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Jan 2012

Facebook: more than a social network, a collaborative design tool?

Facebook as a social media platform to share photos, links, knowledge, experiences, opinions, thoughts, text, articles, events … Or as a rewarding promotional tool, as a visibility tool for micro-communities (music bands, associations, movements, “like”) …Or as a tool for games / competitions / quizzes and other fun gadgets …This, we know. But Facebook as an online ethnography tool which can help us understand how users operate in a certain domain, this is less known.

Several articles mention social networks as an incredible source of information which can help us design products adapted to users.

Robert V. Kozinets (2010) has put forward the concept of “Netnography” [1], asserting that in order to fully understand society, it would be relevant to observe user activity on the Internet, especially on social networks.

Johan Fuller et al. [2] describe how virtual communities can be a a source of innovation and expertise during different stages of the design process. This collaborative design approach would involve selecting members of an online community to work with on a regular basis through a sharing application.

So why and how can Facebook be such a valuable source of information to understand behaviour in a way which will help design process?

Facebook as a huge logbook
User participation throughout the design process is highly relevant to collect data on their overall experience, even if neither the participants nor the developers had initially agreed to collaborate in any official agreement.

We noticed this during a recent project. We realized Facebook’s potential as a tool for an analysis of needs which could fuel improvements of both Facebook « pages » and external websites.  Not to mention the inspiration this data can provide for long-term design directions.

Some background…
The project centered on redesigning a website for a lifestyle challenge; the aim is to advocate health through better eating habits and regular physical activity. The challenge takes place over six weeks and any Quebecers older than 4 years old can participate. To win the challenge (and win prizes), a participant must achieve three objectives related to diet, physical activity and well-being.

The website offers numerous articles and editorials on the subject and also offers tools, interactive games, quizzes, videos, etc.

In addition to the website, the challenge also has a Facebook page. The primary objective of this page is to provide a stimulating and unifying tool where a community of fans and participants can interact and get motivated during the challenge.

This platform helped us better understand the perceptions and behaviours of participants at three key stages: before, during and after the challenge.

While these elements were only analyzed after the challenge ended, Facebook’s temporal archiving of past activities easily allowed us to return to these three specific periods.

Example 1 :
During registration, the ambassador of the challenge promotes the challenge on Facebook and asks open-ended questions to figure out participant motivations:

• How many times have they participated in this challenge?

• What do they expect to get out of this challenge? Etc.

In addition to learning more about participants’ expectations and motivations, we also learned of their difficulty with the registration form.

These clues enabled us to instantiate specific changes to the future registration form, but above all we were able to further inform our decisions by using surveys and diving deeper on certain questions.

Example 2 :
During the challenge, the ambassador tries to learn more about how participants are meeting the challenge:

• Have they experienced difficulties from the beginning?

• What “tricks” are they using to complete the challenge?

Some participants described a calendar they had designed themselves to view their progress; this indirectly informed us of which criteria were important to help people stay motivated.

A forum also emerged, created entirely by the participants themselves without any moderation from the administrators of the challenge. This forum was being used by participants to make announcements for their peers (eg, creating a walking group for participants living in the same municipality, etc.).  The forum was also a venue for informal discussions among participants without having to respond directly to the moderator.

Example 3:
At the end of the challenge, a number of comments indicated that participants had enjoyed the challenge and would maintain their objectives to the longer term.

Facebook was not only used as a promotional showcase for the challenge, but also analyzed as an ethnographic tool similar to diary/journal study.  The approach was exploratory (neither the participants nor the team members of the challenge thought of Facebook in this way, therefore they hadn’t guided discussions or analyzed this data through any experimental and scientific protocol), limited (eventual solutions are the result of a small group of individuals, and the content had not been tested by medical experts such as nutritionists, psychologists, etc..) and had bias (discussions had been fed the same people).  However, the advantages lie in the approach being simple, instantaneous, affordable, non-intrusive and a natural facilitator of participant-designer interaction.

There are a few principles and issues which must be followed to carry out a collaborative design via Facebook.

Facebook and moderation
A moderator / analyst has an important role in the success of these discussions. For our project, this moderator was the ambassador of the challenge, a public and officially designated representative. Would our results have been as good with a researcher who is unknown in the virtual community?

According to Kozinets, the presence of the researcher must be revealed to the virtual community [3] but this information will grow the risk of bias. This discussion must be had by the designers.

Facebook and confidentiality or data protection
The comments were often very positive. Does this tendency to voice positive sentiment on a social network (mind you, one which provides the ability “Like” without the ability to “Dislike”),  influence user feedback?

Or is it the lack of confidentiality that prevents users to truly express themselves and participate in discussions?  This could diminish the open collaborative element, biasing the results.

Another question: Does the fact that Facebook’s content is public make the data a little less credible? Some form of private Facebook could probably get more objective feedback and ideas, closer to the reality experienced by the participants.

Facebook and scientific rigour or data relevance
The comments on Facebook may be imprecise or unclear with respect to the actual experience of participants.

Questions asked by the moderator should be prepared specifically to guide conversations and collect relevant data on targeted goals.

Participants could also be classified in order to contribute to different profiles, generating new ideas, concepts and opportunities in the longer term.

Other external actors could also be integrated into the project (such as medical experts) to explain some reactions, behaviours and psychological mechanisms.

Facebook could be used as a first step to identify topics and issues, setting a foundation for deeper, extensive research endeavours (surveys, iterative interviews, personalized testimonials, etc.) which go beyond the verbal, identifying exactly what values should inform the design process.

Facebook and the diversity of tools
There are a wide range of tools relevant to the user experience on Facebook which can facilitate data gathering by offering users choice of which functionalities they feel most comfortable with: forums, archives, whiteboards to draw design ideas or emotional states, archive the “tricks” used by participants to complete the challenge.

Analysis of these data could reveal the main themes of discussions, identifying the factors which affect the experience of challenge participants.

Facebook and the context of the project
The context here is a study of a 6-week challenge that aligns with the temporal reality of Facebook.

Using this approach in other contexts, one should ensure that Facebook could be adapted as a tool for collaborative design.

Facebook is not yet an accepted collaborative design tool to consider for the reasons mentioned above. However it does have the potential give ideas and trends on how users interact with the interface. It can inspire design ideas. Any data must be analyzed carefully.

Further studies need to be conducted to determine the contribution of such a tool in collaborative design process.

Where does Yu Centrik fit in?

Yu Centrik is a firm renowned for applying ethnographic methods to the design of innovative customer experiences. We are currently looking for tools to extend the techniques for gathering information such as observation, shadowing and interviews. When the analyst is gone, what can we use to get feedback from user experience and inform developers?

Journal studies are cumbersome to administer; this is why we are actively searching for experience sharing tools which not only enable us to gather information, but also allow us to create the same « social » effect as a group interview where participants encourage each other and provide more detail than they would alone. We are seeking a tool which enables participants to document their ideas, comments, wishes, etc. on a private social platform for the obvious reasons of confidentiality for both of our participants and the intellectual property of our customers. If this tool does not yet exist, I guess we’ll have to design it! ☺




[1] Robert, V. Kozinets, 2010, Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research, Sage Publications Ltd.

[2] J. Füller et co., 2006, Community based innovation: How to integrate members of virtual communities into new product development, Electronic Commerce Research , Volume 6, Issue 1, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

[3] L. Touzani et J.L. Gianelloni, Le choc culturel dans l’expérience d’hospitalité touristique. Une approche netnographique (2010), 15ème Journée de Recherche en marketing de Bourgogne.


People in the street by Marlies Odehnal


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