Social media and usability - people-centred design in communications

Sebastian Greger

This is a translated and slightly edited post, originally published in Finnish on the Management Institute of Finland blog (2015-02-27).

Social media and usability are words rarely expressed in the same sentence. And if one does, the common response is something along the lines of “you cannot affect usability in social media; functionalities and user interfaces are defined by the platforms”. And indeed, publishing in social media means adherence to a strict corset: the services limit the length of texts, unify the appearance of messages and profiles, and define the interactions surrounding them.

Thinking outside the tool box

Organisations’ social media communications strategies – goal-driven plans how to grow audiences, who is in charge and how to create good posts – are, therefore, built around the networks’ requirements. The outcome are channels for marketing, customer service or stakeholder communications. These are closely measured for analytics on what works and what doesn’t; replies and feedback help to build an understanding on what “the followers” desire.

“Follow us on Twitter” and “Like us on Facebook”, users are allured. And since subscribing (or in today’s commonly adopted Facebook-English: “liking”) is made easy, the threshold is low – for instance in contrast to ordering an e-mail newsletter.

Yet, social media is an interactive channel by nature. Messages are not just written for being read, but as interaction starters. To implement a successful strategy, an organisation does not only have to consider production and consumption of content, but their meaning in people’s lives.

If usability is herein only seen as a question of easy-to-use and smooth interfaces, means for its improvement are limited indeed. But the question of usability is much broader: How does a user see our content in the context of their personal message feed? What value does a person expect from a channel? Does a follower know how fast a response to expect after contacting us on social media? Can the subscriber trust that messages from their friends are not going to drown in a flood of irrelevant marketing blabber?

Usability in social media: technology, context and value

When we decided to add the topic of social media usability to the Management Institute of Finland’s “Training programme for digital communications” (link in Finnish, next course starting 10/2015), we evaluated how communications professionals can most efficiently improve the usability of their organisations’ social media channels.

For several years, I have based the usability definition in that training programme on a three pillar model: technical usability, context of use and worth for the individual (loosely based on work by G. Cockton, as well as S. Kujala & K. Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila). The same applies to social media: In addition to technical questions, a good social communications concept takes into account how an organisation’s activity fits into a user’s overall social media practice and – above all – what is the personal value a “follower” may be looking for.

One of the many questions a people-centred approach to social media aims to provide an answer to.

To put it bluntly: if we fail to provide worth in return for the users’ effort to follow us, we will fail to engage with people long-term – regardless of how “good” a piece of content may be by itself. And if our communication practice does not meet the expectations or our messages stand out strangely from the user’s feed, they remain nothing but noise without signal.

Channel, practices, messages – and their presentation

These aspects influence every stage of social media communications: from the early decision on what channels to establish, to the design of every single message and day-to-day procedural manner. If the audience consists of diverse groups (e.g. prospects, customers, investors) it may be good to offer them separate Twitter accounts. When promoting a company’s latest YouTube video on Facebook, it needs to be considered how the link will appear in the user’s feed. And instead of automatically reposting messages across platforms, it is worth editing them to meet the tone and use case of each channel.

The work on social media usability even begins outside of social media. Just as an example: one field where people-centred design can greatly improve both communications impact and customer experience is the presentation of interactive social media channels on organisations’ own web presence. Is there a clear value proposition for potential new followers? Are people of different background led to the channel best fitting their communicational motive?

These are all questions of usability and, as more and more organisations establish a presence on social service platforms, are surprisingly often forgotten. “Follow us on Twitter” is the message that remains, but the person behind the “like” may be forgotten.

In September 2015, we are piloting a slightly unusual social media training, entitled “Usability in social media – people-centred design for social media channels” (link and seminar in Finnish). We invite attendants to scrutinize their social media activities with a slightly broader-than-normal approach, through communications, design and sociology lenses.