Be Careful About Using Social Media to Redesign Your Web Site

Yes, “AOL’s new home page”: has been getting some flack since it went live. However, “Greg Sterling’s suggestion”: that AOL would have been better off getting users to vote and provide feedback on several home page redesigns is not the way to go.

User feedback is, of course, -important- critical; however, to be useful it must be presented in the right way at the right time.
h2. The Right Way
The right way for users to present feedback is as an expression of needs or problems that the web page must satisfy or solve.
Users should not be asked to come up with solutions (that’s the designer’s job) and they should not be asked to simply vote on or provide feedback on finished designs.
They simply don’t have the information needed or indeed the level of interest to make informed design decisions.
Without understanding a web site’s context (business objectives, user goals, technical constraints), it’s hard even for professional web designers to critique a web site’s design (other than really obvious things).
h2. The Right Time
The best time for gathering user feedback is upfront, where design changes are the quickest and cheapest to implement. Presenting a range of finished designs for users to vote on would be an extremely costly way of gathering feedback.
When you’re at the final design stage you really should only be working on a single design — all others having been ruled out through an iterative process of elimination.
In addition, getting users to vote on a range of choices tends to limit them to providing their feedback within the constraints of the options presented, whereas the optimal solution may be something completely different.
When it comes to involving users in design, the mantra is early and often — ideally it’s an ongoing conversation. For example, Yahoo! has taken a better approach with the redesign of their My Yahoo! page.
Although I can’t comment on the development process overall, rather than presenting users with a finished design and saying “here it is,” they’ve enabled users to try out the new home page (with the option of switching back to the old version) as well as provide feedback via a “suggestion board”:
This is a much better way to test a design and gather feedback (if a little painful from reading some of the comments).

4 thoughts to “Be Careful About Using Social Media to Redesign Your Web Site”

  1. Great writeup, this is the first time I have come across this topic in just about forever.
    My experiences with opening design processes to the public have all been disastrous. I once redesigned a hardware review site with an enormous audience, and the owner of this site opened up some of the design to public debate. It was a complete train-wreck! All focus was lost.

  2. I think that for a big company, such as AOL, the best way to understand the visitors’ preferences is to have a permanently-opened suggestion page with some stimulating instruments, such are contests.
    Instead of voting of home page redesigns, a big company should have enough information about its clients’ preferences to be able to act accordingly.
    I see only one justification for the voting of home page redesigns: this can be a wise marketing tool by focusing on the upcoming web design changes.

  3. *Ian* — agreed. Feedback in general and user feedback in particular has to be managed very carefully in order to be useful.
    I always try to think in advance about how I will use the feedback. If it’s not clear how it can be incorporated (e.g., if it’s too late in the design process) or if the feedback is likely to fall into the ‘nice to know’ category, then it’s probably not worth the time and effort involved to collect it.
    I think it’s important to be considerate of users’ time as well. I wouldn’t want them to spend time providing me with feedback if I wasn’t going to do something specific with it.

  4. I agree about the part where using a multiple-choice model is excessive. (certainly when you’re talking multiple, finished designs)
    Still, you can’t deny that it’s more powerful to take a polling approach, (asking for a choice from a finite group of options) rather than an open-forum approach. Finding the right group of options to present is always the trickiest part. Use with caution, to be sure.
    As to “carefully managing” such open-talk feedback, it’s important to note that some suggestions will be simply gibberish (especially if you support anonymous feedback) and others may simply be submitted to be abnormal; to throw-off the curve. Sometimes, those can serve as the most inspiring (even anti-inspiring) feedback of them all. Keep a shaker of salt handy, for every bit of feedback requires a grain of it.
    Another thing is how the feedback “question” is phrased. What opinion would you, as the web-dev, value the most? The distribution of information on the site, quality/quantity of the main-page items, the ratio of graphics/layout to information, or something else? Make sure that a feedback item on your site is asking for the information you really want. At least that way, you’ll know that most of the feedback will be stuff that you need to know.
    In any case, if they don’t like the new site when you’re done, at least you can claim that it’s partly their fault as well! 😉

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