Focus on the User: Social Design and MySpace Redesign

Adaptive Path’s June 17 newsletter has great background on their MySpace redesign (first stage launched yesterday), as well as pointers to other interesting thoughts on design.

The full newsletter should be up on their website soon, but until then, here are a few highlights from the email version:

MySpace had traditionally felt that this link between Tom and the users provided a deep internal understanding of users and their needs. But MySpace recognized that the need [for]… some in depth research… [and] insight into its users, their preferences, and the how and why behind their migrating between MySpace and its competitors.

With a charge to gain a fresh perspective on the user base, my colleagues Todd Wilkens and Jason Li engaged in an 8 week cross-country anthropological study of MySpace users. Escaping the tech- and networking-centric communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, they traveled from Sacramento to Philadelphia, conducting one on one interviews with dozens of existing MySpace users about their lives online and off, how they used the network, what it meant to them. The results were anonymized and transformed into a set of personas. It was not entirely surprising that these personas communicated a more deeply nuanced set of behaviors and priorities than the self-selecting users who voiced their opinions to Tom. The personas would serve the redesign efforts to come by introducing the MySpace team to a different perspective on their users, and shedding new light on how best to meet their needs.

With the research completed and socialized within the MySpace product team, Adaptive Path found its roll expanding. My team and I were asked to assist in the redesign of the product, from navigation to page structure, as part of an effort to improve the overall user experience.

A series of prioritization exercises with MySpace stakeholders, concerning feature set and user behavior, allowed us to trim down the global navigation from an undifferentiated mass to a succinct tool for way-finding and discovery. When discussions about the non-logged in home page revealed a need for better opportunities to share space between advertising and feature promotion, the “wide-screen” element was created; a multi-use advertising and editorial programming space that can change based on user preference. Neither of these elements would be what they are without the active participation of the MySpace team in the redesign process.

Sometimes, you have to design from the gut… the best UX designers I know operate from a perspective of determining what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s ugly. Providing people with a straightforward means to connect and share with one another? Good. Presenting frustrating tools for user search when I’m looking for someone I know in real life? Bad. Repeatedly telling users they’ve got to “log in before you do that!”? Ugly.

Adaptive Path looks to have done fantastic work in understanding the problems of the old MySpace design. As I’ve mentioned before, their process is a model to follow.

They get it that this has to be all about the users. Kudos.

Based on the story in WebMonkey, they also seem to have done a great job working internally with MySpace:

Most importantly, Freitas says, these changes were more about the design process than the usability enhancements.

“You can see the way a team operates internally based on the way their product works when it comes out,” he says. “MySpace is pretty democratic, but they hadn’t ever streamlined their collaboration between tech, content and presentation.”

He says the Adaptive Path team pushed MySpace to become more inclusive as an organization. They brought all of the various stakeholders, from ad sales and technology to visual design, into the process of designing the user experience.

“It’s not just a UI change, it’s an organizational change,” he says. “It was a true ‘teach a man to fish’ situation.”

Yet the blasting of the homepage takeover and the obtrusiveness of other advertising still dominates the experience of visiting MySpace, however much easier the navigation just got. It remains to be seen how this might be addressed as the redesign continues.

Has MySpace already gone too far down an evil path to monitize their site? Is it too late to back up and create meaningful change?

The BBC’s take, MySpace clears up as users jump ship , is interesting since in their market:

MySpace is still the largest social network in the important US market with a 73% share compared with just 15% for Facebook and 1% for Bebo.

The internet research company Nielsen Online reckons that 4.7m Brits used the site in April, down 31% on last year.

Facebook, which only overtook MySpace as the UK’s largest social network in September 2007, now has 10m active British members.

Detractors such as the Washington Post say MySpace’s New Look Seems the Same Old Mess (complaining primarily about the weight of advertising still left after the redesign), while it gets a tentative Thumbs Up from PC World and others.

The LA Times stayed focused on the story of the ad money:

“It does seem a bit like rearranging the deck chairs to me, not necessarily on the Titanic,” said Rob Norman, chief executive of advertising buyer GroupM Interaction Worldwide. “I don’t see how this is game-changing.”

Norman said MySpace’s challenge was not figuring out how to “gussy up” the site so it’s attractive to traditional advertisers, but rather, to extract value from the networks that connect people who use MySpace.

Google would not be in the position it is in today if it didn’t start by knowing to focus on the user and all else will follow. It looks like MySpace is still trying to learn that lesson and live that philosophy. I wish Adoptive Path the best of luck in teaching it to them!

Social Design
Oh yeah, I mentioned other links. Thanks, too, Adaptive Path, for the pointer to Bokardo. I enjoyed several posts and felt compelled to add a couple of comments there on social design (a fantastic picture catalyzed a thought I’d long had bouncing in the back of my head), and the growing importance of design (where the iPhone is a perpetual example).