UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 635 March 18, 2011

In Defense of Design Customization

Design customization has developed a bad reputation recently, with MySpace being the main target of criticism. However, just because some of MySpace’s pages may be seizure-inducing, it doesn’t mean that social media sites should abandon design customization. By giving users a moderate amount of control over page design without allowing them to disrupt the core interface, a site can provide a better overall user experience.

This issue is particularly important because more companies and individuals are spreading their online presence from their own domains onto social media sites. This migration makes the customization decisions by sites like Twitter and Facebook increasing important in shaping our online experience.

What Is Design Customization?

The focus of this article is on user-generated content and social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, where users can customize a profile page that is viewed by others. On sites such as these, design customization is typically grouped into three primary levels: fill-in-the-blank customization, visual customization, and interface customization.

Level 1: Fill-in-the-blank customization

This approach is used by Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, Yelp, Lunch, FourSquare, Flickr and Quora, and is the most popular, as well as the most limited, method of design customization. Users fill in a form with their personal information on one page, and that data is placed into specific areas on the users' profile pages.

Level 2: Visual customization

This method is used by Twitter, MeetUp, Evite and others. With visual customization, users can add images and colors to the background of their page, as well as customize the color palette of the interface. These design controls can impact the entire page or just a limited area, such as is the case with Twitter. Visual customization is almost always used in combination with fill-in-the-blank customization.

Level 3: Interface customization

Interface customization is the MySpace model, which allows design control over the interface or the content area of the page. It impacts the design of the page within the margins and allows for placement and layout changes, rich text editors for text blocks, the addition of new content, and—gulp—CSS control. It is almost always used in combination with fill-in-the-blank customization and visual customization.

The Drawbacks of Customization

We’ve all had the misfortune of having visited some eye-searing MySpace pages. However, the main culprit is not design customization in general, but interface customization specifically, because it allows the core interface of the page to be changed. This is problematic for many reasons, including:

  • Inconsistency between profile pages. If the profile pages on a site are inconsistent with each other, users have to reorient themselves with each page they view. This increases their cognitive load, makes tasks more difficult and time-consuming, and reduces the feeling of intuitiveness on a site.
  • Poor page design. Interface customization allows non-designers to make user interface decisions. This can result in poor prioritization, contrast, balance and text legibility, not to mention animated GIFs, poorly sized images that break a page’s grid system, and other disasters.
  • Increased development time and resources. Designing defaults, defining and building in limitations, as well as testing are very time-consuming. The more opportunities for customization, the more design and development resources are needed.

The Benefits of Customization

Unlike interface customization, which allows users to control the design of many page elements, visual customization entails only giving users moderate design control, and doesn’t allow them the freedom to make the design mistakes listed above. Visual customization also offers the following benefits:

  • It gives the contributor a sense of ownership. I’ve often heard the expression: “Users love to customize their own page, but they hate it when others customize.” In my experience at Lunch.com, users constantly push the limits of design customization. Facebook users have the same urge, as Mashable reported recently in a fascinating example of users being creative with their Facebook profiles.

    With visual customization, the designed area is limited to the outskirts of the page. This allows the site to retain the integrity of the original design interface, as well as an overall consistency and cohesiveness across user profiles. As a result, visual customization has very little impact on usability, but gives the contributor a feeling of ownership.
  • It assists users in employing their visual judgment. When we use the Web, or make observations of any kind, we use rapid visual judgment to make decisions. On a website, these judgments are made based on visual cues related to design quality, appropriateness, spamminess, and so forth. Without visual customization, users are unable to make these judgments as efficiently and intuitively.

    Social media sites can compensate by giving other cues to help users make decisions (the verified account badge on Twitter is one example). However, if users are unable to use this visual judgment because page designs are not differentiated, it will deprive them of their valuable ability to make an intuitive reaction, and could result in a reduced feeling of control.
  • It allows a consistent visual presentation across a user’s online presence. This is true if your users are companies with an existing brand or if they’re individuals who just want to exhibit their personality. Compare the Facebook and Twitter pages for the same person, company, or band. Twitter’s interface is truly a blank canvas, and users can completely brand their page. On the other hand, attempts to brand a page on Facebook seem a bit forced, and the user’s brand elements compete with Facebook’s blue color palette. I’m not saying that either way is right or wrong, I’m just observing the contrast in styles.

    Here are a couple examples that illustrate this contrast:With more companies and individuals moving a larger portion of their online presence to social media sites, being able to retain a visual brand across their online presence is increasingly important and challenging.

Conclusion

I don’t claim to know what type of customization is ideal for Twitter, Facebook, or any other site. That decision depends entirely on a site’s business needs and users’ needs.

