Results tagged “community”

How to Redesign Your App Without Pissing Everybody Off

January 9, 2013

Inspired by Anil

The era of User Generated Discontent began about a decade ago, when a critical mass of people started using social apps on the web often enough that they felt a bit proprietary over the user interface and design of those services. Inevitably, that led to mass revolts and widespread complaints any time a company changed even the most minor parts of its user experience.

From Facebook's introduction of News Feed and Timeline to Twitter's launch of New Twitter and New New Twitter to countless angry responses to any given logo change, the spirit of "Why Wasn't I Consulted?" runs deep on the Internet, and perhaps in no realm is it expressed more passionately than in user interface design. How come we keep screwing it up? Is it possible to change a UI without inciting a riot?

It would appear so. We just have to follow some principles based on learning from the last 10,000 times that a mob of users got upset.

Saving Face

Yesterday I talked about how all dashboards should be feeds, using the example of our work with ThinkUp. I sort of glossed over it by saying "we threw out the old UI when we built version 2.0", but the reality is we totally redesigned an app that had been designed by a community, and nobody got upset. So it's possible to do this! But how? By obeying a few principles:

  • Communicate in advance with the community about what your goals are. You've got reasons for making a change in your app or site, but they should be grounded in meaningful goals that meet user needs. "We want to increase engagement" is not a goal, or at least not one that you should try to get a community to care about. But "we want to make sure new users aren't overwhelmed with options" is something people can actually respond to intelligently. If the community can understand your rationale, then they can help you achieve it, or at least begrudgingly concede that it's one of your priorities. And the time to do this is before you actually put the new version out. If you're concerned about revealing secrets to competitors or to the market, then just speak in broad terms without revealing exactly how you're going to change the app to meet those needs.
  • Enforce communications discipline amongst your team members when communicating the change. Everyone who knows a change is coming should get together and discuss how they'll talk about the redesign, and should work together to come up with consistent ways to describe both the goals and what's up for discussion in terms of future adjustments. Be hyper-responsive and very present as soon as the change is announced or released, to respond to complaints or questions wherever they happen. And if someone on your own team is worried about a design change, or disagrees with its implementation, you can bet that many of your users will feel the same way.
  • Describe the audiences you're trying to serve by making changes. One of the most common tensions with a community is when you make a change to address one part of your audience, making the other people you serve feel left out. If you optimize your mobile UI, desktop users get mad, or if you shift an element on the page so that international languages get a better experience, your primary language users might be frustrated. And no matter who you're serving, some people will say "Why did you fix that instead of fixing this other thing I care about more?" So articulating who a change is meant to serve helps to focus the conversation about a change in a useful way. We did this in a very literal way, simply writing a blog post called Who is ThinkUp for? to start to define our target audiences.
  • Give people structured ways to provide feedback and comments. Okay, so your users are asking "Why wasn't I consulted?" about this new change — now what? There should be clear, consistent ways for them to get heard, whether that's through social media or email or a comment form or any other mechanism. So many companies, especially big companies, screw up on this part by hoping that refusing to provide a forum for user complaints or feedback will somehow stop a backlash from coming.
  • Define a process and timeline for iterating based on feedback. Many of the issues that your community complains about or brings to your attention are going to be legitimate! They'll be raised in the spirit of a productive conversation, and you have an obligation to respond to those points with plans that are as concrete as possible in addressing them. So, be ready before you announce your changes with a team that will estimate the effort involved, and roll out those updates as efficiently as possible.
  • Set a measured, rational tone with your community. This is something you need to be doing well in advance, but if you set the expectation that changes will be responded to and both your team and your users are going to communicate about them respectfully and calmly, people will follow the prevailing culture of the conversation. On ThinkUp, we've had a mailing list for almost four years where there's never been a flame war. That's almost unheard-of in open source, and in addition to making things less stressful when we make a change, it helps us attract good, diverse talent to our community.
  • Accept that some people will never be happy. This is the sort of zen aspect of community management with changes, the one you have to confront by reciting the serenity prayer. Some people are determined to be unhappy, usually for reasons having to do with their personal lives or other challenges, and they simply want to use your app as the platform through which they demonstrate it. As long as you can contain their tantrums and direct them away from those giving productive feedback, they're not that hard to deal with.
  • It helps if people don't care that much about your app. This is more of a worst-practice than a best-practice, but we began to explain our reasoning behind a radical change in our user experience by talking about what sucked in older versions of ThinkUp. As painful or humbling as that exercise may have been, the criticisms that were leveled resonated as being accurate with our community, and gave us permission to pursue a more aggressive redesign. So one takeaway if your community gets upset is that you should thank them, because it indicates passion about what you're doing.

