June 29, 2012

The Importance of Usability in Social Business

When you think about it, the first and most important requirement of any social business platform is that people use it.

There’s a lot of discussion about metrics for measuring the effectiveness of social business apps, and adoption and activity are generally dismissed as superficial and not a good measure of value. And yet adoption is the required preliminary step before any other metrics can be considered. Though engagement may not be sufficient, in other words, it’s necessary.

The trouble in many organizations is that new social platforms are swept in on an initial wave of enthusiasm, but usage often quickly plateaus, and adoption doesn’t spread broadly throughout the organization. There are may reasons for this, of course – and our experience is that a strong social advocate with political clout in the organization helps immeasurably.

But after the internal champion(s), the most critical element in driving value in a social business platform is usability. Experience and common sense indicate that if an application is hard to use, people won’t use it.

So one way to ensure that your social platform is going to be successful is to conduct some simple usability tests before making your choice.

Vendor Selection Process: A Case Study

A year ago, I worked with a mid-sized enterprise that was looking to improve employee engagement, and break down information silos by implementing a new social Intranet. There were a wide range of choices, of course, so one of the things we did was to create one of those exhaustive functionality matrices, with all the vendors down the side, and functionality across the top. Each functional area was given a weight between 1 and 5 to indicate its importance, and each product’s functionality was rated 0, 1 or 2 to indicate no functionality, partial or complete functionality.

With a whole bunch of research, and a simple “sumproduct” formula in Excel, we could derive a rough rating for each of the platforms based on our weighted criteria. (If you’re interested in seeing the original spreadsheet let me know). Here’s a sampling of the results, aggregated across four application areas:

For the purposes of the organization, this process whittled down the choice to a handful of prospects.

But here was the complication: IT was pretty committed to SharePoint, and with good reasons that involved their enterprise document repository requirements. Based on our rough analysis, SharePoint seemed like a reasonable prospect, especially if it was bolstered by using NewsGator.

Judging merely by functionality – the checkbox approach to marketing and application selection – their logic seemed sound. But intuition indicated otherwise. This was an enterprise that was not particularly tech savvy, and it seemed clear to some of us that SharePoint, even with NewsGator was not going to fly. But how to make the argument?

Usability Shines a Light

Following the logic from above – that usability is the original challenge to adoption – we decided to take a few weeks to do some usability tests on a handful of platforms under consideration. What we did was to define 10 – 20 tasks that we expected to be common, especially for initial use; tasks the successful execution of which would ensure adoption and begin to add value. The tasks – which were pretty simple – are shown below:

Then we chose a wide range of usability testers, making sure we covered differences in age, tech-savviness, job function, and region. After setting up the testing environment, we ran through usability testing with about 25 people. By the way, we did this with an online video conference tool, so the user was at his/her desk, and we could record the session. One key was to have each user talk out loud as they attempted each task, so we could get a better sense of what he/she was thinking.

The Results were Illuminating

Without revealing specifics, here is a summary:

  • The lighter-weight social tools (like Convo and Yammer) scored the highest
  • Jive and Moxie did pretty well, but it generally took users longer to navigate through the tasks, and there were more erroneous clicks
  • SharePoint, even with NewsGator, came in a distant last. Many users were never even able to complete some of the tasks. One task that people stumbled on: how to get back to the home page after updating a profile.

The Usability Tests said a lot about what would work in the organization, and revealed why selection by checkbox is a reductionist and ineffective approach.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer seems to be an acknowledgement of the usability issue. The fact is that you can’t bolt social functionality onto a system and make it useful and engaging.

So do your homework – and don’t forget to check out Convo, which does well both in checkboxes and in usability!

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