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With enterprise social software, usability matters more than features

No matter how much users love Facebook, they won't automatically flock to enterprise social software. Adoption requires more than meeting a checklist of feature sets.

Your users' love of Facebook and Twitter does not guarantee uptake of internal social networking tools. Unified communications (UC) and collaboration pros have learned the hard way that adoption of enterprise social software requires more than meeting a checklist of feature sets.

The user experience and ease of use are what make or break deployments. For some UC pros, that means evaluating and testing a multitude of platforms to find the one that simply feels right. For others, customizing the social networking environment to suit employees' professional interests and identities has given users more ownership over the platform and subsequently improved adoption.

Stew Sutton, principal scientist for knowledge management at The Aerospace Corp., a Los Angeles-based private research and development facility for the U.S. Air Force, is evaluating enterprise social software platforms from a half-dozen vendors in his quest to find the best user experience.

Sutton is not grading the platforms based on what they do. Rather, he is evaluating them based on how they feel.

"You have to walk into the application space and imagine you've never seen it before ... and very seldom feel yourself pausing to say, 'What do I have to do to do that [task]?'" Sutton said in an interview after participating in a panel discussion at the Enterprise 2.0 trade show in Boston last week.  "The one that's pretty much a fail is the one that [makes users feel like], 'I have to go to end user training to learn how to use this.'"

Collaboration pros at Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) knew that no commercial platform would fit its enterprise social software strategy without some customization, said Bert Sandie, director of technical excellence at the Redwood City, Calif.-based video game developer and publisher. The young, tech-savvy user population demanded something that felt like a consumer social networking platform but was tailored for EA's culture, he said.

Since first deploying Microsoft SharePoint 2007 about four years ago, Sandie and his team have "spent a lot of time customizing it, mostly for usability," and have rebranded the platform as "Electronic Arts People," he said. Users' profiles are grouped by the games they work on, but their profiles are searchable based on the specialties and subspecialties of expertise they have defined.

Instead of using the standard SharePoint My Site template for personal profiles, users can skin their pages based on which game they work on. Users who work on "The Sims" games have Sims characters adorning their profile pages, whereas pages for users who work on the "Madden NFL" series are decked out with football players from the game.

"For us, [SharePoint] is a platform. We decided the platform's great, [but] we can build on top of that platform with some customization," Sandie said. "[Enterprise social software] needs to look great aesthetically, have high usability and a bunch of other things that don't necessarily come right out of the box."

Microsoft recently launched a site intended to help UC pros improve social networking adoption with a collection of tips, tricks and case studies for SharePoint 2010 deployments, according to Christian Finn, director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft.

Enterprise social software analytics engines help users wade through the 'noise'

The user experience isn't always about the front end, though. Enterprise social software vendors are adding "social analytics" engines to their platforms, which collect information about users' identities and behaviors in the portal to suggest colleagues to follow, groups to join or content to read. Vendors have also added filtering capabilities to lessen the fire hose effect of micro-blog activity feeds. 

Cisco Systems recently added these features to the latest version of its enterprise social software, Quad version 2.5. Users will be able to create and define various "watch lists" to modify which posts appear in their activity feeds.

Cisco also added a "recommendation engine," which gathers metadata about users' profiles and behavior in Quad in order to suggest new contacts, groups, video and other content, according to Murali Sitaram, vice president and general manager of collaboration software at Cisco.

IBM also recently announced the addition of similar social analytics engines to its enterprise social software, Connections version 3.01, to encourage adoption and improve the user experience, according to Alistair Rennie, general manager of collaboration solutions at IBM.

Since its 2010 release last year, SharePoint has contained an engine that recommends people and content to users based on metadata and tagging. When integrated with Microsoft Exchange and Lync Server, SharePoint can also scour IMs and emails for keywords on which to base suggestions for new contacts or recommended content, Finn said.

It's easy for users to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information thrown at them in an enterprise social networking platform, so analytics and filtering capabilities will become increasingly important to improving the user experience, according to Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Current Analysis.

"Whether you're talking about Salesforce Chatter, Quad or Yammer, those tools can be their own worst enemy because if they're utilized to the greatest degree, the level of noise within them quickly overcomes the level of meaning," Shimmin said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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