Contextual Series: Gathering User Information

This is the third part of my contextual series which will focus on a few technical details on how to gather user information.  I cannot stress this enough, be wary of the user’s privacy.  Make sure that anything you do is covered under your privacy policy and that the data you gather is done with the user’s consent.  As soon as a user considers their experience with your product as being creepy, you have lost the user.

Social networks like Facebook provide us with a wealth of data.  Social networks are a great way to get a user to consent to data without having to get them to fill in forms.  The information these social networks provide to you are bound by terms of service, terms of user and of course a privacy policy. Make sure you keep these in mind while thinking of ways you can use the data.

Before considering social networks as your primary source for data, keep in mind that with the modern web and native applications, your product may already have access to a lot of data that may be useful to you, especially regarding the user’s location. More specific information on a user, like age and gender will require input methods. If the user’s social connections are important to your product or you don’t want to submit users to numerous input fields social networks would be important.

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The Power of Social

Over the past years, we’ve all become more social.  Many will argue that this has lead to our lives being more public and having less privacy.  In theory it may be true, but like anything else, you must be conscious of what you share and who you share it with.  Social networks, the majority of them, provide you the tools you need to manage your privacy.  This post isn’t about privacy, it is about how the world has changed since the web has become more social.  Early in the social days, websites would mainly function with users hiding behind a pseudonym.  Later, we moved to sharing content with friends, to now implicating friends into our activities.

When I started on the web, I’ve basically used it as a tool, to do my homework and so on.  Not long after, I began using content sites for the games I played (and loved).  But I quickly began posting on fan sites and soon enough was helping manage some of those sites.  It eventually lead me to creating my own sites.  My sites were popular in the day, not the size of Facebook or Myspace today.  Just over hundred thousand users and over two million pieces of content (posts, comments, downloadable content, etc) created in a little over a year.  The sites however lacked on key aspect… the ability to drive new users (or at least our users’ friends) to the site.  Which is why sites then focused on retention and we did that extremely well, I retained the majority of my users quite well.  But we also didn’t have to fight for the user’s attention with many other games, apps, or sites.

Sites slowly moved to making users less anonymous and reveal their real identify.  I can’t quite say who started this movement, but Myspace was a big player in this field, as it started to become popular.  Myspace focused on users sharing posts together and gathering attention with fancy layouts.  Facebook was not far behind, but focused on sharing pictures between friends with the ability to tag pictures.  Soon college students all over North America were sharing pictures of their drunken adventures from the night before.  What many didn’t know was that around the corner was the revolution of the web, where one could monetize social activity.  These sites still focused heavily on retention and continue to focus on retention, though partly giving way to virality in order to grow the sites (or networks), apps or games out.

Applications and games began to use social networking sites to share content between users and their friends.  Some of the things shared were as silly as “How are you in bed”, but were extremely popular in their early days.  It was simple, users wanted to see the results of them completing the activity and comparing it with their friends.  That is why quiz apps ruled the Facebook platform when apps initially launched.  People wanted to see what Movie Star they resembled the most, or what Harry Potter they were like, or what year they would die.  Soon we had the games where users would share the activity on their levelling up, their completing of challenges, and harvesting of crops.  But those were mostly in the context of being virtual, rarely implicating the users in real situations, like lifestyle events.

Today, we are seeing the shift of social on lifestyle events and things users do outside of the virtual world, going back to getting users to get off their computers and enjoy their lives in different ways.  People are rewarded for sharing the places they’ve been, people share all the music they listen to, users share what they discover while shopping, or their experiences on vacation as they are enjoying it.  Those applications are heavily focused on virality, much less on retention.  Many products seem to focus on the product being stellar enough that users will come back to it or their friends will bug them to come back.  This is where I find social has done a complete 180 from users being anonymous to being pressured to come back.

What lead me to this post was not the history of how we got to where we’ve gotten today, but the power of social activity.  We’ve likely all heard the concept of “word of mouth”, I like to think the social experience is a derivative of that.  People see an activity that was shared, being curious as we all are, we will check it out to see what it is about.  Take me creating a radio station as an example.  I create a radio station in Spotify, people are either curious to see what I listen to or like what I listen to, which leads them to subscribing or at least trying it out.  I will also do the same with my friends and see what they listen to, often subscribing to their activity.  It helps me discover music and keep myself entertained.  The same can be said about any other variety of applications or products out there, pimping out your friends to help you discover new experiences, though really what they are trying to do is get more people using their product.

What continues to fascinate me is how these applications, games or products that now focus on the viral aspect of social activity do so at the expense of other core values, such as retention.  Retention was always a core to any product and continues to be in games or applications that have no up front costs but have a micro-transaction economy.  Using products like Spotify, Nike+, or Yahoo News, I was never really asked to come back or even given the a notice that coming back may result in me getting something out of it.  Instead, I am reminded through my shared activity that those were great products which benefitted me and I should go back to it.  In a way, I am shocked that they aren’t trying to get me back, but also happy they aren’t annoying me either.

Today, most of the products I use are social.  I like they are social.  Not for the fact that I am giving away all of my privacy, but because I can express myself, share my experiences with others, and review my friends’ social activity that allows me to discover new amazing things.  Social has brought me to real life events that appealed to me (like Camaro Fest), has allowed me to discover new amazing products that made my life easier and better, and also allowed me to have some more variety in how I go about to my daily activities.  Of course, there is a very large flow of content, the tools to curate this content is becoming more popular, but in the meantime I am watching what I share with others and what I subscribe to.