The social platform wars heated up this week, as both Facebook and Google+ launched new features to their sites. Google+ announced changes to their Hangouts video chat feature, introduced a search function within the platform (which seemed like a late addition from the leader in online search), and dropped the requirement for invitations to join the service. Facebook gave its users Smart Lists to organize their friends, rolled out the ability to subscribe to interesting people they don’t personally know, and revamped the presentation of information with a new news feed and ticker.
Those announcements from Facebook even came prior to their annual f8 developer conference, where they presented a new profile page called Timeline and a new way of sharing through apps built into their Open Graph framework.
Both of these sites are very intent on capturing the attention of online users and becoming the primary site for sharing content and opinions. Those opinions are becoming increasingly valuable for companies as they seek to understand perception of their brand and market themselves more directly to interested parties. In my opinion, the changes were a step in the right direction toward creating engaging platforms. They also highlighted the challenges in upgrading online services that are being used by large populations.
Both Facebook and Google have had experience with troubled roll-outs of upgrades or new features. They have learned from these experiences and continuously fine-tune their upgrade approach, using beta testing groups, pop-up explanation boxes and blog posts explaining the changes. However, the problem of scale exists here just as it does for applications in the cloud. Given huge numbers of users, there will be differences in change tolerance and adoption rates. With traditional software, early adopters can pick up the latest copies and later adopters can move over once they have seen the new version in action and are comfortable with a switch. Websites and online applications tend to be pushed out to the entire audience, with little option for reverting.
CompTIA’s 2011 cloud computing research found that 37 percent of channel firms offering cloud services plan to offer mobile application development in the next year, making that the most popular offering that firms are targeting. When building mobile applications or online customer portals with social components, it is important to think of the typical end-user and build in options that will help users acclimate to upgrades or new features. Perhaps dual versions exist, giving users the chance to move over as they are comfortable (with a cut-off date given for sunsetting the older version). Or perhaps significant time is spent building tutorials that guide users through new features. Careful planning up front can help avoid disgruntled users later.
What do you think? Should websites and apps do a better job of transitioning users to new versions? Let us know in the comments if you have examples of companies who do a good job with online upgrades.