#ShadowSocialMedia or Why Won’t People Use the Product the Way They’re Supposed to

Scott Berkun dislikes the way people are using images to bypass Twitter’s 140 character limit:

His point is very valid, but:

Which is the issue. Sometimes there’s a need to go beyond that limit. Sure, you can chunk your thoughts up across multiple tweets, but users find it burdensome to respect Twitter’s constraint on the amount of text per tweet. Constrained customers, assuming they stick with a product, tend to come up with “creative” solutions to that product’s shortcomings that reflect what they value. The customers’ values may well conflict with the developers’. When “conflict” and “customer” are in the same sentence, there’s generally a problem..

Berkun’s response to @honatwork‘s rebuttal nearly captures the issue:

I say “nearly”, because Twitter was built long before 2015. The problem is that it’s 2015 and Twitter has not evolved to meet a need that clearly exists.

In the IT world, it’s common to hear terms like “Shadow IT” or “Rogue IT”. Both refer to users (i.e. customers) going beyond the pale of approved tools and techniques to meet a need. This poses a problem for IT in that the customer’s solution may not incorporate things that IT values and retrofitting those concerns later is far more difficult. Taking a “products, not projects” approach can minimize the need for customer “creativity”, for in-house IT and external providers.

Trying to hold back the tide just won’t work, because the purpose of the system is to meet the customers’ needs, not respect the designers’ intent.


9 thoughts on “#ShadowSocialMedia or Why Won’t People Use the Product the Way They’re Supposed to

  1. Your last sentence “the purpose of the system is to meet the customers’ needs, not respect the designers’ intent” needs to be pasted across the screens of every IT professional and recited every morning like a pledge of allegiance, “I pledge allegiance to my customers’ needs …”

    However, sometimes users may pick the wrong tool for the job. If you want to transport a refrigerator, use a van not a Mini Cooper. Don’t blame the Mini if it breaks down. If you want to send 3 paragraphs of text use email. That said, perhaps Twitter could satisfy customer needs by adding functionality so a person could email all their twitter followers. I would also add that people who receive tweets are expecting niblets of information and are probably annoyed when a tweet contains 3 paragraphs. But asking tweeters to respect their audience is too much to expect.


    • Thanks!

      There’s definitely a balancing act between meeting needs and losing focus (and it’s much harder finding that balance for providers like Twitter than it is for in-house IT). That being said, when something becomes a “trend”, it’s time to take notice.


  2. Interesting article, Gene! I’m wondering if the Twitter example is perhaps an unfortunate one for two reasons:

    1. Twitter’s users are not customers – they are product. Twitter’s actual customers are the companies who pay to advertise on their site or access their user data.

    Thus, users have very limited leverage to influence the experience one way or another, and the small percentage of people who can’t work within the given constraints are not likely to be worth jeopardizing their value proposition over. They are valuable minuscule data point in aggregated demographic data.

    2. The 140-character limit isn’t simply designer choice – it is a major part of their value proposition to their uses. Constraint breeds creativity and forces users to choose their words carefully. That’s what makes it fun, and removing that constraint would be a major buzz-kill.

    I mean, would MacGuyver had been a better TV show if they had given him access to unlimited resources? No! Duct tape, a gum wrapper, and WD40… now make a radio!


    • Hi Dan,

      1. The fact that Twitter’s customers are the product makes it even more important to cater to them – the more of them there are, the more valuable the product. I’ll partly agree that individuals have limited influence, however the do have big draws who have lots of followers. There’s an incentive to keep the flowers happy to draw in more bees.

      2. People would definitely balk at 50MB tweets in their timeline. That being said, adding an ellipsis hyperlink when the text went beyond 140 characters would be trivial (the images are a link) and you would then have the metrics on who had their ellipses clicked and how often (new data to sell). Challenges can be opportunities!



  3. Why Won’t People Use the Product the Way They’re Supposed to?

    For the same reason a person who carries just one screwdriver in a pocket uses it as an awl to puncture cans, a scraper to get gunk from a surface, a chisel and crow bar to separate things stuck together. On the other hand, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    With social media, if your buddies have nails, you use a hammer.


  4. Sometimes, not only is a product is targeted to a particular audience (aka market), such as group medical practices, auto body shops, or banks, but so is the sales force and product support. The company hires or trains people who know how to sell, guide, and support that audience.

    If someone thinks that the product has broader applicability, a diligent company will investigate to determine what options, changes or enhancements are necessary to delight customers and users so as to enter, compete, and succeed in that market. Changes might be needed to the product, life cycle, pricing, sales, delivery model, and support.

    Not wanting to incur customer unhappiness, such a company may very well refuse to sell their product for off-label usage to an audience it can’t handle. They may work together with a few competent, fully-disclosed-to customers in a new audience for the purpose of learning that audience and their needs.

    Many products have made these leaps. MUMPS spread from hospitals to financial services. Spreadsheets expanded from an accounting application to become a general purpose tool. However, everything has limitations, sometimes well documented, sometimes not. For example, prior to MicroSoft Office 2010, Excel’s Poisson distribution statistical function was unnecessarily limited in the domain (input parameters) it could handle. Was it defective? No. It produced correct results or returned an #VALUE error. Could you write a VB function in Excel that handled the broadest possible domain? Yes. Could the product be improved? Yes, and it was, after 20 years.


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