Rethinking Social Media Plugins
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.
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.
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 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?
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?
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.
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!