In 2016, after leading multiple initiatives on the Marketing and Sales platform teams at LinkedIn for two and half years, I moved over the consumer team to tackle some of the toughest challenges faced by the content and feed team. I took on the redesign effort of the following ecosystem.
LINKEDIN'S AGE OLD PROBLEM
LinkedIn, as a social networking site for professionals, faced an age old problem - what do our members want to see in their feed? And how do we get them to engage?
In the back of our minds, we all had our own assumptions of this problem, but it was only validated in its truest form when we did exploratory research at beginning of this project.
To kick off the project, we interviewed a total of 8 LinkedIn members, a good mix of both active and inactive folks with various number of connections. We simply asked them to go through their feed as usual, and think out loud as they scrolled through their feed.
DISAPPOINTMENTS AND EXPECTATIONS
For members with a lot of connections, a large portion of their feed updates turned out to be irrelevant for them. Diving deeper, we found many of their connections consisted of coworkers from previous jobs, and people they knew back in school. Because many of these connections from the past either worked in completely different industries, or are individuals whom members did not need to hear from on a daily basis.
This, of course had to do a lot with how most people used LinkedIn in the first place. Many members did not make a major effort to connect with colleagues until AFTER they have left. It's a very common phenomenal to end a good bye email along the lines of "I wish to stay connected with many of you after I leave, here's my email and please connect with me on LinkedIn!".
For those who are less active on LinkedIn with very few connections, we discovered their feeds were very limited. An old update from a few days ago, and some poor connection recommendations based on their half filled profiles. For these members, they did not understand the value of a LinkedIn feed at all.
Some quotes from these early findings summed up our user’s expectations pretty well -
"To me, LinkedIn today is a place where you stayed in touch with people you work or have worked with... And that's exactly what I (barely) use it for."
“I only use LinkedIn when I’m looking for a job or something… I guess I can connect to people too, but I barely do it because I don’t see much value from it”
To dive deeper into people’s expectations, we asked them what would they expect from a “professional social network”, or what does the word “professional” even mean to them.
Differing from other social networks, people wanted to see content that’s related to their current jobs, instead of the day to day updates shared by some coworker from a previous company. On top of that, people wanted to read content from industry movers and shakers, and engage in meaningful conversations with like minded professionals. People wanted content with concrete, actionable insights that could directly impact their career.
For those who are less active on LinkedIn, they expected more than just finding a job and hitting the apply button, as such tasks can be accomplished on many other job sites. They actively sought out information from different sources and websites to help with their interviews and job search. They wished for a single go to place that funneled such content and resources to aid them in their job search journey.
Luckily, LinkedIn was already headed down this direction. With the development of our Influencer platform, and our publishing capabilities, LinkedIn is slowly evolving into a place where people shared their professional stories and learnings. From everyday working people like you and I, to industry movers and shakers such as Bill Gates and Angela Ahrendts. With the right sources populating your feed, LinkedIn was a great place to keep up to date with latest industry trends, and a source for materials to aid your professional growth.
But as it quickly became apparent through our research, there was a huge disconnect between people’s existing behavior and understanding of LinkedIn, versus the value that LinkedIn is now offering to our members. We needed to build an experience to bridge this gap.
A HARSH DISCOVERY
To bridge this gap, we needed to help members find the high quality content on the platform. To do this, design synthesised the team’s hypothesis and ideas down to two primary approaches - a serendipitous in-feed discovery experience, and an explicit, dedicated experience for discovering new content sources.
We worked with the research team to establish a very continuous research process, where we brought 3-4 people in for interviews on a weekly basis for four weeks. Iterating on the concepts and ideas on a weekly and sometimes daily basis depending on the results we hear from each session.
Information would surface organically in the feed, informing members with trending articles while they were absent from the platform. The key here is to getting the right information based on what we already knew about the members based on their profile.
A dedicated experience for users to control their feed. Here, members can unfollow past coworkers while staying connected, follow topics and people that are most relevant to their current career, and even prioritize the types of content based on their current career trajectory.
Going into the process, I leaned heavily towards the first solution. An organic discovery centric experience in the feed is such an elegant, simple solution, I told myself and others. Instead of building a features and screens, which would require additional maintenance, it’s much more simple to integrate into the already robust feed platform. Instead figuring out entry points and ways to drive users into a seperate experience, it’s much more elegant to just have engaging content displayed in the experience people are already in.
