In the last post, I wrote about the “Stack Fallacy” and why many apps fail going social. The gist of it is that the social layer is really another “stack” sitting on top of the base app, with very different user requirements than that of the base app. You can read up on it here.

In this and the next few posts I’ll highlight a few specific examples of sub-optimal decisions (in terms of engaging users) we see app developers make time and again when building the social layer for their apps. This post will discuss why app makers specifically need to reconsider the ubiquitous “comments after articles” UI, while later posts will talk about the perils of over-censoring users, and the problem with limiting what content users are allowed to share.

Comments after articles. 


Photo credit: Moodle

We can generalize this feature to “comment sections after individual pieces of content”. This is a very popular user interface – you see it in news apps, in food apps, in fluffy puppy apps – pretty much every app that wants to do social puts in comment boards as their first feature. So why is this less-than-optimal UI for engaging users? Let’s say you have a news app and over the past month your app has uploaded 1,000 articles and there is 1 comment posted after every article. That’s 1,000 comments – nice! The problem is, when any one user visits your app, she probably only reads 1-2 articles, in which case she only sees that 1-2 comments have been posted. The fundamental tenet of social is that users like to do what they see other users doing. Conversely, they are less likely to do things they do NOT see other users doing. So if a user only sees 1-2 comments posted, at best she comes to the conclusion that leaving comments is not a normal thing to do in your app, so she also does not leave comments. In this case, you’ve bloated your app with a feature people don’t want. At worst, she may conclude that your app is not very popular, because if a large amount of user interaction is positive social proof for your app, then the lack of interactions is negative proof, and she may actually leave your app. In this case, your social feature actually decreased engagement.

“But wait”, you might say, “Facebook and Instagram use comment board UI and they are wildly successful!” So what gives?

Facebook users start out much more likely to engage because Facebook is a close network of friends where people post for people they know. When users comment on a post or a picture, they are engaging with their friend, more than they are engaging with the content itself. For most apps, which are not inherently social, commenting does the opposite – it engages with the content rather than with someone you know, so the initial impetus to engage is much lower. Instagram generalizes Facebook’s engagement model through “influencers”. Each Instagram account is essentially a personal “channel” where an influencer cultivates friend-like relationships with followers and distributes targeted content to them. Comment boards are not what’s engaging users for Facebook and Instagram – the structure of their community provides the impetus to engage, and comments are simply the end result.

Our suggestion. Unlike FB or Instagram, most apps distribute content for a general audience, where the impetusChannels_home_licensed to engage is far lower at the start. In these cases, we suggest aggregating user posts so users perceive communication and engagement as normative and popular things to do in the app, and that in turn creates motivation for further engagement. When we were designing the AppFriends plugin, we consciously made a decision NOT to provide comment boards after individual articles. Instead, we give apps public chat channels that aggregate user messages based on topic, so they do not dilute engagement among individual pieces of content.

We also suggest adopting influencer-curation models like Instagram – in fact, almost any app can do so. Every app has power users, and you can empower them with the tools to curate content and engage with other users. AppFriends chat channels, for example, can be created by power users who take ownership of their own channel and personally engage with followers.

Other things you can do include building features that capture “passive” user engagement: i.e. activity feeds that show users what other users are doing in the app, whether or not they actually post something. Or showing “number of views” that tick up every time someone views a piece of content, so whether or not anyone comments or likes, their interaction with the content is recorded to provide social proof to other users.