Designing for Facebook: the Oren Shamir Interview

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UXI Live took place on the 7-8 September 2011 and brought together UX professionals in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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This week, Martin Polley and Dana Cohen-Baron talk to Oren Shamir, UI Leader at McCann Erickson Israel, about doing UX in an advertising agency, cross channel marketing, and designing for Facebook.

How did you wind up working at McCann?

Oren Shamir

I was looking for something where I could be involved in projects from start to finish. I wanted to be in touch with the product at every stage. That’s something you miss at a consultancy—each time, you go into a project at a particular stage and then hand it over to the client.

I’m very happy and proud of how it has developed. It has gone from not being anyone’s top priority—the user was the last to be considered—to today in many cases where that’s where the whole process starts. It is clear to everyone that you do user-centered design, you make wireframes, and only then do you start talking about technology and visual design. The whole process has been turned upside-down, at least in the big projects.

What’s different about being a UX person in an advertising agency?

Traditionally, advertising is one-way communication. They know how to translate all those great ideas that agencies have into TV or print commercials. But they were missing the deep understanding of the digital world. But digital media is not one-way, it’s always a relationship. Even if you click on a banner, it’s a relationship, because I need to make you love me so that you will click on me, and so you’ll remember. That’s already a relationship, so on one hand, I take all the important brand messages… there is a logic behind them, they are based on wisdom from the field (market research). But it’s important to me to bring that relationship component and implant it as deep as possible… I want to bring in the dialogue. I think our way of doing things is permeating up to our customers.

In the digital world, is there an opportunity to direct the message to more specific sections of the market?

The former CEO of McCann Digital called it “micro-segments”… You can characterize things much more precisely. That falls right into the world of UX—the ideal for a UX person is to create a custom-made experience for one person… You divide the audience as precisely as possible—like we do in user-centered-design… Greater understanding of smaller target audiences with solutions for the specific needs of each audience. [For example] mothers of babies under six months need a particular kind of diaper, but also a whole swathe of knowledge. When we give them that solution, we’re creating a relationship with them that isn’t based solely on what they buy.

Is there tension between the marketing people who want to push a message and you, caring about user interests?

Yes… I thought advertising was some sort of super-cunning monster that can influence us on all kinds of subconscious levels, evil, but not intentionally so… But I found that the superpowers I had attributed to advertising were somewhat less than I’d thought. The intentions are good, there’s a desire for truth there… People “don’t have to eat up your bullshit” from TV, they can Google you and find alternative information very easily. So brands have started to treat communication with customers on much more of an even level….

I thought advertising was some sort of super-cunning monster that can influence us on all kinds of subconscious levels, evil, but not intentionally so… But I found that the superpowers I had attributed to advertising were somewhat less than I’d thought. The intentions are good, there’s a desire for truth there.

I remember when I first joined, the idea was king—execution was less important. There was a lot of tension around this—the creatives’ role was to come up with ideas, and I came along and told them that in digital, good ideas aren’t enough—you can have a brilliant idea, but if the execution fails, you fail… This is something that brought me to Facebook, partly because of micro-segments—a great thing about Facebook is that it enables brands to be much more personal in their approach to the customer… I can reach those new mothers much more easily, because I know that they have found each other somewhere… It lets me reach these groups much more precisely, and that requires me to take content into account much more… I need to see how the content fits in, how this fits in with Facebook’s constraints, because you’re living in a very constrained world—half the screen is taken up by Facebook itself, and technologically you’re very constrained, legally you’re very constrained…

What sort of constraints do you face in this environment?

There’s the “Facebook arch”—the shape of Facebook that you can’t move. There are things you can play with, you can design it to look more appealing… There are navigation constraints… does it sit on the Cellcom’s main Facebook page, so it will be hard for people to find because Cellcom’s brand page on Facebook is so packed already? If you make it separate, just for a specific audience, how will they be able to find all the other things that Cellcom can offer them? On a regular site, it’s easy—I’d make clear hierarchies, who to prioritize and how… On Facebook, it’s like the wild west… You’ve got these five tabs—and they’re quite hidden away—if that’s not enough, you’ve got to start a whole new page, and then what do you do with that?

Tell us about your research.

I wanted to see how people manage interactions on Facebook—I didn’t have any information about that from other sources. We use eye-tracking and have already started with some users. We just say “OK, you’ve got an hour—you don’t have to use it all, here is your Facebook.” I’m interested in their interaction with their news feed, with their wall, with their friends’ walls, I’m interested to see what “catches on” in terms of types of content.

Facebook recognizes that I’m referencing some other page and they insert a link automatically. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, they’re doing my thinking for me. I’m interested to see how often people click on external links, how often they click on the name of a post’s author or on the names of the commenters. When they click, I also ask them if they clicked because it’s a friend or because they saw the picture. I’m also interested in relationships.

