Anonymous Social Networks | UX Research Challenges and Tips for Overcoming Them

Meisjes met schooltassen / Girls witch satchels Nationaal Archief / Spaarnestad Photo / W.P.W. van de Hoef, SFA003001968 via The Commons

Meisjes met schooltassen / Girls witch satchels

Nationaal Archief / Spaarnestad Photo / W.P.W. van de Hoef, SFA003001968

via The Commons

Anonymous social apps such as Whisper and Secret are becoming all the rage and for some exciting, if controversial, reasons. Users of these systems can share candid ideas, thoughts, and concerns, benefitting from a new shield of privacy and an opportunity for richer expression without the negative social consequences that regular social media create -from humble accountability to overexposure and threats to personal safety.

Communications tools live and die by their level of adoption by a network of users. This use and adoption is critical tied to how well its creators understand and address its users’ needs and behaviors. Because the users of these social apps are anonymous, they pose uniquely new challenges to understanding and learning from users, aka ‘doing user research’.

Key Challenges of Understanding and Learning from Anonymous Users

We have a lot more to learn about this emerging space, but here are three immediate user research challenges to consider:

1. Identifying users for feedback

Finding, selecting, and building a relationship with actual users to gather feedback from can be a daunting task. Being identified is in direct opposition to why people use anonymous social apps, so it’s safe to say it may be difficult to recruit a specific group of individuals based on their personal identities who are willing to have their use of these applications tracked for testing purposes. When one is able to recruit testers, their feedback is likely to be couched by the fact they can be identified. This is especially true if you are trying to test a new anonymous app that doesn’t even have an anonymous user pool that you can draw from.

2. Collecting feedback over time

Relatedly, if you aren’t able to access a particular user’s contact information such as name or email, then you won’t be able to target specific demographics, reach out to them directly to ask specific questions, or link their new feedback to prior feedback over time. In this way, collecting longitudinal data or ‘within subjects’ insights about app use over time appear to be painful if not impossible, especially if you are dealing with a new anonymous social apps starting from scratch.

3. Observing actual use and response

Observing actual use of an app — absolutely necessary if you want to identify usability issues — is tricky enough to tackle even with user testers who are willing and forthcoming as participants. Further complicating matters, it’s hard to replicate and observe authentic use when the core interactions involve a spontaneous, confessional, and even embarrassing messages that take place ‘in the wild’. Structuring or forcing this type of behavior could generate misleading results from activities that users would not do in real life.

Three Tips for Overcoming These Challenges

Based on my limited experience in this space so far, here are some ways to think differently about user research and overcome these challenges to stay close to users:

1. Recruit an informant or anonymous nicknames

For new or emerging anonymous apps, instead of trying to recruit actual people (as in gathering friends or testers with names and email addresses) consider using an ‘informant’, or middleman, that can create an more natural introduction of the app to his or her peers via conversations and initial use patterns, and gather and report back peer feedback, never revealing his or her ‘sources’. It’s a given that you’ll also want this person to be reliable in actually recording feedback and keeping good notes.

For anonymous social apps with existing users, consider reaching out via DM to users with varying levels of engagement to ask them if they would like to participate in user research, ensuring them that you have no idea of their actual identity but are interested based on their activity. Stress that all research responses will be kept confidential. Survey links to tools like Google Docs and Survey Monkey can be sent directly via DM to anonymous nicknames, enabling the proactive gathering of specific data over time.

2. Create a ‘needs’ control group

In order to collect a broader set of user ‘needs’ data, or understanding about the app’s potential use and desirability, consider recruiting a parallel group of identifiable people that are not users of the app (or at least not known to be). For example, conduct a simple survey with college students about their current modes of expression and/or confession, not requiring them to use the app. This will allow you to build a base of knowledge that will supplement information you receive via observing anonymous user activity, and act as an antidote to the limitations of observing and collected data on current users only.

3. Don’t force testers to create their own posts

Lastly, one must find a way to replicate use in order to observe, identify, and measure actual usability issues. I strongly suggest still conducting structured, in-person user tests, but instead of relying on testers to provide the (typically) highly personal and potentially incriminating posts, one option is to create a set of pre-written posts reflecting a spectrum of emotion, activity, and confession. Then, allow testers to use this set to identify which posts ‘jump out’ at them (but not necessarily which they personally relate to), which they would interact with, and which ones they might post themselves. These are good approximations to replicate authentic use while minimizing the embarrassment and incrimination factor of candid content.

It’s exciting times for both users and creators of anonymous social networks. Don’t let the hurdles of anonymity hold you back from getting the user insights you need to build a successful product.