In IA Thought, Information Architecture
Summary: Jessica DuVerneay reflects on Christian Crumlish's talk at the July 2013 IxDA conference on "Designing Social Interfaces" about social intranets.
Christian Crumlish

My husband made this portmanteau of Christian Crumlish + ‘Peanut Butter Jelly Time’ for me the night of the talk because I was so jazzed that I wouldn’t stop saying this phrase most of June 2013.

Business social is a buzz-wordy trend in online intranets for companies large and increasingly, small organizations as well. Also known as social intranet, there has been demand from companies and CTO’s that request an intranet or internal communications system that is structured similarly to and is as popular and highly trafficked as Facebook or Twitter. The Nielsen Norman Group name-checked social internet in their 2013 “Best Intranet” awards. There was even a Social Intranet Summit in 2011.

The theory and hope is this: build a warm, user-centered, customizable intranet structure that allows for informal communication among members, asynchronous collaboration in online workspaces, and a sense of play, and magically, the intranet will get used and business needs will be addressed painlessly. I’ve had clients request it as a solution for poor internal content strategy and a near non-existent employee culture before we even did any user research.

Still, if you build it, the truth is they may not come. And if they do come by force, they may not care or be able to use what you provide. Even when seemingly designed with the user in mind, social intranets may be good in theory and broken in realization. A report on social intranet issued from the Nielsen Norman Group on this emerging trend indicates that as some business social functionality is implemented with limited corollary business goals, a proclivity for siloed user behaviors and unintentional content distribution may occur. Another NN report illustrates a measured decrease in usability of intranets overall, ostensibly as a result of tacked on features that do not not actually address any established needs of users has also been observed across industries.

So, how do we avoid creating business social intranets that are loathsome, fragmented, disorganized, alienating, placeless, costly environments? How do we structure social intranets that are intentional and not cobbled together sets of features? How do we keep or establish the there, there, especially when there paradoxically, is often no there to begin with in underutilized intranets?

The Talk

These questions bring me to a major brain busting event for me in recent weeks here in Los Angeles – Christian Crumlish’s talk for IxDA. In his well received and time-tested talk “Designing Social Interfaces”, Crumlish deconstructed 5 principles, practices, and anti-patterns for effective social design. I was rapt during the talk, having been a nusto fangirl of Crumlish’s since I used the absolute crap out of his similarly named book and corresponding design pattern library at a previous position where I was tasked with ideating and structuring the IA for social features on a major entertainment website. If you haven’t checked the book or patterns library out and you architect or design social systems, seriously, get on it.

I was even more excited when he spoke to my question about business social design patterns at the end of the talk. Crumlish didn’t readily have any off-the-cuff metrics or case studies he was able to share, though he was able to tie together a few excellent points about placemaking worth considering if undertaking a social intranet project. Even though much more was said, and I might have mangled some of his exact sentiment—the jist of Crumlish’s comments and insights on the placemaking of social intranets is as follows:

The Take Homes

1. Attend to the three pillars of Social: Self, Activity, Community
According to one of Crumlish’s main tenants, if these three things are not supported, the social intranet becomes basically a false front for a place that doesn’t exist. Is business social or your intranet a Potemkin village? It can be, if done incorrectly. Do people have accounts and never use them? Then yes, it probably is. Has your intranet been alive for 3-5 years and still no one uses it? Then yes, it definitely is. (Nielsen Norman reports social intranets take 3-5 years to come alive.) Rethink the core strategy / structure and remember to allow people to represent themselves in some meaningful fashion, give them things they need or want to do or objects they like using as the core of the system, and create structures that facilitate a communal approach to interacting around these activities or objects. Building a ‘place’ and populating it with shiny design interaction and social features does not make it livable or valuable to the day to day users.

3 Social Pillars - Self, Activities, Communities

Detail of the 3 Pillars – Image Source: Christian Crumlish’s Blog

2. Allow the place to be what the users want it to be. Intranets are usually places that a company needs to do certain things—distribute information, allow for collaborative work, communicate with each other, access evergreen administrative content etc. That said, users may have other ideas of what it should be. Over time, the users will win, and fighting them will not help adoption of the social intranet. Architect the structure, objects, and flows in the intranet to guide users towards the business goals intended, but don’t assume that the administration’s priority and hypothetical use cases will override the end users’ priorities and actual use patterns.

3. Early adopters set the placeness. Who gets to decide exactly then, which users determine exactly how the system is? The first time an object or flow is reinforced in a system, other users have subtle social incentive to replicate that object use or flow as well. Pave the cowpaths, another one of Crumlish’s concepts, indicates that no matter how many through-ways you provide, users will make their own, and that wise architects and designers will head the lead and make the user generated cowpaths a priority. The inferred implication on this for social intranets is more about great user research and product deployment than structure – consider opening up the social intranet to a select group of trusted “on-board” users to trod those initial cowpaths.

4. Life of the Document vs. Life of the Employee. The last thing Crumlish noted is that while many popular social systems focus on the life of the user, social intranets would do well to focus it’s social places and activities around the life of a document or workflow, rather than the life of the users. While customization and some sense of identity on social intranets is a crucial component, allowing a focus via structure and interaction design on the humans in the system would be inappropriate and strange at best, and directly detrimental to workflow at worst. Keep the supported conversation about key work related content, artifacts, and workflows. Bonus points and increased user value if the systems and structures created support workflows that transcend the online experience and bridge into or encourage real life face-to-face activities as well.

Information Architecture’s Role in Social Intranets

While answering my question, Crumlish was explaining how to make a social intranet be an intentional place focused on curated activities and shared objects, not slick interaction design elements, or exclusively about self-promotion. He reiterated—even if you build the fanciest, sexiest, most avant-garde interface in the world, but there is no key business purpose or existing community being served, the social intranet will become instantly obsolete and worse than useless. Ideally, and intranet project would focus less on the intricate design of the elements, and more on the places created by the overall structures was Crumlish’s main suggestion.

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but it sounds to me like a user-sensitive and flexible, yet strategic, Information Architecture is an adventageous first step to creating excellent, placeful, usable, valuable social intranets.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your comments on experiences with and thoughts on social intranets and social patterns. Many thanks to Christian Crumlish for his work and talk, and thanks also to the folks behind LA IxDA for making these talks happen in the Los Angeles UX/IA community.

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