Shh. Listen First! Social Networking, Wikis, and User Experience

For user research we now have tools at our disposal like never before. These tools are social media sites where you can collect and aggregate data, even curate a collection of information about your users. Want to find out what gardeners or foodies are excited about this season? Just go to their favorite message boards on or read restaurant reviews on Are you a technical writer who needs to know the top questions being asked so that your documentation can preemptively answer those questions? Go to your customer support forums and browse through the most popular questions asked and answered.

By working with user communities that already exist, we can create a better user experience. This article describes techniques and ideas for listening to users first, then collaborating with them using social software tools.

Listening to Users on the Social Web

By listening first we can observe our users before engaging directly. We can study our users with online data from many different social sites.

Building Personas from Online Information

One of my favorite techniques for building personas is to search the job engine ( for the name of the

software product for which I write documentation. For example, when I was working on documentation for the constituent relationship management software named iMIS, I would search in the Washington, D.C. area for jobs that required iMIS experience. I knew that Washington, D.C. was a popular location for associations to locate their main offices. From that search, I could discern that database administrators with iMIS skills are in demand, thus giving me one possible persona.

Another useful technique is to search the social media site LinkedIn ( for your software product’s name. This search will give you a list of people who placed the product name in their profile. From that, you can use their job titles and work experience to build user personas. I found suitable first and last names for many personas that seemed to match the profession by searching on LinkedIn.

Searching through Conversations Online

You can also search Twitter using the search function on However, when searching for the product named iMIS on Twitter, I had to read only English language results because “imis” is a common term in Spanish that has nothing to do with the software product.

Twitter and other popular sites may or may not be relevant for your users, but check the demographics before rejecting them; you might be surprised. The biggest age group on Twitter is 35-49. On Facebook, users aged 55 and older grew from 950,000 to 5.9 million in just six months.

Observing Social Media with Care

Realize that these techniques for monitoring the social web will only work well for products that target online customers. The demographics may not match your user groups. Also, you cannot allow a few online observations to support all conclusions. Social media offers only a small part of the larger user picture. You can use an online profile tool (for example, to determine the possibility that your users will be in different categories using social media on the Web, ranging from “Inactive” to “Creators.” For example, men who are aged 45-54 in the United States are more likely to be “Inactive” than the rest of the population; Inactives participate less frequently than once a month on the social web. However, that group may be inclined to use RSS feeds to collect content, might tag content regularly, and may “vote” online on websites. If you know the tendencies of a demographic group, your observations will be more insightful.

When you are not in a directly customer-facing role, let others in your company (for example, customer support) know of relevant discussions. If a user is complaining loudly online, make sure that the right people in your company work with that user. Diffusing angry conversations online is best left to people who are trained in conflict resolution.

Monitor sites over a prolonged time period (months or years) to ensure you have the right picture. A snapshot will not provide the full picture.

Participating Thoughtfully on the Social Web

User experiences online are becoming more and more social. Users expect that modern websites will have some level of interaction. If you design a social user experience, you should make sure you can relate to the users, either personally or by studying their participation online. A good starting point is to comment on relevant blogs and add your viewpoint to discussions by posting on forums. The questions and answers you see on forums can shape your view of the user.

As you build relationships online, try to maintain natural conversation flows even within asynchronous interactions like replies in a blog. In real-time conversation, there are starts and stops, sequences, turn-taking, requests to improve understanding, and so on. When you’re at a party, you do not just jump in on a discussion about a movie because you overheard someone talk about buttery popcorn—some Twitter auto-responders act that way and it’s jarring. Minimize your impact on in-progress discussions by keeping these natural conversation conventions in mind when you start to talk with users. Be sure to represent who you work for and ensure you follow all participation policies in place at your company.

Study the discussions to gain insight and share those insights with others. Building a real picture of your users and punctuating your reports with their stories will help others in your company understand your users.

Seeking Collaboration and Participation

Once you get to know them, users may be a collaboration source for product design, technical documentation, or training. Wikis are an excellent platform for this type of collaboration because they enable comments, ratings, and even editing and sharing of content.

Collaborative Authoring

One method for collaboration is a book sprint. A book sprint is intensive collaborative authoring designed to create a book in a short time, usually a week or less. The method was inspired by Thomas Krag, who bought a stack of plane tickets to bring a group of his friends together in the same house for a long weekend in order to write an outline for a book about rural network connectivity. Krag expected to collaborate on the outline and dole out writing assignments, but was surprised to find that they got well past just an outline in the brief time they spent together. Adam Hyde, the founder of FLOSS Manuals, has been using the FLOSS Manuals wiki for the past two and a half years to build intense book sprints. FLOSS Manuals runs sprints as a five-day event, using real-time collaboration tools, and sometimes bringing all the authors to a single location.

As you may imagine, building a set of books in five days takes a lot of preparation, including creating outlines, assigning writers and editors, and finding users to test the documentation.

Book Sprinting for Parents, Teachers, and Kids with One Laptop

In August of 2008, FLOSS Manuals collaborated on a book sprint with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and SugarLabs. The goal was to write a user manual for parents, teachers, and students who use the XO laptop offered with the Give One Get One program. We brought together parents, educators, and experts in the OLPC and its operating system, Sugar, which runs on Fedora Linux.

After a planning session on Sunday where we entered an outline into the wiki system, we were ready to write. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were intense writing sessions from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day. We held a daily conference call to stay in touch with a handful of remote contributors and help anyone who was stuck or had questions. We also had a virtual room with someone monitoring an IRC channel where technical questions were answered. A FLOSS Manuals technical programmer, Aleksandar Erkalovic, also worked in conjunction with the sprint. When we wanted to receive an email as notification for changes to each chapter instead of changes to the entire publication, he programmed improvements on the fly. When uploading images one at a time became tedious, he added a web form that enabled drag-and-drop of multiple images.

We stayed late Thursday night, sprinting to the finish. Friday was a clean-up day, and we printed all the books for proofreading. Printed books were a rewarding end to an intense week.

The sprint was only the second attempt by FLOSS Manuals community members, but it was not our last. Since 2008, FLOSS Manuals has assisted with ten book sprints, written a manual about managing such events, and inspired similar efforts in corporate environments.

XO laptop screen

Figure 1. The wiki-based authoring system also works on an XO laptop.

XO laptop

Figure 2. The final result of the book sprint, One Laptop Per Child: The Guide. ready for distribution.

The Cool-down—Parting Thoughts and Takeaways

We live at the intersection of the age of information as it shifts to the age of interaction, and we should take advantage of it. Listen and observe first. Get to know your users. They are leaving a trail of hints and tips to help us learn from them. Participate slowly. After you have built a strong relationship, ask users to collaborate with you. This step-wise approach can take your research and design in directions you had not imagined

Gentle, A. (2010). Shh. Listen First! Social Networking, Wikis, and User Experience. User Experience Magazine, 9(3).
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