I'm attending Supernova this year and will be covering the event for Read/WriteWeb. In addition to attending various panels, I participated in the conference today by giving a quick presentation as part of the challenge roundtable at the end of the first day. My topic was titled: The First Principle of Social Web Apps and Its Implications. A number of individuals asked me for the slides I referenced, if you're interested I have posted them here as either PowerPoint Presentation or PDF.

Introduction

Right at the beginning of applying for my research fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University, I had the opportunity to interact with the Nobel Prize winning economist Herb Simon. One of the things he said that had a huge impact on me was that 'winning a nobel prize is easy, you just need to focus on the right questions to answer.' As I've moved from academia into the business community, the lesson has still been great guidance -- I always try to make sure I'm focused on solving the right problems.

Reflecting on the state of social web applications, I think as an industry we're still figuring out what questions should be asked. My presentation at Supernova was an attempt to frame some of those questions by establishing a 'first principle' for social web applications.

First Principles

First, it's important to review exactly what I'm talking about. 'First principles' are the building blocks on top of which complex solutions are built. A few good examples of first principles being used in larger solutions are boolean algebra as a basis for the microprocessor and airfoil as the basis for jet flight. Both of these fundamental theories were later applied to invent literally world changing solutions.

I believe there is an equally fundamental first principle of social web applications, which is:

For each ‘complete’ user interaction ...

the user must perceive they have received more value than the energy (and attention) expended to complete the task.

On one level this principle is very obvious, because basic human nature seems to prove it. People won't continue to engage in acts they believe are more expensive then the value they are receiving in return. What I think is important is that users must perceive the ratio of energy and attention spent versus value received to be 'profitable.' The ratio is actually more important then the absolute amount of value delivered. This is probably best explained by an example.

Example Twitter

Value

This year at SXSW I went from skeptic to passionate Twitter user. Before experiencing SXSW, I didn't get why people would want to broadcast very short messages about themselves to a community of followers. It honestly felt like a valueless experience and therefore I hadn't created a Twitter account. However, I went to SXSW and wanted to find the best places to drink Shiner Bock (err ... best panels to attend). Twitter did a great job of connecting me with other attendees. After experiencing the value at SXSW, I ended up coming up with lots of other ways that I could use Twitter. In each case, the energy to setup and complete the interaction was less then the energy and attention I was spending to complete it.

I personally have found 3 common uses from Twitter each that deliver value to me:

  • Short messages to your friends “what are you doing?”
  • Networking at events
  • Self-promotion

Energy Expended

While I'm now a loyal Twitter user who really sees a lot of value in the application, what I think is important is how easy it is to start experiencing this value. Therefore, the perceived value delivered (in this case finding free beer) didn't have to be that high. There are other services which require significantly more energy and attention to use, and therefore based on the first principle they have to deliver a much higher perceived value.

While there are certain things you can do to lower the energy required, such as:

  • integrating with Open ID to make account creation easier
  • simplifying your interactions and
  • opening up / integrating with other services (such as Facebook)

However, ultimately you need to focus on clearly delivering enough value to your users in each of their interactions. While there certainly are specialist you can turn to for help (we an HCI experts at my company), this needs to be the mission of everyone involved in product design and development.

Design Implications

Thinking about the implications of my proposed first principle , I think there are three types of interactions that we should focus on when creating social web applications. In each case, the interaction needs to be delivering more value to a user then the energy they are exerting. This can be achieved across three basic types of interactions:

  1. New interactions users find valuable
  2. Returning significantly more value to the user with the same interaction
  3. Returning the same or slightly more value significantly more efficiently

Network Effect

It seems like the most common violation of this first principle is in the area of applications that require a network effect before they are successful. While the value may evolve as they site grows, each interaction needs to deliver value back to the user participating at that point of scaling.

Example: Wikipedia

Interestingly, I used to look at wikipedia as an example of a site where they seemed to violate this principle for those who create entries. However, an experience I recently had actually made me realize they do a good job creating a positive value exchange even for the act of creating new entries.

Recently I searched for 'behavioral targeting' in wikipedia and didn't find any entries. While I'm sure many had left at this point, I instead realized this was a great opportunity to contribute a piece to wikipedia and continue to work to establish myself as someone knowledgeable in the field of delivering targeted ads on the web. So I created an account with them and created the entry. This was six months ago, reviewing the history I see that 36 people have edited that entry including most recently (today 6/20) the director of behavioral targeting for Yahoo. Through this experience, I've realized they do indeed satisfy the first principle across all types of interactions.

Conclusion

So I opened this post talking about the need to be focused on the right questions. The question that I proposed we focus on at Supernova today based on the first principle laid out in this post is:

Are your interactions delivering enough value to your users?

The presentation was well received at Supernova, what do you think ... is this the right question to focus on? What do you think of my first principle? I'll try to monitor the comment stream below.