approach (like LinkedIn) while others have a more organic, free-form look (like MySpace). Most sites fall somewhere in between, mixing professionalism with personalization (like Facebook). But what’s the best way to design a social network? What are the elements that make a social network more user-friendly and more attractive to users? Read on to find out.
Also consider our previous articles:
- 9 Common Usability Mistakes In Web Design which details how to prevent common usability blunders.
- More Web Design Trends For 2009 offers information on some important design trends for this year, many of which can be applied to social network design.
- Clear And Effective Communication In Web Design tells how to make sure you web site communicating efficiently with your users.
1. Engage Quickly
Engagement is crucial for the success of any website. You need to make sure that visitors are immediately drawn into your site, either through great content, a compelling call to action, or some other means.
What’s It For?
Users need to know what your site is all about within seconds of reaching your home page. Most people don’t have time (or inclination) to try to figure out what a website is for if it’s not immediately apparent to them. A simple tag line, the use of graphics, your site’s title, or any number of other elements on your home page can serve to provide new visitors with some indication of what your site’s purpose is.
Give Visitors Something To Do
Your home page should present visitors, both new and returning, with something to do. Logging in or signing up is the most obvious thing for visitors to do, but think about other options. Give them the opportunity to explore what the site is all about before they sign up. Let them search for people they already know on the site. Give them a chance to see why they should sign up before forcing them to. It builds a sense of trust between your site and its users right from the start.
Promote Interesting Content From Friends
Show your users what their friends are doing. From the moment someone logs in, they should be able to see what their friends have been doing, posting, and otherwise promoting. Most sites approach this with a news feed or similar listing of all the activities your friends are up to.
Make It Easy To Find Friends
There’s nothing sadder than a social network account with few or no friends. Make it easy for your users to find friends, both new and old. Letting users search by email, school, company, name, and other identifying factors makes it more likely they’ll engage with a lot of other users, improving everyone’s user experience. The more friends a user has, the more active their profile and news feeds will be, meaning they’re more likely to come back often.
2. Let Users Express Themselves
Self-expression is one of the hallmarks of social media. Some sites approach this by giving users almost full control over the way their profile page looks (MySpace). Others restrict the design options but let users add content to suit their own preferences (Facebook). The degree to which your social network allows users to cusotmize and personalize their profiles is up to you; just make sure there’s some functionality in that area.
Profile Pages Should Promote Personal Expression
Whether you allow full control over user profiles or only limited access to changing their appearances, users should at least have some ability to make their profile reflect their personality. This can be done through changing color schemes and backgrounds or adding content.
Promoting Individuality In Applications
Letting users show their individuality within applications is also a good idea in social networking design. You can do this by allowing users to comment on their activities within applications (as Facebook does) or in other ways. Some applications can be used directly to express a user’s personality. Applications like this include the various gifting, flair, and survey applications. One of the best examples of an application that lets users express who they are is the Living Social application (which is kind of a social network within itself), which allows users to create “top 5” lists about almost anything.
3. Be Dynamic
Dynamic content is the lifeblood of Web 2.0 sites. Social networks are no different. Content should change constantly, with the newest, most popular, and most valuable information continually pushed to the forefront for users.
Have Regularly-Changing Content
Because of the nature of social networking sites, there’s new content constantly available from users. Take advantage of this by including content, both on the home page and on individual users’ profiles or main pages, comprised of these updates. Updated content keeps users coming back, as there’s more to see each time they visit.
Update Content in Real-Time
Utilizing a real-time news feed for your users is a huge convenience. At this point, very few sites are doing this. Facebook has the closest thing to a real-time news feed I’ve seen. It shows you when there are updates, but still requires a click to actually view them (and is often buggy when displaying them). The ideal would be an ajax or similar news feed that updated every minute or so without requiring any user input.
4. Allow Friends To Be Grouped
As friend numbers grow, the ability to group them becomes more important. When you only have thirty or forty friends, it’s often not a big deal to just lump them all together. But when your friend numbers grow to 100, 200, 500 or higher, being able to group them together almost becomes a necessity. After all, you might want to keep your work friends, college friends, casual acquaintances, close friends, and family all in separate groups, both to filter whose updates you see and how much others see of your updates and other information.
Let Users Define Groups
User-defined groups make the most sense when it comes to organizing friends. Some users may only want to organize their friends into a couple of different groups (such as business and personal or family and friends). Others might want to set up dozens of groups for their friends. In either case, make sure users can add their friends to more than one group at a time.
Create Automatic Groups
Automatically grouping friends makes sense, too. Grouping friends by which applications they’re using seems to be the most popular of this kind. Other options might include friends who are also members of the same groups or who share common friends.
5. Use OpenSocial
OpenSocial, Google’s application platform for social networks, opens up a range of possibilities for your social networking site. The primary function of OpenSocial is to allow developers to create applications that can be used across a wide range of social networks. But OpenSocial has other benefits, too, like letting your users take their profile information across the range of sites using OpenSocial.
Provide More Applications To Users
Applications have become one of the most important and most-used features of social networks. Everything from productivity apps to games to gifting apps to apps for expressing yourself are available through OpenSocial. And developers are adding new applications on a daily basis. Because Google runs it, you also don’t need to worry about the program closing down anytime soon.
Let Users Take Their Profiles Anywhere
Allowing your users to take their profile information to other sites implementing OpenSocial is another big advantage. This, of course, means they can also bring their profile information over to your network, which can increase the number of new registrations you get.