So you do regular usability testing, you assign tasks. And then you do a debriefing and ask questions?

The technology dictates that I do it afterwards. I let the user work on their own and most of the interaction with the user comes afterwards. The eye-tracking application records all the user’s actions, including eye movements. Then I play back all their actions, they see where the pointer was and what they looked at. The amount of information that is generated is astronomical—I sometimes fill up entire notebooks during a day of interviews, because every glance reminds them of something. Sometimes I stop and ask them specifically, “I see that you looked here and then didn’t click—why not?” “Why did you look for such a long time?”

So you really do a kind of debriefing with them about their behavior?

Yes… to try to reverse engineering their thought process, because the order of their eye movements is really the order in which they take in information, but what they think about the information is inside their head, so I try to get it out… Users never cease to surprise me, in what they tell me…

So have you come to any conclusions about how to “do UX on Facebook”?

I want to open people’s minds to the possibilities. Lots of people say “Facebook is Facebook, so what can I do?” and I say “Actually you can do a, b, c, and it will be effective.” Or it will be more beautiful, or it will be more engaging. And I’m searching for wisdom that I can share, about what works and what doesn’t, what bothers people on Facebook, and what I can do to improve things.

What is the scope of your research—how much time and effort are you investing in it?

Our original intention was to take 60 users, and have 30 do a free-form activity, and have the other 30 perform specific tasks. I don’t know if we will reach the full extent of the scope…

I estimated that if I let someone use Facebook for an hour, I will need to sit with them for up to an hour afterwards. It became apparent that sometimes it’s even longer. Most people don’t surf for an hour—they surf for 40 or 45 minutes, then I sit with them for an hour and a half, because there are lots of things that come up—it’s a shame to miss anything. And because the task is very open, the interview process is also very open.

How do you analyze the data?

Aside from the interviews, the Tobii generates hours of video. I asked my brother [a movie editor] “ How do you know which parts to take?” He said that with time, you build up an intuition. You watch the rough cuts, and you get a feel for what you can use. With time, I see that during an interview, I already know “I’m going to use this part”, I make a note… Sometimes I even grab the part that I want from the video right there in the interview. I don’t always go back over all the material. But there are moments that raise a question mark, and I know I need to go back to them… If I don’t remember whether it was important or not, then I go back and look at the video.

[when analysing video] with time, you build up an intuition. You watch the rough cuts, and you get a feel for what you can use.

So you give people a fixed amount of time to surf Facebook? At some point, don’t they say “I don’t want to do it any more”?

Yes, because Facebook is like a pile of M&Ms—they taste good, you can eat quite a lot of them, but there’s a limit to how many you can eat. At some point, they stop tasting so great.

Did you have some sort of demographic segmentation for these users?

I chose heavy users—the segment that includes younger people—that’s of greatest interest to my clients… In contrast to other usability tests, I’m not interested in finding usability problems in Facebook—there’s nothing I can do about them. But I am interested in seeing, in the context of regular use, the quirks in my little interface that I can help fix. Where do you trip up? Where do you get confused? Where do you do things out of habit such that you miss important things on the way?

What’s the connection between general Facebook usage and company or brand pages?

In an average user’s web surfing, people don’t reach a page like, say, the Huggies Facebook page. When do they reach it? In two situations.

One, because there’s a Huggies ad on Facebook that catches their eye. Some ads on Facebook are effective because I see the faces of my friends who have actually visited the Huggies page in the ads. If the page is relevant to mothers, and I see mothers there, and I’m a parent of small children, I’ll visit the Huggies page.

Two, if one of them posts something about Huggies on their wall, for example if the Huggies page has some game and he reaches some achievement that appears in my feed, there’s a good chance that I will click. It doesn’t happen often, because although each of us has tens or hundreds of Facebook friends, we usually only have a good connection with a few brands. Which means not enough brands are doing a good enough job of making a connection. Statistically, the chances of me coming across some interaction between a friend of mine and a brand by chance is not huge. But when it does happen…

As for how people reach brand pages… Facebook has some sort of highly secret, opaque algorithm… let’s say that we’re friends on Facebook, and you go to the Huggies page and do something there, some of your friends will see it in their feed and some won’t. And I don’t know how it decides.

Out of tens of thousands of people, a few thousand will reach your page, because of an ad or because of something in your feed. Now you’ve got them, you want to keep them there. You need to give them something that is worth their time. That’s where I come in. I don’t create the content, but I help to create the tool that keeps them there.

Do you think that what you’re learning about Facebook will be relevant to other platforms, like Twitter, like Google+? Or is it very Facebook-specific?

People are people… the psychological reaction to distractions or to disorientation are very similar. It doesn’t matter which system you are in. If your navigation is not good, you get sub-optimal results.

How do you distinguish between attention and distraction?