Humility Above All

This is far from a comprehensive list, but these are some of the basics that you'll have to accommodate if you want to not make your users mad. If you have a super-small community, you might be able to skip some of these steps. But overall it let us go from an app that looked like this:


To one that looks like this:


Without anybody getting upset. It's not inevitable that every change on the web has to involve drama; By carefully anticipating people's responses and thoughtfully engaging with your community, you can actually come out of even a dramatic UI redesign with people happier than they were before.

Related Reading

Many of these ideas of community management are far from new; Lots of people liked a similar piece that I wrote a few years ago called If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault.

If you're a developer or designer, you might want to follow along and make sure we put these principles into action by joining ThinkUp on GitHub.


January 24, 2011

Today is Community Moderator Appreciation Day, a well-deserved moment of recognition for people who make the web more humane, more thoughtful, more helpful and more useful.

This is a bottomless topic for me, but perhaps the best way to observe it is to share what's been learned and distilled about creating an environment where good moderators can succeed. Here's Matt Haughey at last year's Gel Conference telling the story himself:

This is part of why I'm so excited to be speaking at Gel this year: There's a lot of things we've learned over the years that we haven't taken the time to share. And Gel itself is an event that's well-moderated, as you might expect.

So, thanks today to all the folks I know who moderate all of the sites where I spend my time online. Making a valuable, strong, positive community is one of the greatest things you can do to contribute to the world.

Communities of Creators

October 5, 2009

Last week, I found this picture of a group dinner at Guero's restaurant in Austin, TX, taken during South by Southwest in 2002.

Guero's, March 10 2002

At the time, most of us at the table knew each other primarily through the web and through the then-nascent blogging community. But in the seven and a half years since then, many of us have gone on to become entrepreneurs or creators, launching dozens of companies and products. I'm still collecting names and companies in the comments on Flickr, but just a cursory glance shows founders from Blogger, Six Apart, Adaptive Path, Flickr, Gawker, Twitter and more.

I point this out not (just) to name drop — you can click through to the Flickr image to see notes about who was there, read what they've done, or add your own annotations. But I also wanted to highlight one of the most important resources that creative people need to truly succeed: A community of peers.

In the business world, and especially in the technology industry, we focus a lot on the functional requirements of raising money, or on the technical requirements of having certain features or technological capabilities. What I've found, though, is that being part of an active, ambitious, supportive and diverse community of peers is just as valuable, if not more so, than any of the more prosaic prerequisites for success. That's even true in this photo — some of the people whom I met in person for the first time that night or that weekend have gone on to become among my closest friends, the biggest supporters of my work, and have ventured their formidable social capital to support my career. An even more diverse community of others whom I met at similar dinners or other events have played a similar role as well. Yet, at the time this photo was taken, I don't think any of these people had ever taken venture capital money for any project they'd ever done — everyone here had bootstrapped their way to the table.

So, it's easy to focus on the money or the little technological accomplishments, but I am glad I found these old pictures as a nice reminder that we should set aside time for a great meal with smart friends every once in a while. If it's not enough enticement that you're just having a good time, you can also justify it as one of the most worthwhile investments you can make in your future success.

A Moral Problem

September 21, 2007

From eWeek's "Upcoming" section, which I'd praised a few weeks ago, comes this interview with Java creator James Gosling. The key quote, for me:

Of Google, Gosling said: "I guess part of me has almost a moral problem with, 'What do you mean the killer app for Internet is advertising?' I'd love to believe it was all about building communities on the Web. But building communities is just a scam for getting people to pay for advertising. Search is just a scam to get people to pay for advertising. I know the Google folks actually resisted doing advertising for a long time. They didn't like the idea, but they had to have a spreadsheet solve to a positive number."

He goes on to overreach with some of his conclusions, but I thought his perspective was interesting.

Collecting Samples

March 6, 2007

Do you want links? Because I'll give you some damn links, I'm not afraid of you! I'm not afraid of NOBODY!

Dominant, a UC Berkeley alumnus who actually attended the much-publicized class on Shakur in the late '90s, says that he finds value in hip-hop studies, provided they take the long view. "With hip-hop and all black music, you can't talk about the art separate from a lot of other things," he says. "You can't talk about hip-hop as an art form without talking about the people, the economics, how and why it was made. You have to be pretty thorough."

Finding ways to teach and study hip-hop from within a university setting is not easy. "I worry that scholars like us get so obsessed with trying to justify hip-hop that we end up running in circles," says Berkeley grad student Felicia Viator, a DJ who's finishing up a doctorate in history.

