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Social Similarities: Yammer, Facebook, and Why They Look Alike

If you’ve used Yammer and Facebook recently, you’ve probably noticed our similarities. In fact, if you are a regular user of both, you may even find that using one naturally prepares you to use the other. This feeling of familiarity, of course, is by design. For today’s user interfaces, there’s no such thing as plagiarism– only seamless, simple usability.

Yammer and Facebook share a lot of visual and interactive design elements, a natural consequence of the fact that Facebook and Yammer are both solving similar problems with similar product development methodologies. Generally speaking, Facebook’s mission is to empower people to share and connect with their friends and family. Yammer’s mission is to empower employees to share and connect with each other and their company. Given that the first two thirds of those sentences are the same, its no surprise that Yammer and Facebook have very similar interfaces.

The minimalist design aesthetic that dominates both products is a direct result of a shared velocity-centric and data-driven approach to UI design. One of Facebook’s engineering mantras is “Move fast and break things”. Although we at Yammer are less keen on breaking things because of our enterprise audience, moving fast is certainly one of the most essential virtues of our product development and engineering culture.

The reason for that is inherent in our freemium business model. Ultimately Yammer, like Facebook, depends on voluntary user adoption in order to be successful—a hallmark of consumer software that is brand new to enterprise. We believe that employees must voluntarily use social business software and demonstrate the value to each other and to the business before the company should pay for it— not the other way around.  And since sharing with your coworkers isn’t something that an IT department can mandate, we rely on our users themselves to constantly design and redesign our product. But how?

We depend on a consumer-inspired software development cycle that prioritizes usability and accessibility above all else. Like Facebook, that means we prioritize features that are intuitive and easy to adopt for new and casual users who are the majority over features that are custom and complex for a minority of advanced early adopters and power users. Doing the opposite would undermine the simple, flexible and “social” nature of our product— that which sets us apart from the costly pitfalls of bulky, traditional enterprise software. And as you can imagine, this requires a very different development methodology.

Keeping our product agile and usable to an ever-evolving user majority requires a highly iterative, data-driven software cycle. We make fast and furious changes to the product on a weekly basis so that we can send a minimum viable product to market, measure the effect (particularly on key metrics like engagement and retention), make improvements and repeat as quickly and as frequently as possible. Pioneered by consumer software companies like Facebook, this iterative and incremental approach to development is very different from that of most enterprise software companies, who tend to release brand new, fully developed features once a quarter, once a year or even once every few years. We like to think that it’s our product’s job to keep up with our users rather than forcing them to keep up with it.

This new way of building software for enterprise is called consumerization. Facebook executes this approach expertly for their consumer audience. Their UI is famously well-tested and modified constantly according to usability test results. They are known to A/B test most elements of their interface, including navigation, button placement, badge count colors, and even things like delay time between hovering over a feature and the appearance of the hovercard.

We at Yammer also rigorously test all UI elements across our large freemium user base. We then make quick product decisions based on which features get traction from the largest majority of users. If a large number of Yammer users start using it when it first hits the UI, chances are we’ll look to develop it further. This helps our enterprise product to stay strictly user-focused and constantly ahead of the curve, with all our resources focused on the most impactful features. Many other enterprise software UIs may look completely unique in every way—but chances are, that’s because user adoption isn’t #1 on their list of success metrics.

Since both Facebook and Yammer depend on our users to directly drive our product based on what they want to use the most, it’s no coincidence that the two interfaces look a lot alike. A good number of Yammer users are also Facebook users, making it more natural for them to navigate seamlessly between two similar UIs with a familiar look and feel. Knowing this, Yammer’s product design team will consciously include Facebook’s implementation as one of the options for consideration when testing a new feature with users. But because Yammer’s ever-evolving product is truly data driven, the users themselves ultimately decide the final design simply by using (or not using) the features.

As more and more software companies put users at the wheel of UI design, we at Yammer think that the name of the game is being unique where it matters most and familiar for all the rest.

*This post was originally inspired by this question posted on Quora.

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