The Seven Principles You Need to Know to Build a Great Social Product

Social products are an interesting bird. For even the most experienced product designer, social products prove an elusive lover. While there are many obvious truths in social products, there are also alot of ways to design them poorly. Especially when you are deep in the moment making pixel-level decisions trying to remember what’s important, things may not be so clear.

The only magic I’ve found in designing compelling social products that have the best shot at breaking through the noise and capturing people’s time and money is in being extremely clear on how your social product meets a few key design principles.

1. Design your product to matter in a world of infinite supply. In 2010, people are inundated with an overwhelming number of people, applications, requests, alerts, relationships, and demands on their time. You love your product. The benefits of it are totally obvious to you. However, if you and every member of your team can’t crisply articulate what emotional benefit someone will get from spending 15 minutes on your social product that they can’t get on Facebook, LinkedIN, or Twitter, you’ve got work to do.

This isn’t touchy feely stuff. Neither I nor the prospective people who may use your social product care about your features, your game mechanics, or how amazing your application will be when there are millions of people on it. I’m selfish with my time and you’ve got seconds to hook me in with something new. And I’m not alone.

To successfully use the fleeting moments you have, you need to orchestrate everything under your control to work together seamlessly under a single brand with a single reason for existence. Make it emotional. If your team can’t tie back every decision they are making to the emotion you want people to feel when they are using your social product, then your reason for existence isn’t strong enough to serve its role, which is to guide your team and the product decisions you are making.

2. Be the best in the world at one thing. To put an even finer point on the focus required of any social upstart, you need to be best in the world at one thing. For Lululemon, they’ve built a $450 million annual revenue business by focusing on the black yoga pant. For Twitter, it’s the 140 character message. For Facebook, it is connecting you to the people you already know. Everything these companies do ties back to a specific thing they are going to be best in the world at doing.

It’s not always obvious upfront what should be your best in the world focus and enshrining the wrong thing can be a problem. However, it is much worse to build a social product without guiding principles. When you are focused on the one thing your social product is going to do better than everyone else, all you need to launch is your one thing and no more.

Ask yourself and every member of your team what you are best in the world at every week. Even better, define it, agree on it, print it out, blow it up, and put it on the wall. This should be the filter by which everyone is making product decisions.

3. Seek out uniqueness. Today’s social platforms and applications are fantastic at meeting people’s need to belong. But equally important – especially in a world of infinite supply – is what makes us feel different and special. People want scarcity. People want exclusivity. This doesn’t mean your social product should be limited to a niche. Frontierville was built for mass appeal – so that I could play with ALL of my friends – but it still finds ways to bring uniqueness into its social experience via neighbors, customization of your plot, and collections.

When people talk about exclusivity and scarcity these days, discussions of game mechanics are never far behind. I love game mechanics as much as the next person. However, if you are implementing game mechanics in the exact same way as everyone else, you’ve got a problem. It goes back to the issue of infinite supply. If there is an infinite supply of points, badges, and levels because they exist on every single social product out there, the minute you use them without being thoughtful, you are losing your shot at exclusivity and scarcity. A better approach is to figure out what makes people feel unique and special on your service independent of any specific game tactic. Then, selectively cherry pick the features that reinforce your emotional reason for existence for people. For uniqueness to work, you have to lead, not follow.

4. Focus on your most important interaction until you have it right. Once you have the critical features defined, there is typically one interaction that is clearly the most important to get right. It’s the interaction that if you get right means someone comes back and, if you don’t get it right, you can’t realize your full potential. Take this interaction and be maniacal about it. For Twitter, this is the Twitter stream. For Polyvore, this is the set page. For Facebook, this is the news feed. For YouTube, it’s the video page. For Dailybooth, it’s the live feed page. It’s the interaction where your magic happens, so give it the care and feeding needed to make it a star.

5. Choose your words carefully. The earlier you are as a social product, the more your word choice should be different and distinct from everything else out there. Early on is the time to have something important and different to say. In fact, all the great brands of the past 30 years have started out appealing to the passionate and rebellious first. Virgin? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Apple? The 1984 commercial. Nike? The subculture of intense runners sporting moustaches. Facebook? A few still remember the original Scarface logo.

There are things to copy from other services and there are things to make uniquely your own in social products. Layouts? Do your best but pay attention to what is already working. Colors? Hard to be original here, but blue is pretty played out. Icons? A toss up. Terminology? Own it. Your word choice is the primary place for you to have a point-of-view and present not only what you want your brand to emotionally mean to the people using it but the kinds of relationships you want people to have as a result of using your social product.

6. Create a party, not a museum. Great social products are clean, simple, and fast. The successful ones have little design flare, so that the people, photos, videos, text, and comments are front and center. The more design you add from colors to treatments, non-web-fonts, and graphics, the less your social application will feel like a party and the more it will feel like a museum. Or a magazine. Neither are a great goal. You want your social product to feel like it is a living and breathing party, not expensive furniture you’re not supposed to sit on.

7. Develop relationships, not features. Today, we have multiple personalities and different types of relationships with people in the real and virtual worlds. If you are going to design a new social product, it’s not enough to just offer a feature, like photos, videos, or events. You need to look at how the relationships on your social product will be important and different from the relationships you and others have already on Facebook, LinkedIN, and Twitter.

Most people will say that Facebook Connect handle the whole “people” thing for any new social product. I would argue that Facebook Connect is a start but if you can’t quickly show someone a new relationship dynamic or similar people in your social product in a way that is unique to your application, the value of people interacting in your new product will accrue back to Facebook and not you.

For example, I’ve found that on most new social applications I join I have the same 10 Facebook friends – typically my most prolific friends on Facebook already – on this new service too. In most cases, because these new social applications are just an extension of the things I’m already following them do on Facebook, such as sharing photos, events, lists, and videos, I don’t have a reason to come back to this new application a second time.

For a new social product, you need to think about how your social product expands, deepens, and changes the relationships people have today online and in the real world. This isn’t easy to achieve. The best example of a social product doing this well is Quora. Originally seeded with Facebook’s social graph, it has quickly differentiated itself by showing you people you may care about because of their thoughtful commentary, experience, and expertise displayed on topics that are important to you.

It takes alot for people to care about new people in the context of a new social product. Spending your time and energy on what constitutes similarity or what new relationships you want people to have as a result of your application is time worth spent.

As I think about what’s going to be created, discovered, invented, and re-imagined with social software in the next six months let alone the next five years, I can’t help but be excited. These principles shine a light on the first few feet in front of us, but, with every new social product success there will be new ones. As Alan Kay timelessly put it, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.

Gina Bianchini is the founder of Ning, the leading online platform for the world’s organizers, activists and influencers to create their own social experiences with over 80 million unique users each month.