Image Credit: http://opengardensblog.futuretext.com
As the popularity of blogging, social media and open source development continue to explode, widgets are taking root as a mainstay of the online social experience. The interdependency of self-publishing, social media and open source platforms are ensuring that widgets, those bits of code that allow us to aggregate, publish and share a wide variety of different content/information in one place, are here to stay. In fact, the rapid growth in online cultural trends like lifestreaming, microblogging and social browsing is creating increased demand for ways users can pull information from a diverse array of profiles and information sources, aggregate them and publish them quickly and easily. Said simply, widgets help us glue the web together, and as online social ecosystems become more complex, and as web sites and web based applications rely on more underlying services, widgets will prove to be a core component of the self-publishing culture and infrastructure.
For all of these reasons, we can estimate that companies will continue to throw a lot of time, money and energy at creating widgets and widget-like applications that online goers want to use. That said, not all widgets are created equal, and only the very best widgets spread (which is the whole idea). In this post I want to explore what makes a remarkable viral widget and offer developers some design tips…
#1 It’s Not About You.
Widgets that are perceived as ads rather than tools lose, plain and simple. Widget design should always be about the publisher/user and their content. Developers can put a small trademark on it, a link back to their service and a “grab this (for yourself)” button, but that better not be the focus. Subtlety in marketing is critical. It’s easy for developers to get excited about building an “ultra viral” widget that promotes the heck out of their service and brand, and it’s natural to want to put their mark in a prominent place that steals the show. Big mistake. Widgets that win put the user’s content front and center. Self-publishing isn’t like fashion. There are no label whores. Users want to highlight their stuff, not yours. The moment a reader sees a widget, interacts with it and THEN thinks “can I get one of these and do this myself?” is the point that they’ll start looking for a trademark. That moment should be the first time they notice your marketing. Viral is about the utility of the tool, not the marketing.
#2 One Size Fits Few
If you think you can make a popular one-size-fits-all widget these days, you’re dead wrong. The one-widget-for-all model is dead. More and more amateurs are diving into code and are customizing their blogs and social profiles in all kinds of different ways. People know that creating a unique web site design is key to blogging and online-social success. Radical individualism IS the norm when it comes to web design. For that reason, users want widgets that fit in a variety of spaces to fit THEIR unique design, so make it easy for them to get what they want. Developers should consider designing an easy to understand installation wizard that allows users to easily create a widget of any size they chose TO THE PIXEL, no matter how wacky. Flexibility will win out over standardization. Maybe even offer a few shape-formatting options. Help them look good and they will love you for it. You’ll be sewing the seeds of evangelism.
#3 Make It Customizable & Reflective of The User’s Personality
Personalization and being different is everything on the web. Widgets need to fit that trend. Give the publisher every facility you can to personalize the widget so their instance of it is different than any other user’s instance. This could be as simple as letting them select a fixed color scheme OR as complicated as pulling the user’s account data in from other services (for example, FriendFeed’s feed widget pulls delicious tags, twitter updates, Flickr photos etc all into one feed).
#4 Dynamic, User-Created Content Increases Engagement
Giving people tools to make their site(s) more engaging should be a primary goal of every widget developer. A lot of developers out there seem to forget this, which baffles me. Good widgets are useful tools for the user FIRST and branding for the developer a distant second. Users should see an obvious value proposition when they ask themselves “How can I use this to enhance MY brand/message/content mix?”. On the flip-side, readers who engage a user’s widget are asking “What does the information this widget delivers say about the author?” If the answer is “nothing”, reader engagement completely vanishes and wont return. You only really get one chance to convince a reader that your widget is something they should pay attention to (and might want for themselves). If they decide that it’s not, readers will simply remember that the widget is there, and that they should ignore it and skip to primary content. Ad blindness works the same way. It’s the developers job to turn a widget into a node of interaction, and the way to do that is to allow widget users to create and display THEIR content with it. When readers see fresh streams of dynamic, user-created content in a widget, they’ll remember it, return to it and interact more.
#5 Make It Simple Stupid and Easy To Maintain
Simplicity of installation is just one part of the challenge. Making a widget easy to maintain is the other. To keep a widget engaging, a user needs to keep creating dynamic content, which is not easy these days given the complex array of things we do online in any given day. Developers need to be sensitive to the fact that most people who blog and use social media are dying for simplicity – many have too many accounts and use to many services to manage it all consistently…the time and effort required to add yet ANOTHER widget (and new behaviors) that they need to manage will (in most cases) lead a user to decide against joining your widget community at all. Widgets that win will allow users to create content by doing the things they already do. For example, a widget that showed the most recent items in my Netflix queue would update automatically as I updated my queue in Netflix, and not require any additional work on my part. AdaptiveBlue’s widgets are a great example of this.
#6 Individualization and Community
One last point before I wrap up. Widgets often represent a user in a greater community – sometimes they act like a badge that identifies the individual as part of a tribe (think mybloglog). Although I’ve discussed above how making a widget personal and customizable is important, developers should also remember that if a widget is about community building, allowing users to highlight their affiliation and status within that community is also very important. People don’t want to just stand out from a crowd, they want to belong to your community. Let them show that affiliation proudly.
In short, the above are just some thoughts I have on building great widgets based on my experiences and observations. What are yours?