  • Businessweek's Catherine Holahan looks at the unfiltered conversations that have sprung up in light of community changes after USA Today's recent web redesign. I don't know that I'd make a change in the cultural assumptions of a site at the same time as aesthetic/UI changes, because then you don't know which one caused everybody to lose their minds.
  • Ask the Wizard, written by Feedburner CEO Dick Costolo is, flat out, the best new blog of 2007. The thing I love about great writing is it makes the pervasive truths seem self-evident and even obvious. Plus it's actually funny, not another tech exec wearing a goofy tie and claiming to be full of ha-ha.
  • Dear Drew, have you considered changing the font on Fark's homepage?
  • This is the old Top 5% of all Web Sites graphic that used to be used by Point. Which was actually Point Communications, which was actually at, until it sold to Lycos during a period of the web's history 10 years ago that is apparently so old nobody caught the reference. Winning the meaningless award used to be accompanied by an email alerting you to the good news. I suspect Todd Whitney is not still toiling away at Lycos.
  • I spoke at the Northern Voice conference in Vancouver a little over a week ago, and there's video of my presentation up on the web, albeit with suboptimal sound. But it kind of gives you a feel for what we were all talking about, if you have the patience to sit through it. (My part starts about five minutes in.)
  • If you've somehow missed them, a few articles on the tech generation gap. Emily Nussbaum's excellent, definitive look at the distinctions between the technological expectations of those born before and after 1977 in regard to privacy seems like the coming-out party for the topics danah has been talking about forever. A simpler, but still compelling, Tim Bajarin piece in PC Magazine complements it nicely. And the WaPo sez colleges have lost track of students because the schools are still trying to use phones and email to talk to kids who only use Facebook and IM. Whoops.
  • Someday, me and Kal Penn in a steel cage match for Most Famous Indian in America. Someday.

More Sociopathic Writing

December 15, 2006

Jason describes the blog commentor's gaze, a rumination on how people who act unreasonably on the web fit some parts of the scientific definition of a psychopath.

For what it's worth, I was mostly just venting (posts that I write on weekends are almost always lunacy, generally speaking) but Jason aptly describes my true feelings on the subject:

I don't think most of the people that demonstrate antisocial behavior in comment threads are actually psychopaths or sociopaths (there is a difference) in real life. Rather, interacting via text strips out so much social context and "incidental information" that causes some people to display psychopathic behavior online and fail to develop an online moral sense.

The question now, of course, is how we can give people more social cues when they're interacting online. A few of the comments on my post, from Don Park and Ben Benner, do a good job of addressing this issue to some degree, as well.

Dvorak on Online Community

August 8, 2006

John Dvorak examines incidental online communities, as opposed to explicit social communities like Friendster. There's some nice praise for MetaFilter in there, too. Having had the chance to spend some time with John recently, I'm more amused by his shenanigans, especially in light of useful articles like this one. He's still a world-class troll, but he seems to fully understand that intellectual dishonesty is a powerful tool, and should only be used in service of important and valuable causes.

The Interesting Economy

October 25, 2005

Like many great social software applications, Flickr began its life as something else. Flickr was built on a platform for a game called Game Neverending, which had a lot of great features including an in-game economy based on exchanging various totems that had different relative values. There was really only a barter economy, which left the "innate" value of any individual item to be pretty opaque.

Today, Flickr has interestingness, which is a measure of some combination of how many times a picture has been viewed, how many comments it has, how many times it's been tagged or marked as a favorite, and some other special sauce. I suppose revealing the exact mix would encourage even more people to game the system, but the fact that it's not disclosed has led to a number of attempts to reverse-engineer the system. I doubt any of them are/will be successful (Flickr can update/evolve fast enough to change the algorithm if they figure it out) but that's probably going to be an ongoing dialogue.

When I think of things getting gamed, I think of Clay Shirky saying "social software is stuff that gets spammed". So maybe economies are things that get gamed.

What I'm wondering is, how is Flickr's interestingness different than the economy in Game Neverending? Than Second Life? (Or in Evercrack or Neverwinter or any of the other gaming platforms.) Is interestingness its own reward? Why don't I get to level up or power up when I create something interesting?

More to the point, the in-game economies of these games translate pretty cleanly into real-world cash, with eBay amplifying the efficiency of the currency conversion. And interestingness in other online media (like blogs) is rewarded by cash in a pretty straightforward way; I can sign up for TypePad, check a box to enable text ads, and pay for my account or point the proceeds to my PayPal account when I start getting lots of visitors.

