How Social Media Turned User Experience Upside Down

In the early days of the Internet, the web was essentially a collection of pages connected by links. The Internet user experience was called browsing for a reason: We’d jump from page to page in a haphazard way with little connection between each site. Our selection of where to go might have started with a web search on Yahoo, Lycos or Ask Jeeves, but afterwards our path was probably based on whatever links we were presented with. The browsing experience was unpredictable, full of surprises and often felt like a kaleidoscope. It was also a pretty flat experience because most websites were pretty flat: words on a page, perhaps with some images and a spinning leprechaun gif thrown in for good measure.

What’s important about this structure from a user experience perspective is that the user was in the driver’s seat, moving from one static page to the next. No web page was ever more than one click away from any other and—structurally at least—all pages were equal.

Fast-forward to the Internet of today, and the landscape has truly inverted this relationship between users and content. Rather than jumping from page to page, today’s user experience is more like a funnel that is persistently tilted towards us. All information seems to runs downhill into our browsers and devices. Information and services are curated, collected and aggregated on our behalf and delivered to us.

This means we spend less time exploring and more time consuming material that’s already been prescreened. And when it comes to news, we’ve become dependent on programs to bring events to us. We stand still on our own island and the world spins around us. Of course, what the Internet brings us is highly personal. Much of the selection is driven by our personal social connections: our Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, whom we follow on Twitter, etc.

The web experience of today cannot be separated from the interrelated concepts of personalization and aggregation. Information, events, news and resources are selected based on our unique personal connections and then aggregated into a few convenient outlets for us to consume.

This phenomenon may have begun with social media networks (and in fact it couldn’t exist without them) but the changes wrought by personalization and aggregation are larger than the social networks themselves. It has profoundly altered the way we access and consume news and information. And has created a new means for us to evaluate and interact with content—whether we consider it credible and actionable, and whether we wish to share it, comment on it or republish it. Years ago we relied on the professional editorial staff at large media companies to determine what was newsworthy. Today we rely on our socially connected friends. Personalization and aggregation determine whether we will see a movie, buy a recording, go to a party, see an art exhibit or contribute to a charity. It even determines whether we are aware of these things in the first place.

From a user experience perspective, there are some key implications that need to be considered when developing websites and related interactive initiatives:

Navigation Is Only Half the Story

While it’s always a good idea to have a well-thought-out navigational system with a clear taxonomy, navigation is arguably less important than it has ever been. This is because users are increasingly relying on shared links such as those found on their social networks. They are either deep-linking directly to your content or viewing it in an isolated instance that’s created on the fly for their consumption.

Personalization With No Strings Attached

In order to personalize a site experience, it used to be necessary to put your user through a registration process. This is no longer the case. Users can now sign in to sites using their social credentials. APIs and OAuth, a widely used open-source protocol, allows users to identify themselves using their Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other accounts without surrendering any personal information. For example, sites using OAuth can (with their users’ explicit permission) access profile data and friends’ activities and integrate that into the site experience. Using techniques like this, sites can display the names of your friends currently online, list what articles or topics they’ve liked or shared—all without capturing any personal information.

Context Is King

Because content is being aggregated and displayed outside of its original context, your assets may look and behave very differently depending on the setting and the device that your audience is using to access it. For example, let’s say you are developing a physician locator application. When accessing the application on a mobile device, it is possible to display the nearest physician based on the GPS that comes with the phone or tablet. On a desktop computer, users may need to input their location manually to get the same result. The implication is that we need to build flexibly so we can optimize the user experience based on the device and location.

Device Matters

The proliferation of devices has fragmented into a bewildering array of operating systems and screen sizes. Adding to the complexity, some devices accept input from mouse and keyboard while others respond to complex hand gestures or voice commands. Personalization and aggregation means that we need to think not only about where our content may travel but also on what kind of device and screen it will be displayed. Because new devices are constantly being released and operating systems are updated frequently, it can be an impossible task to accommodate all of them. For this reason it is a good idea to establish a list of what devices and operating systems you intend on supporting. While this list may need to change on a regular basis, it will give you a starting point for design and development.


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