My main point is that, generally speaking, moderate design customization can be very beneficial to a user experience and it’s unfortunate that the ghastly profiles on MySpace have swung people’s opinion of design customization too far in a negative direction. However, breaking down the levels of customization reveals that only excessive customization is harmful. By allowing only moderate user design controls, a site can retain the usability of its core interface while providing an improved overall user experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Andrew Turrell lives in Los Angeles and is Director of User Experience at RED Interactive Agency. He is also an adjunct professor of Interaction Design at the University of Baltimore M.S. in Interaction Design and Information Architecture program. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewturrell, or check out his LinkedIn profile.

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Comments

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@Andrew:

As for AOL, customization is surely not about usability but rather enhances the overall experience and gives a very nice bit of ownership and feel for the portal. In case of BBC, this "next level" thing is a kind of consensus, which I am not a true believer of. I personally think that in case of portals of such size the ratio of passive (or "read-only" :) ) users is so big that the customization features are not serving the masses but some piece of the long tail. And that is why I agree that there is too much interface elements, considering that these are only for a portion of the audience.

Another thing that came to my mind and partly related to Adam's comment:
I wonder when will the likes of flavours.me find its way to the big community sites like Facebook. What I mean in this case is that the service provides you certain tools to set up your profile, and this tools are very easy to use and results in very deep and unique customization. Something like "do big things with a hammer and nails" approach. As I see the new MySpace already did this move in its own way - too bad that the system fails for several other reasons. But it would be interesting to see as a trend in case of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.

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Great blog! The information you provide is quiet helpful, why I was not able to find it earlier. Anyways I’ve subscribed to your feeds, keep the good work up.

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Personally I don't understand why Facebook doesn't allow the slightest changes to colors on the page. I think it could be done similarly to what Twitter does- changing background and general colors of elements doesn't destroy the whole feel of the site. All the elements and buttons are placed in its place and it's not difficult for the users to find their ways on the site. Of course it should have some borders because otherwise you could make the same mistake as Myspace did- allowing users to clutter and destroy their pages with loads of stuff

All in all- thank you for putting it together into this article, good work!

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In response to Jordan and Csaba's comments, customization on sites like iGoogle, AOL and BBC can improve the user experience, if done effectively. It gives users the feeling of ownership and makes them feel more invested in the site, which encourages them to visit more frequently. However, excessive use of interface controls can add clutter and complication of the interface, which makes the information less scannable. And, like with social media sites, a huge expense of time and resources is required with any customization. So make sure there's a clear user need.

In 2009, the Neilsen Norman Group did some research on this topic. In general, they reported very little change in task success between customized and non-customized sites. Here's the report, if you want to shell out $64, http://www.nngroup.com/reports/customization/, or there's a free, summarized version: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/customization.html.

As for the sites you mentioned: An iGoogle page starts with virtually nothing, and is built by the user. There isn't a fully-formed default mode. In that context, letting the user position the elements seems to make a lot of sense and fits with that model.

On AOL.com, the customizations are so minimal that there really isn't an impact on usability, but I agree, Csaba, it is a nice touch. In this case, it was probably more of a branding decision than anything else.

BBC, obviously, takes it to the next level, and even allows users to customize the BBC mobile site and iPhone app! My first impression is that the customization elements are distracting, and makes the content on the page more difficult to scan. There are interface elements all over the page, and the hover state for each module, a thick border, is a bit heavy-handed.

Having an 'edit' mode for the page would be preferable, in my opinion. LinkedIn is a good example of this. The modal approach keeps the customization controls from overwhelming the interface, but still makes them clearly discoverable. The ability to hide the customization controls would also be a nice option. Another point about BBC: because all of the modules are interchangeable, they look the same, and there isn't the nice priority or flow that you'll find on nicely designed content sites.

Thanks for the comments, Jordan and Csaba! I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on these sites as well.

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As for the wider web, and especially mass media, I think the current AOL.com customization (upper right corner -> "change canvas") is a nice best practice. It gives just a slight plus, but means a lot. I think this kind of little extra is even better than deeper content customization, as seen on bbc.co.uk - if these two can even be compared.

But as Jordan suggested above: some follow-up would be nice to see, there are many ways to go on with this train of thought (specific markets/users/types of service, etc.).

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I know this article was focused on social networks, but I'd love to see a follow-up post on the value design customization outside of social media.

I have two questions:

1. Does design customization enhance a users experience for sites that don't allow other users to view the customized profile? (i.e. iGoogle, or the secure section of a bank website.)

2. Is design customization a better solution for content-rich sites than the typical filters & facets? (i.e. bbc.co.uk)

Would love to hear your thoughts.