But interestingness in Flickr doesn't pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo's not sharing the wealth with me, even though I've created a draw. Flickr's plenty open, they're doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.

So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo? Or does it mean I should just make an automated script that grabs my interesting photos and posts them to my TypePad blog so that I can put ads on them?

learning from experience

June 27, 2004

One of the things I've learned of late is that, despite being a wonderful, generous community of truly warm-hearted people, sometimes the blog world likes nothing more than a good old-fashioned pile-on.

I thought about this looking at the (totally justified) hard time that Cory gave Fast Company over their dumb linking policy. If you look at the conversation, people act as if some lawyer gleefully rubbed his hands together and said, "How do we get this periodical to be an isolated island of unlinked misery on the web?" I'm guessing that's not the case.

Keep in mind, Fast Company is an organization that's smart enough to have a homepage that damn near validates as XHTML. They've had a real, honest-to-god weblog with comments running longer than almost any magazine. They even send Heath (and his amazing transcription skills) to various conferences so that people who can't attend can get a lot of the benefits of attendance for free on the web. In short, they're surprisingly clueful, especially for a mainstream business/general interest magazine. But people are assailing this part of their site's terms of service as if it were a concerted effort to be evil.

For Cory's part, I'm not criticizing his post about this topic at all. Cory's mandates are the openness of information, fighting the tyranny of bad law, and encouraging the free sharing of information. And he's doing what I do a lot, bitching about something that sucks, particularly appropriate as this is his bailiwick. I think I've got pretty good credentials for defending Cory's right to write about whatever he wants. But still, the reaction incited is one that's unproductive at best and unkind at worst.

Since I hate to complain without offering a solution, what I'd like to do is propose a new model for responding to the blogosphere's frequent and characteristic calls to action against Stuff That Sucks. First, read the link. Don't go being a slashdot flameboy. Read the thing that's being linked to. Second, we're good at collectively ferreting out information, so let's find the person responsible. There can't be that many people responsible for a terms of service document at a publishing company, and it's easier to get a revision made if we know who's going to do it.

There's a human benefit to finding out the person responsible, in helping to understand their circumstances and constraints. In almost all of these situations, there's someone who had to compromise for reasons that are totally reasonable. Maybe the guy writing this stuff was tired of fighting with his boss over it, and didn't have hundreds of emails from bloggers who'd back up his position. Maybe the woman who put this in place intended to fix it as soon as she got back from maternity leave, and figured who's gonna read a TOS document that closely anyway? Not all of us are lucky enough to have our licenses fisked by our audience.

So, once you've got information on what's actually happening, know who's responsible, and understood why they might have made this mistake, you've got what you need to make a change. We're bloggers, that means we self-organize pretty well. Be the person who starts the petition or explains how to contact the decision makers and provides a useful, non-confrontational template for how to get in touch with them. Provide a place where everyone concerned about the issue can TrackBack their complains, along with specific suggestions. (I can't take credit for that one, Mena nailed that idea.) And, believe me, people will read that feedback. Especially since it'll be the first Google result for either (1) their company name or (2) their name within a few days.

And then? Follow up. They'll make changes, as quickly as they can, though in most organizations that's not all that fast. Keep in mind, you're adding a task to their list that they didn't anticipate, and they probably already have a day job. My last request, though I suspect it's not likely to be adopted, is that people acknowledge the change when it happens. From personal experience, you can usually find about a ten-to-one ratio of complaints to acknowledgements of an improvement, in the best case. If you are the one on the receiving end and you get one tenth as much kudos as complaints, consider your work a success.

Now, all my blog posts are under a Creative Commons license, but this seems one of those ideas that can definitely be refined and expanded into a specific set of plans for action by the weblog community on almost any issue. So this post is completely public domain, and I hope you guys help direct all the energy of the various weblog communities into positive action more often.

I'd suggest a few things off the bat:

  • A PowerPoint plan of action so that executives or non-tech people can see how to use blogs for positive action
  • A how-to so that non-profits and other social organizations can leverage blogs for their campaigns
  • Some background documentation on the types of results bloggers have had (with everything from Trent Lott to the Star Wars Kid as examples)
  • A place to collect personal testimonials from people who've benefitted from blogger-inspired campaigns or who've changed their work or changed their ways due to input from the blogosphere

I'm proud of what we've done in creating so many different weblog communities, and I don't want our legacy to be one of having the positives overshadowed by our frequent, though understandable, tendency to be unkind or uncivil to those we're communicating with.