There are three levels:

  1. The technical level—the eye-tracking software can tell me the length of the fixation for a particular location. I know how many fixations there were in a particular area, the distances between the fixations, and so on.
  2. There’s intuition—after seeing lots of scan patterns, I know when its an attention pattern and when I’m just passing over something. Sometimes I don’t need the technical—I know that they just “zapped” over something and didn’t take anything in.
  3. The third level is simply to ask. Often you see that they looked and you’re not sure if they took it in or not, so you let the video run for a few seconds, then ask, “Do you remember what was here, under my hand?” If they remember, then there’s a good chance they did take it in, and if not, there isn’t.

Are tools like Clicktale and the like comparable to eye-tracking?

The main thing that is missing with Clicktale is the “why”—I see that they moved the mouse and then either clicked or didn’t click, but I don’t know why. They’re not here with me—I can’t ask them. The Tobii allows me to get to the “why”. I show them where they looked and I ask them what they were thinking…

After experience with both tools, I see Clicktale as complementary to the Tobii. If I could, I would use Tobii on every interface, use what I learned to improve it, then use Clicktale to see how I can improve it even further.

Advertising is usually based on campaigns. Do you see this in brands’ Facebook presence too, or are they trying to build something more long-term? I’m thinking in particular about the Old Spice thing…

They got lots of followers and “likes”, but when the campaign ended, they lost those people… Our client is almost always the brand’s marketing department, who think in terms of campaigns—it’s hard to make that switch—you aren’t on stage shouting your message any more, you need to say it and then listen, then think and say it again a little differently, to be authentic… [It’s all about] giving value on an ongoing basis… It’s something that we’re aware of and some of our clients are also aware that now things need to be different, but some still don’t.

Old habits die hard—advertising people see things in discrete “piles”—I do a campaign, I see results, I leave it, I do a campaign… It’s also a matter of ROI, which is sometimes hard to demonstrate, just like in UX. You say, “You should invest in a relationship with your customer.” and they say “What for?”. You need to start showing them statistics to show that it generates loyalty, that they’ll buy one product and then another. And you don’t always have the statistics…

What about cross-channel? What a brand does on Facebook needs to match the TV commercial, which is campaign-based.

One client ran a big TV campaign and people went to Google to look for the brand, reached the site, and there’s nothing related to the campaign. It’s a classic mistake that happens again and again. So they say “OK, let’s put the banner that we’re already using on our site as well, and that will give us continuity.” No! They didn’t see it in those other places because of banner blindness, and they won’t see it on our site either because of banner blindness!

What you called “cross-channel”, we call “multi-channel plan”. So you have lots of properties spread across many places, each aimed at a different micro-segment. You do a broad campaign that appeals to everyone, then give the specific solution in the place where each one is looking for it. Some will go to your site, some will look for you on Facebook, some will look for you via a mobile application. Each one needs a connection to the campaign.

An engagement graph for your platform for a particular property might go in waves that are very small but very predictable. The engagement graph around campaigns goes in very big waves, with very high peaks and very deep troughs. You need to see how you can take advantage of these waves to benefit those waves—that’s the plan.

How do you measure effectiveness? What are your KPIs?

Facebook’s “Insight” tool gives great statistics… It tells you how much exposure a Facebook ad has received, how many clicks, conversion rate… for measurement and optimization of advertising, it’s very effective. They give us not-too-bad information about engagement, say, on the wall. When we manage a company’s wall, they can tell us how many saw a post, how many responded to it and when, which audience responded more and which less. But when it comes to custom-made things that are embedded within Facebook, Insight doesn’t see them—I need to embed analytics or some other measurement tool.

You’ve got the five tabs at the side and you have to click “more” to see more… I have absolutely no idea how many people click on each tab. I know which page they landed on, but they could have arrived there from an ad, from the wall, from the feed, or anywhere.

How do you know you’re on the right track?

We see it consistently—when we provide good content, when we give value, when we give people something that they want to use, they come. If they don’t use it, it means the interface is no good. If they don’t read it, it means the content is no good. But when the content is good, you get high engagement. On Huggies’ “Night Shift” [a Huggies Israel brand page] there were very high levels of engagement, even though it was during the deadest hours of the day—you wouldn’t expect people to visit that Facebook page at that sort of time, but somehow we struck a nerve with the right audience at the right time and with the right people, and they came in droves.

UXI Live 2011

UXI Live 2011Oren Shamir will be speaking about his research at UXI Live 2011, the only UX conference in Israel, organized by UXI (User Experience Israel). It takes place between September 7th and 8th in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Dana Cohen-Baron

Dana Cohen-Baron is a User Experience and Product Definition Consultant, with over 13 years of experience working with startups and enterprises to create products that are enjoyable and natural for people to use.

Martin Polley

Martin is an interaction designer and technical writer working at Intel in Haifa, Israel. Johnny TV dude.

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