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.