However, in the very early sessions, it quickly became apparent in how different people’s expectations were versus how we viewed LinkedIn internally. Many of our research participants dismissed the “highly valuable customized” feed updates all together, as many of them did not expect LinkedIn to offer such content, while others questioned how relevant the content would be for them in a real world scenario.
Many of the participants gravitated towards the second prototype. For the first time ever, they realized they could follow someone who they did not know personally, and receive interesting updates from these people in their own feed. The unfollow capability was also extremely well received, as many members expressed interest in unfollowing their old coworkers, so they wouldn’t receive people’s daily updates, but still maintain a professional relationship that they might leverage at a future date.
EMBRACE THE UNKNOWN
After the first few sessions, the team quickly regrouped and debriefed on our learnings. It was at this time design made the call to embrace our learnings. While the first solution maybe elegant and simple, it was clear that our members needed additional education to see LinkedIn the same way our internal employees saw it, a place to consume interesting and educational content that helped with ones career growth.
From there, we started to iterate on the best way to help discover the true value these content sources offer on LinkedIn. We sliced and diced the information in many different ways, testing them along the way with our users in research sessions.
DISCOVERING THE BEST WAY TO DISCOVER
Initially, we thought the second approach would be rather straightforward. Just like in our early prototypes, it would simply be a place where people could follow new content sources, unfollow their old colleagues or connections who are spammy, and prioritize what they see in their feed.
But as it turns out, nothing is ever straightforward. Our candidates reacted vastly different based on the way information was surfaced to them. Some people preferred to pick their own areas of interest, while others want to see engaging content before seeing the sources. Some members only cared if the source had a big name, others used social proof as an indication of whether the content source is worth following or not.
Based on these discoveries, design started to explore a number of different options, testing each concept as we went. The key was striking a balance between making our best guesses in our member’s interest, while letting people easily pick and choose different topics and interests as they wished.
TO UNFOLLOW OR NOT TO UNFOLLOW
Another big part of this exercise is creating an experience to educate members on the capability to unfollow a connection. Through our sessions, we found candidates getting really anxious whenever we talked about the act of unfollowing. Digging deeper, people were afraid to unfollow professional connections, even if its people they haven’t talked to in years. Knowing that their past colleagues might notice this and feel offended created a lot of social anxiety around this particular action.
Although people are already used to similar unfollow behaviors on other social networks, the professional nature of LinkedIn added a extra layer of social consideration when taking such actions. Will my schoolmate or past colleague be offended when they see this? Does this mean I’m burning my bridge? Do they get a notification everytime someone unfollows them? Am I still connected with people I unfollow? The list of concerns goes on.
We realized that to alleviate such concerns, we must be extremely explicit and clear in our messaging. We started by exploring different wordings such as “hide”, which sounded like a much lighter action; or “mute”, which directly have to do with their “voice” in the feed being hidden from you.
The challenge came when we needed the opposite action for content sources you wanted to hear from in your feed, without connecting with them. Words like “unhide” or “unmute” clearly did not work for these use cases. On top of that, following someone and then muting them sometimes at a later date did not make sense either.
In the end, after exploring the different options, the team came back to the action of “follow” and “unfollow”. We shifted our focus to educating the action of unfollow. Emphasizing on the fact one will still remain connected to their connections.
STEP ZERO, AND THAT IS OK.
This project was not the "ground shattering" project that changed how users behaved on LinkedIn. Instead, it acted as the foundation for LinkedIn to become a place where one can follow industry leaders, and discover professional content. For the first time ever, our members had a place to manage and fine tune what they wanted to see in their feed.
As a result, for members who went through the experience and followed more than five content sources, we saw an increase of 4% for actions taken in their feed. And for those who have unfollowed various connections and sources they no longer engage in, we saw their repeat visits to LinkedIn increase over the month that followed.
With this as the foundation, the team was able to kick off a series of feed engagement experiments, such as landing dormant memebers in a empty feed with entry point to the follow hub, and experimenting with different tie ins and entry points dynamically based on member's current engagement with the platform.