A product and its distribution were once separate spheres. For web-based products, these two worlds have collided. Distribution is often done by features within the product itself: ‘Like’ to unlock, pay with a tweet, invite friends for credits.
Customers no longer pay for these products with money, but by getting them into the hands of more people, with ads (or other more nebulous sources) providing revenue. Much debate has been had about the merits and flaws of this strategy, but given its ability to create highly-valued businesses, it will continue to be used.
What is the impact on user experience of viral distribution methods embedded within products? I believe a clear distinction can be made between those that harm user experience and those that can improve it.
Methods that harm user experience require users to do something that doesn’t align with their goals.
Requiring users to Like, Tweet, or Pin something before they are allowed to complete a core action.
Prompting users to share the product with their friends before they have a chance to asses its quality or value.
These types of distribution methods must be avoided at all costs. They may improve short term metrics, but will erode any sense of a mutually beneficial relationship between the product and its users.
A more effective method is to align distribution goals with user goals.
For a product or service that makes use of the network effect, asking users to invite friends as a way to improve their experience.
For games, enabling users to share high scores through social networks, both to brag about their accomplishments and entice friends to join and beat them.
These mechanics provide value to users without requiring them to do something outside their normal range of behavior.
As a designer and engineer, I prefer building products that don’t need to sell themselves. Being able to focus on providing the best experience – rather than building triggers for distribution – allows for greater purity in the vision and execution of the product. (And no doubt, paid rather than ad-supported products are still alive and well.)
But we are now in the viral age. While the importance of a good product remains, the biggest source of risk is poor distribution. We have to learn how to harness these distribution methods while protecting the interest of users.