Last week I read about a test LinkedIn was performing on select users, forcing them to add hashtags to their updates in order to post.
Forcing people to to things they don’t want to or aren’t used to isn’t really a great idea under any circumstances. Even if you’re calling this a “test,” you’re honking people off by trying to get them to exhibit the behavior engineers think is optimal or ideal, not what the actual user base is doing or expressing a preference for.
We’ve seen this time and again on Twitter and Facebook. Twitter has stumbled over its own feet, particularly on privacy issues, time and again. The best features there are the ones that have been built in as official product features after being initially adopted as user hacks or work arounds. Quote RTs are the official version of manual RTs. The new threaded post feature comes after first would just post a lot of individual updates, then found replying to themselves threaded together multiple posts. Even something basic as @ replies wasn’t a native feature but came after people just kind of started doing it.
The rationale cited in the “test” explanation that LinkedIn wants to encourage topical conversations is indicative of how engineers sometimes believe the best solution is to take away choice. It’s possible for people to add hashtags to their posts right now, but it’s up to them. That’s the way it should be. There are multiple reasons why you may not want to include your post as part of a larger collection of posts, including privacy, that you think the conversation is dumb, that you think hashtags are ugly or you just don’t want to. All perfectly legitimate.
If you do, great. If you don’t, that should be fine as well. Adding forced structures and behaviors is usually only good if your goal is to create resentment and discourage further usage.
Let’s also remember that hashtags are poor substitutions for the kind of categorization and other taxonomies that are native to blog platforms. If you want to scroll through the tag pages on WordPress.com or Tumblr.com you can see what people are saying and publishing and find some interesting perspectives, including some takes you might want to respond to or comment on. You can also go back through your own archives and see what you’ve published under a category or tag, something that can be very useful when you’re trying to reference older material. Back in the *old* old days, Technorati was a great cross-platform directory organized by topic.
Social networks will likely never have that level of sophisticated organization. They’re about “now,” not “then.” Even hashtag-based organization and search is about surfacing current conversations and aren’t focused on providing insights into the past. It can occasionally be used as such, but that’s not the primary point.
Regardless, user experience design should be determined by the user, not the designer. The designer is there to react to and optimize the user experience, not force it to conform to an internally-held ideal. There are certainly corporate goals that are part of the decision, but you can’t push those goals on the audience as a whole if that’s not the behavior they’re engaging in.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.