Friday, February 27th, 2009
Last month, a friend asked if I could recommend any companies that specialize in 3D Computer Graphics. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an answer, but on a whim I updated my Facebook status message with the following:
“Mariano is looking for companies that specialize in 3D Computer Graphics.”
Literally, within a few seconds, I received many great suggestions for companies to explore via wall and email messages. Not too surprisingly, Facebook was a great proxy to crowdsource and gather information. The recommendations felt more credible because they were from my friends and at the same time, using Facebook illustrated the power of accessing an extended network when looking for advice or new information.
As an experience designer who thinks a lot about how users shop and make purchasing decisions, this “mini” experiment was very interesting.
Many online shoppers seek out answers to similar subjective questions using value based words such “best”, “worst” or “great”. Certainly, users can take advantage of user-generated content or star ratings found on many recommendations and e-commerce sites. However, these sites fail when a user has a more esoteric question like: “What should I buy my girlfriend for valentines day?” To answer a question like this, you would need to know things like:
- What is your budget?
- What are your girlfriend’s interests?
- How long have you been dating?
Thus, what is missing from online search and reviews is the personal nature of the information received and the relevancy of the recommendations specifically to you and your situation. Receiving recommendations and answers to a question directly from your friend as in my Facebook example adds an important sense of credibility and trustworthiness to the information received that can have a dramatic effect on how decisions are made.
In addition, interestingly the people who responded to my Facebook message were not my close designer friends but rather acquaintances who I speak with occasionally (Friends of Friends and reunited high school friends).
This a great example of Mark Granovetter’s well know social theory on the spread of information known as “The Strength of Weak Ties“. At a high level, the theory asserts that people with a collection of acquaintances in varying social circles (weak ties) will have greater exposure to new information and ideas than people who only socialize with their close friends ( Strong ties). Intuitively, this makes sense. If you only talk to the same people about the same things, not a lot of new information will be passed along. However, if you have a lot of acquaintances that are in different social circles you will have a greater opportunity of learning something new.
Thus, social networking sites such as Facebook, My Space and twitter are great tools that allow access to a wider network of people that can lead to new ideas and information. Although, close friends (Strong ties) will certainly have a stronger influence on the decisions that shoppers make, these looser connections can provide bridges that allow shoppers to learn about new products and trends. In the end, a shopper can access both their strong and weak ties to sift through the vast amount of information on the web to ultimately make more informed purchasing decisions.
Some interesting recent Social Search examples and sites:
Buy.com allows users to to twit about any product in their catalog. Clicking the link adds the following tweet to your twitter page:
“Looking at Western Digital 500GB My Passport Essential USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive Cool S (http://tinyurl.com/buytwit/…)”
Lastly, a few weeks ago I went to BayCHI to hear Rob Spiro talk about a new Social Search product called Aardvark that is embedded within your IM chat client. Users ask Aardvark a question and then Aardvark sends that question to individuals in your IM network that it has determined can best answer that question.
The strength of this product is that it takes advantage of the strength of weak ties by accessing not only your friends but friends of your friends when you ask a question. In addition, because Aardvark is a proxy between you and your friends it helps lower the associated cost (social capital) of asking your friends for suggestions. The software is in beta, but it will be very interesting to see how this product progresses.