Don’t Hammer Screws: Nielsen on Social Media Outsourcing

In his latest AlertBox entry, Jakob Nielsen effectively shows that “usability suffers when an organization puts its website content on social sites without adapting it to the particular site’s features.” This is true enough: One should no more use YouTube in the half-hearted ways Nielsen identifies than one should use a hammer on screws.

However, Nielsen also claims that this argument “count[s] in favor of keeping social features on your own site where you can design them to provide a better user experience for your customers.” I take issue with this claim: Nielsen’s blaming bad UX on social media platforms, when it rightly belongs with development teams (as it usually does).

In other words, it’s not that you can’t design good UX with social media outsourcing in place; it’s that the makers of the sites Nielsen points to just didn’t—whether for lack of vision, budget constraints, insufficient technical expertise, or laziness.

(In most cases, I suspect the difference comes down to people using site-provided widgets or embed code rather than APIs. Whether this is a failure of strategists, UXers, designers, or developers probably varies.)

Nielsen seems to acknowledge this distinction in his qualification to the first claim I cite above. That is, when he writes, “without adapting it to the particular site’s features,” he seems to understand that good UX featuring social media outsourcing is indeed possible.

As proof that it can be done, I offer up the following, a simple example of a site that does social media outsourcing right. (Full disclosure: I led the charges on strategy and UX for this site while working for Mind Over Media.)

Case Study: WUTube

Waynesburg University asked us to devise a media-rich, recruiting-focused site that featured students in their own environments. We wanted to outsource some of the material to YouTube and Flickr for a number of reasons, some of them likely familiar:

  • The budget for the project precluded dedicated media servers or high-end hosting.
  • Waynesburg’s target audience—prospective students (and their parents)—already lived on YouTube, and identified themselves as looking for a Waynesburg presence there.
  • The school’s staffing situation made an easy-to-use, low-cost data and media administration tool a mandatory for the project.
  • In a way that was admirably forward-thinking at the time, the school recognized the need to play a role on maintaining their online presence outside the classic “admissions microsite” model. In short, maintaining credibility demanded increased activity on YouTube in particular.

Note that the finished product, WUTube, avoids the pitfalls Nielsen identifies, in part through good design, in part by making heavy use of APIs for the various social media sites involved. Heavy customization, to be sure, but surely Martha Stewart and Harvard Business Publishing (two of Nielsen’s examples) could have sprung for it.

In particular, WUTube overcomes these obstacles (links are to screengrabs on Flickr):

  1. Nielsen’s categorization problem, wherein relying on the social media site’s default means of organizing content serves nobody. Instead, WUTube organizes all content—inluding videos—by student, which is to say, by the main draw to the site.
  2. Lousy titles for the media. WUTube’s administrators and the students involved have been diligent in creating fine, descriptive titles for the images and videos used on the site.
  3. Obtrusive, distracting branding. WUTube includes a set of branded hyperlinks, but they’re located out of the way on the home page. Otherwise, the content feels much more integrated with the site than in Nielsen’s examples.

Again, the problem Nielsen’s pointing to isn’t with the tools; it’s with organizations using them poorly.

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