Crawling from the wreckageFive social media lessons for avoiding disaster

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Please don't demolish my house

I like to think there are lessons to be had from even the oddest event.

Take today's "holy-crap!" story currently making the rounds of the digital watercoolers: that poor guy in Georgia whose house was torn down by mistake. Reports say the demolition crew went to the wrong location, reducing a half-century-old brick house to rubble. There's also been some suggestion that overreliance on GPS coordinates may have played a role in the error.

What can those of us in the online world take away from this event (other than "never, ever leave your house", which is probably wrong) (although come to think of it, many of us seem to abide by that advice)? How can we avoid our own inadvertent piles of smouldering debris? Here's my list of five lessons... some of them, admittedly, a stretch.

  • Clear communications are critical. We like to pride ourselves on the clear instructions we give to our design and development partners: exactly what workflow we'd like, where a particular hierarchy is important, and where there's space for them to improvise or suggest improvements. Being as clear as possible about the things that matter - and as clear as possible about the boundaries of any wiggle room - has saved us countless headaches, and saved our clients a lot of money.
  • The longer the workflow, the more likely it is to break down. In this case, the people actually wielding the backhoe were apparently subcontractors to the subcontractor hired by the contractor. Similarly, if you're requiring your community members to jump through multiple hoops - page after page of registration forms, or several copy-this-url-then-paste-it-in-this-box steps - not all of them are going to make it.
  • What's obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone. I'm not suggesting that you should be pitching your documentation and interface to the kind of people who'd knock down a perfectly good house without double-checking. But bear in mind that, if you've been developing an application or a web site, you've been down in the weeds for a while. Your prospective users haven't. So you may need to guide them a lot more thoroughly than you might think. One way to get a handle on that: usability testing.
  • Confirmation screens can be life-savers. Would that the bulldozer and backhoe on that Carroll County property had been equipped with "Are you sure you want to knock this house down? y/n" dialog boxes. Before you let your users do something life-alteringly destructive, give them a chance or two to rethink things: "Do you really want to delete all your photos?" "Really remove your profile? You will be unable to restore it if you do." "Are you sure you want to send this sex video to all 12,493 people in your address book?" And use unambiguous explanations on the buttons: "YES, I'm really quite impressive in it." "NO! This was a private, beautiful moment between me and the cast of The West Wing, and I don't want to cheapen it."
  • People trump technology. It's so tempting to put all your eggs in the tech basket, spending your entire budget on beautiful design and rich features. But a community relies on talented, dedicated animators. So just as relying unquestionably on GPS coordinators may have steered the contractors in Georgia wrong (the news reports are unclear at the moment), relying on technology alone to get your community off the ground won't do you much good, either. In each case, what you need are good, smart people... with solid, sound judgement.

By the way, if you're still worried that your house could be vulnerable to misdirected sledgehammers - or if you'd just like a handy reminder that crap happens - here's the PDF for our "Please don't demolish my house" sticker. It'll look great just above your "Firefighters, please save my Drobo" sticker.



Alexandra Samuel says

June 12, 2009 - 2:56pm

Rob, thanks so much for writing this. I'd note that your second point applies to web development too: layers of subcontractors mean more opportunities for things to go astray, unless you've got a project manager holding all the pieces together.

Now I'm rushing home to put a sticker on our front door.

Mark Evertz says

June 12, 2009 - 3:49pm

Rob...this is awesome, because it is true. Ding! Ding! on the Workflow comment. My sticker's going up tonight.


Mark, aka Ev



Bryan says

June 12, 2009 - 4:01pm

Great post, Rob. One complaint, though:

Your title is too limiting.  These aren't just "Five social media lessons", they're five business lessons, technology lessons, project management lessons, relationship lessons...








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