Home > Social Design, Social Web > Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications – Part 5: Motivations for User Participation

Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications – Part 5: Motivations for User Participation


This is the 5th post in a series on Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications. As with previous posts in this series, the content is largely borrowed from Joshua Porter’s book Designing for the Social Web.

Click on the following links to access previous posts in this series:

User Motivations for participating on Social websites

In Chapter 5 of his book, Porter asks the question “so what motivates people to participate on a social website anyway?” Ofttimes on the social web, a user is not primarily motivated by monetary incentive, but rather is seeking to accumulate a form of social capital – to be recognized and appreciated by his/her peers and social communities.

Porter offers the following list of motivations that inspire people to participate on a social website:

  • Identity – People use social web apps to manage their identity within their social groups
  • Uniqueness – People use social web apps because they feel that their contribution is unique and valuable
  • Reciprocity – People participate because they either want to give back or because they expect others to give back to them
  • Reputation – People participate to build their reputation and improve their relationships with others
  • Sense of efficacy – People participate in order to do good work and have a positive effect
  • Control – People want control over how their information is shared and displayed
  • Ownership – People participate because they feel a sense of ownership over their content online
  • Attachment to a group – People seek to find like-minded people who share the same values and/or activities
  • Fun – It’s fun to participate and play

Let’s see what strategies Joshua Porter has up his sleeve for addressing these key motivating factors for participating on the social web.

Enable Identity Management

Identity is at the heart of the social web. Your online identity is your “face” to the social communities you participate in. It’s also a “handle” with which to:

  • Enter into conversations with others
  • Associate your actions on a website
  • Link to things you are interested in
  • Track the history of your activity on a website
  • And a means by which users are held accountable for their behavior on a website

There are two key constructs associated with User information: User Accounts and User Profiles. Let’s explore User Profiles a bit closer.

Profile Pages

Porter points out that User Profile Pages often contain several of the following:

  • A unique avatar (photo/handle)
  • A short biography or about section
  • Appropriate demographics (age, location, etc.)
  • Activities or accomplishments
  • A list of the latest activities involving the person
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Friends list
  • Group affiliations

When it comes to user profiles, Porter points out that “profiles work best when the elements they contain are aligned with the purpose of the application”. He contrasts User Profile pages from three very different applications:

  1. LinkedIn – a social networking application for business professionals
  2. PatientsLikeMe – a site for people with similar medical conditions, and
  3. Amazon – the popular online shopping website

Sure enough, exploring the profile pages for these three sites reveals very different information, each appropriate to their specific niche.

Show what’s happening

Porter comments:

As social web applications became more popular over the last few years, designers started to realize that profiles suffer from being too static … they grow old fast.

Therefore, several new features that display dynamic content have emerged to address the problem.

  • Lifestream – Aggregates and displays the latest activity from all sources
  • Comment wall – A list of comments left by visitors for all to see
  • Status – A small statement that describes your current status (e.g. “writing a chapter in my new book”)
  • Notifications – An announcement that something of interest has happened (invitations, birthdays, holidays)

Emphasize the Person’s Uniqueness

Quoting Porter:

Be sure to reinforce how unique someone’s contributions are or will be. What might they add that other’s can’t. In any given niche, what distinguishes a person as unique?

There are many excellent examples on the web of sites that promote uniqueness. The goal here is to create a user experience that is highly-customized to the user’s preferences based on both explicit and implicitly-provided information. This is where collective intelligence comes in, a topic that will be explored in a later post.

Leverage Reciprocity

Reciprocity means exchange for mutual benefit. Porter advises:

If you can design an interface to elicit a feeling of reciprocity, people will feel they should contribute because they have benefited from other’s previous contributions.

Porter provides 2 examples of sites that leverage reciprocity on their websites – Yelp and LinkedIn. Buy the book to glean additional insites into how these sites elicit reciprocity from their users.

Allow for Reputation

In this section of Chapter 5, Porter has additional gems of insight. I’ll just share one passage where Porter lists some of the powerful reputation features that Yelp has on its site. They are:

  • Number of friends
  • Number of reviews written
  • Ratings of reviews written
  • Number and quality of comments from other members
  • Number of Fans
  • Number and quality of compliments from other members
  • Number of Firsts
  • Member Since
  • Elite Squad Member

Porter also reviews the eBay, the online Auction site, and explores their reputation system which is based on something eBay calls a “Feedback Score”. Again, if you’re interested in the details, pick up a copy of Porter’s book.

Promote a sense of Efficiacy

Quoting Porter:

While reputation is what people say about you, efficacy is your own sense that you’re being productive. In many cases these two things to hand in hand. The more your reputation grows, the more productive you feel.

A sense of efficacy (pronounced EFF-icka-see) is the feeling you get when you’re doing good work, and having a positive effect on the world around you. Efficacy is an important factor in some people’s decision to participate: sometimes they’ll only participate if they feel they can make a difference.

… Designing for efficacy means focusing on elements that provide feedback to people about how valuable their contribution was.

Provide a sense of control

I’ll brush over this one, the point being that giving the user a feeling of control over what information they share – basically privacy options – is important to users.

Confer Ownership

A brief passage from Porter’s book which sum up his essential thoughts on the matter:

The mere name MySpace confers a sense of ownership. It has its audience thinking: this is my online space. I can do what I want with it. YouTube takes the other tack, using the word “you” instead of “me”, but the result is the same. It’s yours, you own it, do with it what you want.

Both sites confer ownership to their audience. They make it clear that this space is their property. Using words like “my” or “your” may seem like little more than rhetoric, but there’s real psychology at play here. These sites are leveraging what’s called the Endowment Effect. The Endowment Effect is the tendency of people to value things more once a sense of ownership has been established.

Show desired behavior

Porter comments briefly on Yelp’s efforts to promote desired behavior on its site:

Yelp takes pains to promote certain profiles whose owners behave as model citizens. They tend to have huge numbers of friends, lots of reviews, and other gaudy numbers that represent success on the site. It’s clear the designers at Yelp want to promote desired behavior in the hopes that others would see and emulate it.

For example, on its homepage, Yelp places a “review of the day”. Invariably, the review is written by a reputable member of Yelp who has amazing profile numbers. When newcomers see this review, they learn what behavior is appreciated. They learn by observing what happens.

Attachment to a Group

The desire to join groups of other people of similar interests is a common motivation for participating on the social web. Yahoo, Google, and MSN Groups are examples of large applications dedicated to supporting groups.

Of course, as Porter points out, you don’t need to use “group” software to be part of a group online. Groups, or communities, are really at the heart of the social web.

In Search of Passion

Quoting Porter:

Once you have a number of people who use your web site on an ongoing basis, your hope is to get at least a few of them to become passionate users. It’s these people who then support new people interested in your service and are always telling everyone how wonderful you are.

But I think the following quote from Porter might be my very favorite of the whole book, where he quotes Kathy Sierra (who I first came to appreciate through her contribution to the Head First series of software development books):

Kathy Sierra, who writes the Creating Passionate Users blog, says a big part [of creating emotional attachment to a site] is helping your users learn. If you can help people learn about their world (and assuming your software makes sense in that world), then you empower them to see themselves in a better light.

I like that.

Just for Fun

Finally, a major reason people participate online is simply because it’s fun.

Next up, Collective Intelligence.

Also in this series

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