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Facebook applications: the do's and don'ts

Facebook applications: the do's and don'ts Evan Gerber

MySpace might have a bigger audience for the moment, but Facebook is certainly on a rapid growth trajectory, and it is currently the media darling of social networks. One of the reasons for Facebook's growing popularity is the ability to create applications which users share virally. This particularly alluring feature provides companies with a unique opportunity to provide innovative and fun brand experiences that reach a large audience through trusted channels. While a successful Facebook campaign is an exciting prospect, a misguided foray into social media marketing can leave a high profile and expensive blemish on the brand image, both with consumers and in the media. To succeed, it is crucial that brand managers consider a number of challenges, including technical constraints, usability hurdles and the difficulties of creating a widget that lends itself to viral replication. This article will cover some of these critical concerns and explores the potential success or failure of certain features and campaigns.
Keep it simple and fun
By and large, Facebook applications are fun and fluffy mechanisms by which users communicate with their friends. In order to remain fun and fluffy, and to promote adoption, applications must be intuitive or easy to pick up. As the head of user support at Facebook mentioned to me in an interview, "Users don't like to read." This should not shock anyone; after all, no user really does read. However, there are other facets to consider when developing an application for a social network. Above all, though, simplicity is crucial because it leads to adoption and viral spread.

Roshambull, a game developed by Red Bull, allows users to play "rock, paper, scissors" with one another. It's a game that everyone knows, and it's fun to play with other people. The simplicity of the game helps with viral spread, as, unlike other games, you don't have to ponder your next move. Another example of simplicity is Zombies. Bite your friends and they too, turn into zombies. Both games are extremely popular, and this is due in no small part to the fact that they are quick to pick up and make it easy and fun to engage friends.

Make it viral, but don't be sleazy
Facebook is basically built to be a conduit to inform friends of what is going on. User actions show up in all their friends' newsfeeds. Mechanisms to promote viral propagation are built into the Facebook toolkit, but it's important to remember not to abuse the power that this web site gives you. First of all, users are sensitive about what they send to their friends; nobody wants to be a spammer. This is especially applicable on Facebook, where a typical user has 300 contacts, and very few of them are good friends. Secondly, privacy is a concern to users. If an application leverages a viral tool without the user's expressed consent and explicit understanding, it will be very poorly received. If the user does not understand what is happening, they will worry that their account has been compromised, and if users find that the application is sending information without their permission, it won't last long. Most users have a small number of applications -- certainly under 10 -- and there are always new ones coming along to compete. So make the application viral, and help it spread within users social networks, but don't overdo it.

Design within the constraints of the Facebook application
The applications that run within Facebook are constrained by what the website will and will not allow, and it is critical to understand what is and is not possible within the limits imposed. For example, a users' profile page will not allow flash animations. As such, any flash-based application should not be designed to run from there, even if it would be a great entry point. Also, the table structure on certain pages is very solidly defined and cannot be changed. This will greatly impact the page design. Finally, certain processes, such as application installation, are run by the Facebook application itself and cannot be changed. It's important to be familiar with these limitations and the technical underpinnings of the site. (For more information, take a look at Facebook's developers page.)

Match the Facebook toolkit
Any application, web or otherwise, is more usable if it's consistent. For example, users are more likely to click buttons when they follow a consistent visual treatment, and similar page layouts help task completion. Facebook is no exception to this rule; users expect that the applications running on the platform will behave in the same way. Ensure that the page layout is reminiscent of other Facebook pages, such as the profile or homepage. Check that buttons and page elements don't contradict the larger Facebook look and feel. While this might seem like common sense, it can be very challenging to ensure that there is not too much of a variance as the application evolves. Periodic check-ins or frequent ad hoc user testing are great ways to ensure that the application remains usable and consistent with the Facebook application.

As social networks become more and more entrenched in our culture, the number of users on these platforms will grow. Facebook is a major player, and it is predicted by many to retain it's predominance for years to come. As such, brand managers will do well to explore the possibility of creating an application for the platform, but they must be mindful of challenges around experience design, technical constraints, and viral behaviors. 

Evan Gerber is principal experience design consultant at Molecular. . 

Since the late ‘90s, Evan Gerber has created innovated technology solutions for unique business problems. Evan is the Vice President of Mobile Design and Emerging Interactions at Fidelity Investments.  An avid technophile and self...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ken Persel

2008, December 29

Fantastic article, Evan. A great baseline - to keep the marketers' and developers' eyes on the prize! Thanks for your insights.