Rethinking Social Media Plugin Use on the Web

In our endeavors on the web, it is easy, for those who have a hand in contributing to it, to reach for the low hanging fruit. Social plugins are a popular example of this. They are easy to install and often give us the impression that we are adding valuable content enhancements to our sites, an easy win. There are several factors one must consider before adding such things to our own or our client’s sites. We may also need to adjust our thinking in what it now means to create a well-balanced experience for all users.

Question Everything

The first thing we need to do is stop and ask ourselves questions. Lots of them. Are social plugins even needed on our site? What are the benefits, if any, of including them? Are we adding them for the sake of adding them or do we have well defined business goals in place that justify their use? The arrival of mobile and responsive design has changed the way many now view the web and throws into question ideas we once thought of as “best practice”. In the case of social plugins, we will often include them within a desktop version of our site and abandon them on a mobile version or a responsive site.

Why?

What makes having this content present less important under mobile or responsive conditions? If we can strip out such things from our small-screen experiences, what benefits will desktop users gain by being able to interact with them? The experience should be an equal one. Our content transcends screen sizes. We are now seeing a growing number of users who interact with what we create across many devices. Ensuring that we serve a consistent experience across these devices is a smart strategy.

Can I Ever Use Plugins?

It depends (and I know that you all just love that answer). If one does not have an excellent reason for adding social plugins, then it may be wise to err on the side of caution. Unless you are doing something that is truly spectacular with a Social API, plugins are fast becoming white noise on the web. There is no shame in simply linking out to each respective social media site from within our own sites. We have been doing such things for twenty-five years. The backbone of the web is the humble, yet powerful hyperlink. There is no need to cram it all into one space. Social media sites also handle themselves well (and you get much more out of them than you would by interacting with a tiny iframe). Our primary goal is to give users what they need and trust that they will return to the experiences we craft because it has served them well. These are sometimes hard conversations to have with our clients, but we need to have them nonetheless.

But My Client Needs It!

If our clients decide that the content social plugins bring is a necessity, then we should consider using them across all browsers. Regardless of screen size. While it pains me to say it, we cannot be hypocritical. The door swings both ways here. Before you celebrate, though, there are some other important things that we must consider…

Performance

Performance has become a hot topic lately, especially now that we are building sites that need to work well on many devices. Mobile device users have data plans and our sites also need to be accessible over varying connection speeds. It is irresponsible to create an experience without any regard for these factors. Do social widgets fit in here or do they only serve to hinder the core experience?

We must be mindful of the decisions we now make. Performance has just as great an impact on the experience as engaging content or design might have. It is often the things we can’t see that are the easiest to forget about. If we are not handling performance well, we could be jeopardizing the entire experience. A site that performs poorly can leave a negative impression on our end users, which could damage a client’s brand. Imagine yourself on a big name brand website that takes a long time to load. Will you leave, frustrated, and visit a competitors site or complain about it on social media (or both)? Google now factors in site speed into ranking as well. Are plugins worth it now?

Privacy

Social widgets track user movement. Is that acceptable for the companies we are doing business with on the web? It might not be. How well versed are we in our client’s privacy policies?

Security

The web is replete with security issues. Are you opening yourself up to further risk by including plugins? You might be, so we need to approach with caution.

Final Thoughts

As always, keep in mind that we are stewards of our client’s brand and must ensure that we are creating as wonderful an experience as we possibly can for their users. That is our responsibility as makers. The time for gimmicks, fads, or attempts to buck the system in a vain attempt to attract more visitors is a waste of time. Let’s focus that energy on creating useful websites and applications for all instead!

My New Email Signature

Things I am considering adding to my work email signature:

  1. Did you clear your browser cache?
  2. Does the client need IE8 support?
  3. No, you can’t have widgets.
  4. No carousels without an exceptionally good reason.
  5. No. Just no.
  6. Web standards.

Accessibility is a constant

Congratulations on the launch of your awesome new site! Hearty handshakes and back slaps all around! You launched on time (and under budget) and have met all of your client’s business requirements, one of which was to have the site meet certain accessibility guidelines. You are feeling pretty proud of yourself right now, web gunslinger, but hold on there…are you really done?

Far too often this is where concern for accessibility ends. This is particularly true of bigger sites or applications. The problem is that during the lifetime of a website, frequent updates will be made. Features will come and go. The same can also be said of designers and developers, some of whom may not be all that familiar with the importance of accessibility. This is when the experience can quickly degrade into a nightmare for disabled users. When this begins to happen, it can then become very difficult and costly to address the issues that arise from it at a later date, so it is best to work in a strategy for success sooner. Here are three suggestions you can leverage on your own projects:

  1. Always go into each project with the right attitude! Be ever mindful of the fact that the web is for all, and that equal access to content and features is not only the right thing to provide for all, but that it will also reflect well upon your client and their brand. That’s a good thing! As stewards of your client’s brand, you want to create a positive experience for all.
  2. Work closely with your Quality Assurance team. Explain the importance of accessibility to them and work out an internal plan for frequent scans and reviews, especially if you are adding new features to a site, application or product, on a regular basis.
  3. If you have one, work accessibility scans and code reviews into your maintenance agreement. Two to three times a year should be adequate enough for many sites, but frequency will naturally depend on scope and complexity of the site or application.

Accessibility is a constant. With the right plan and attitude we can create a positive experience for all!

Pushing It Forward: The Web Turns 25

The World Wide Web turns 25 today. That is a long time, and yet, relatively speaking, it is but a drop in the bucket. The web is still in its infancy and yet it has also matured a great deal since the time many of us were first introduced to it. At its core, the web has changed very little since its inception. HTTP and HTML still rule the day and hyperlinks are as powerful a mechanism for connecting it all now, as they were in the very beginning. It has also been said that the power of the web lies in its ubiquity. A more honest statement has never been uttered. However, in my opinion, the web’s strongest and most overlooked asset has not been the technology itself, but the people behind it. The web is not only an interconnection of systems, but an interconnection of lives. Real flesh and blood lives. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to work on the web, no matter the capacity, and who has genuinely cared for its well being and future, are in fact, pioneers. This is an amazing point in our history. See what is before you here. You are a part of a grand experiment. Where it ends up is anybody’s guess, but no matter how great or small your contribution to the web has been, you, dear reader, have helped push it forward. All of us have, little by little, in our own unique and wonderful ways. This thought, more than most others I have had about the web, inspires me the most and I hope that it inspires you as well.

Thank you, Sir Tim, for this most awesome of inventions and a very happy birthday to you, information superhighway! Here is to the next 25 years!