As JTeam is a good match for companies starting a social website, we have had the pleasure of building a couple in the past years. This article summarizes some of the lessons we learned. If you plan to start a social website (any other new site for that matter), take notice.
- Go live immediately
- Focus on as little use cases as possible
- Be viral
- Forget pixel perfect, improve as you go
- Choose the right technology
Go live immediately
You’ll need to go live as soon as possible. Each and every one of our clients with a social website thought they knew what their clients wanted. They were all wrong (initially). Of course not totally-of-the-track-wrong, but still wrong enough to have wasted valuable time and money. If you go live immediately, you and your users immediately gain insight into how the site works and what you need to do first to improve it.
Lesson learned: You will only know which use cases are really important if your site is being used by real users and they start to provide you with feedback.
Focus on as little use cases as possible (a variation on the previous)
Again, in all of the social websites JTeam has build, our client had a long list of use cases that needed implementing. This obviously translated into an even longer list of features. However, not all of those features were used or even understood by the users. In the majority of sites, we even had to take out features again later.
In combination with the previous lesson learned, the idea of Perpetual Beta can be used for developing your site. This basically means that you release your site early and do quick releases to enhance and extend the site gradually over time.
Lesson learned: You will only know how your site will be used when it is actually being used. At this time it will become apparent what features are useful, which are not. Adding features upfront is not only wasteful, it is counter productive.
A common misconception is that a social website needs users. Wrong! You need lots and lots of users, not a thousand, but multiple thousands at least. But how do you get them? The best way is to go viral; you need your users to attract even more users. There are several ways to achieve this. One old fashioned way is some kind of incentive program (expressed as status or plain money). Another status raiser for your site might be a cool mobile application (e.g. iPhone/iPad, Android) that extends the site. Another, probably much much more interesting option, is to build widgets for other social websites like Hyves, Facebook and LinkedIn. I would even go so far as to build the site to serve this user group first. Also using mechanisms to make it easy for users of those other social websites to start using your site will help in adoption. An example of this is using Facebook Connect to allow users to log into your site by using their Facebook credentials.
Lesson learned: Often, features alone are not enough, create attention by hooking into other (big) social sites.
Forget pixel perfect, improve as you go
The first users are not so critical. They like it if they see a continuous stream of small improvements. It makes them feel at home. This is the attitude you like to foster. Forget IE 6 as well, your target group is not likely to use this ancient browser anyway.
Often, our clients focus on pixels rather than functionality and don’t want to release until each and every page is pixel perfect. This leads to a lot of time (and money) being spent on layout rather than functionality.
Lesson learned: Don’t stop a release because there is a small layout problem. Fix it in the next release.
Choose the right technology
You will need technology that is easy to use now, but that won’t bog you down as your site grows. Large site require dis-proportionally more money then small sites. In particular we noticed that relational databases and transaction script architectures are in the way for the type of changes that are required for growing a site. We learned that scalable technologies like Solr (search) and Axon (event based architecture) are better suited for this.
Besides choosing technologies that scale well and are future proof, obviously you also want to make the right choice for technologies that actually do what you want it to do… Especially when you rely fully on a technology partner, make sure that you validate their choices. We have seen numerous cases where our clients came to us with an already developed site that simply used the wrong technologies. This even goes as far as a frontend technology choice for a website that wasn’t indexable by Google, while being findable in Google was of the utmost importance from a business perspective. Each technology has a home ground where its suitable and making the wrong choice there can be disaster.
Lesson learned: Making the right technology choices is essential to ensure scalability and maintainability, but also essential to getting a system that serves your business. Make sure you have a solid technology partner with a track record of choosing the right technologies and ensure you have (or hire) the expertise to validate their choices.
The above lessons learned will help you be more successful in developing your social website if you keep them in mind. Obviously, JTeam can help in advising you, even before you start the implementation. If you are thinking about a social business concept, feel free to contact us.