Research Insights: Social Networking and Mobile Communities
Social networking and user-generated content are, without a doubt, hot topics in the mobile sector right now. The marriage of social networking and mobile phones seems logical: our mobile phones are always with us and keep us connected to our networks all day, every day. We currently use our mobile phones to create and share content to a limited degree, and as our devices become more and more sophisticated the kinds of user-generated content we create and the means by which we share them will only increase. In anticipation of this wave, Web-based social networking sites like MySpace are moving into mobile hoping to increase their reach and popularity, while the ranks of startups are swelling with developers of wireless social networks or tools that facilitate mobile social networking. 3’s See Me TV in the UK has already shown that that video created and consumed on the mobile phone can be a popular proposition.
Despite the growing numbers of players in the mobile social networking space, questions abound about what constitutes a successful mobile social networking experience. What form will social networks take in the mobile context? How will desktop-based and mobile social networks co-exist, or will they? As a San Francisco-based interface strategy, design and development consultancy with a specialization in mobile, we at Punchcut spend a great deal of time pondering these questions and envisioning future-forward solutions for our clients. In order to inform our design efforts, we recently conducted a qualitative study of the social networking behaviors of 11 young adults living in the San Francisco Bay area. The purpose of the study was to gain an understanding of why young, socially connected individuals engage in social networking behaviors and how the use of a mobile device supports and fosters these behaviors.
// Study Overview and High-Level Findings
We collected our data through one-on-one observation/interview sessions and an online questionnaire in which the study participants reported their daily social networking activities over a 14-day period in January 2007. The information supplied touched on:
- The frequency with which the participants engaged in social networking activities
- The triggers and circumstances under which the participants engaged in these activities
- The nature of the participants’ relationships with the people with whom they engaged in these activities, and how behaviors were affected by those relationships
- The degree to which social networking activities were accomplished via mobile phone versus personal computer, and the circumstances under which one method was used over another.
Analysis of our results showed that social networking activities form an ecosystem that crosses device or channel. All methods were brought into service in order to meet the goal of creating and maintaining relationships, but those methods were not interchangeable. Study participants used all of the tools available to them in performing their social networking activities and chose a method - mobile phone or PC - based on the context and the appropriateness of the tool to the activity in question. In fact, most our participants networked via PC and mobile phone at the same time, but for different purposes. The PC was chosen most often by study participants for content creation and access but their mobile phones were more suitable for keeping them abreast of real-time developments in their network. The most compelling social networking experiences were those that supported the use of a variety of tools on the mobile phone and PC yet took advantage of the strengths of each.
The choice of activity and method were determined by a number of factors:
The nature of the relationship
The closer the relationship, the more likely our study participants would use their primary communication tool, be it mobile-based SMS or PC-based IM, to interact with those individuals frequently throughout the day. Voice calls, it should be noted, were considered a more “formal” method of communication, and tended to be reserved for family members and business contacts. The more distant the relationship the more likely the participant was to use secondary or more public tools to engage with those individuals. Web-based social networking sites like MySpace provided study participants with a convenient way to maintain or rekindle relationships with friends and family who live in other parts of the world, as well as former co-workers and other friends with whom the participant had lost touch over the years. These sites appealed to participants because they required a minimal time investment beyond creating a basic profile yet delivered high value in the sense that participants prized knowing they belonged to a community, a sense that was reinforced every time they visited the site.
Desired level of engagement
Our study participants had a well-honed sense of the social expectations associated with the different social networking tools they used. Voice calls were “formal” and required our participants’ undivided attention, whereas instant and text messaging were “informal” and allowed participants to engage in other activities. Participating in Web-based social networking sites required the least attention since they were asynchronous communication vehicles. The net result of the range of levels of engagement afforded by these tools is that our participants communicated more often, simultaneously carrying on several exchanges using a variety of tools requiring differing levels of attention. The more proficient the social networker, the more adept he or she was at maintaining these exchanges at a level of engagement that was acceptable to the people with whom he or she was interacting.
Lifestyle or stage of life
Our study suggests that social networking behavior is less a factor of age and more one of lifestyle. Study participants with lifestyles that were socially-focused were more likely to be mobile, thus mobile phone-based social networking tools were best for engaging with their equally mobile network of friends. Participants with lifestyles that were professionally-focused were more likely to be in a fixed location for much of the day as were the members of their network, thus PC-based social networking tools suited them best. Lifestyle changes did not affect the participants’ innate desire to engage in social networking activities, only the means by which they did so.
Our study points to the single biggest predictor of social networking behavior being the participant’s personality. The greater the need to socialize the more likely that person was to engage frequently in a multitude of activities on their mobile phone and PC, even when doing so was implicitly frowned upon or explicitly forbidden. Being connected to their networks to this degree was seen as both positive and negative. Our most proficient social networkers enjoyed being able to communicate as frequently and efficiently as they did yet felt obliged to be available to their networks all the time. Even the most social of social networkers appreciated those times when they were compelled to be “off the network”.
// Keys to Successful Mobile Social Networking Experiences
Punchcut’s study findings suggest that successful mobile social networking experiences will:
- Build on the strengths of mobile personal communication devices - that they are personal, always available and always connected - rather than duplicate a PC-based social networking experience on the device. These experiences will enhance aspects of relationship building and management that result from mobile context because they understand the spectrum of communication from one-to-one, one-to-some and one-to-world.
- Demonstrate an understanding of people’s social networking ecosystems. These experiences will support the myriad relationships, levels of engagement and lifestyles that people now have.
- Provide people with the tools to create their own experience. Individuals frequently use tools to unexpected ends. This often signals an untapped or previously unknown need. As designers we need to create tools that allow a certain amount of freedom to create and then monitor the results for potential future opportunities that will evolve the space.
Mobile social networking on a large scale will soon be upon us and we have no doubt there will be several misses on the road to success and profitability. We believe that user experience, from primary user research and experience strategy through to detailed design and usability testing following launch, will be key to minimizing the missteps along the way.
On Wednesday 2 May 2007 I will be a panelist at the PMN Mobile User Experience conference in London, sharing thoughts and observations on user-generated content, social networking and community interactions through mobile devices along with Al Russell, Head of Mobile Internet & Content Services at Vodafone, Frederick Ghahramani, Director at AirG, and Neil Cox, Regional Director EMEA, GlobalFluency & CMO Council. If you are attending the conference and are interested in social networking and mobile communities, please introduce yourself!