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During the last holiday season, I called Land’s End. I hardly ever call; I’m a huge fan of their online experience. I wanted to send a special order to my mother, putting two matching things in the same gift box. Landsend.com isn’t really set up to do that, but the site instructed me that I could do it, so I called.
The sales rep was friendly and efficient, and very helpful. She pulled up my order-in-progress and put everything in the box that I wanted to be in my mother’s gift. When she asked me if there was anything else she could help me with, I blithely said, “You could check my mother’s account and tell me what she’s sending me for Christmas.” The sales rep giggled, teased me a little bit by telling me that she could see my mother’s account, but told me I would have to wait until UPS delivered it to find out. She protected the relationship between the seller and the buyer. She also protected the relationship between two buyers – me and my mother — at least for that episode. If I wanted to find out what I was getting for Christmas, I’d either have to wheedle it out of my mother or wait.
Respect and research. That’s all I ask.
Facebook had a go at Beacon, a service that broadcasted out to all your friends the purchases you’ve made outside of Facebook, without permission. The Federal Trade Commission sued, and Facebook eventually settled and took down the “service” in 2009.
Facebook has a history of screwing with the privacy of its users. Beacon was a prime example. The main problem here is the lack of permission. And that’s the case for Etsy’s new People Search, too.
The designers of Etsy decided it was a good idea to make everyone on Etsy searchable by name, including buyers. So, if you have ever bought anything on Etsy, you can now be found there by anyone else either by your real name or your username. Your whole profile is viewable, including your purchase history. Not only that, it’ll all show up in Google search results.
The idea is that buyers would form social “circles” on the site to share information about their purchases.
Uninformed by research, guided by gut
These are the kinds of things that happen when an organization puts business goals before customer goals. It’s also the kind of thing that can happen when an executive wakes up one day and says, We want to be one of the cool kids. And right now, to be one of the cool kids, you have to have social media. How do we do that?
What made Etsy think it needed a social layer on its beautiful, engaging site? It’s the kind of thing that happens when teams decide to strap social on rather than looking at the conversation they’re already having with customers and that customers are already having with one another.
I’m sure a lot of thought went into this decision of Etsy’s. I fear this is a vacuum-sealed decision. Here’s my imagined scenario, a scenario I’ve seen played out in other, similar decisions at other, similar organizations: Management, who forgets that their site is not the center of the universe for anyone outside that room, went to the product manager and asked for some of the social awesomesauce that is out there to turn up the buzz a notch. The product manager brainstormed with the team. The best idea they could come up with is to get customers to talk about the fun, beautiful, interesting stuff they’d bought on Etsy online with one another. (Never mind that we already have Twitter for this.)
Where is making use of the conversation that Etsy is already having with its customers or that buyers and sellers are already having together? They probably can’t make use of these conversations because they haven’t observed them. Where’s the research to support this design decision? 
Why this is on my usability testing blog
It’s hard for me to believe that if Etsy had conducted user research and even informal but realistic usability testing on the idea that they would not have quickly seen the privacy violation. They could have avoided the damage control they now have to deal with because of the breach of trust they’ve had with buyers who already love the experience of shopping there.
How Etsy could have avoided the problem and discovered a possibly great idea for engaging buyers even more
1. Analyze the risks of a social media strategy to users’ privacy, security, and trust. Where was the business plan for allowing search of users? How does having social “circles” support the business model, exactly? How would the social media strategy be supported on the back end? More than all that, let’s look at others who have gone before us: Beaon on Facebook and Boden USA come to mind. What happened there? What could the Etsy team learn from those mistakes? Oh, and, why duplicate Facebook in any way?
2. Proof the concept with real people who shop on Etsy. This is pure conjecture based on my experiences with other organizations: Etsy may have thought that to up their game and get people more engaged in the site, they needed to get buyers talking with one another and not just to sellers. Charming idea. But how do you find out if people find that useful?
Focus groups? If there were focus groups, I’m just going to guess here that participants liked the idea, but there was no exploration of the implications of this profile information being public rather than private. Not ideal.
What else could they have done? Invited friends and family. This approach still perhaps is not optimum, because friendly participants might not have exposed the privacy problems. They are, after all, friends and family, so there’s automatic trust and wanted connections there already. How about rolling it out to a very small number of key buyers — 3 or 5 — and watch what happens for a week or a month as they connect to their people, or until something bad and unintended happens?
3. Conduct usability testing with real people in real contexts to learn the ripples to real relationships. Let’s say they did usability testing. Did they bring in real buyers to use a working prototype with their own data? Did it occur to anyone that now my ex can Google me (like he does) and find out that I bought my sister a Star Wars crochet pattern, or my current paramour a hand made can coozie? Or what about the fact that my clients could see all the personal things on my Etsy wish list?
A usability test with a limited “circle” on a closed sandbox (like a walled-off development or testing server) for a couple of weeks might have given them some clues about what might work and what might not.
Etsy, I love you, but I have to go now
Not only will Etsy have to clean up its own site by making the social opt-in, but they’ll also have to figure out a way to recover buyers’ privacy. How does a web organization reclaim data that is now not in its control? If they could invent a big Web eraser to drag behind them as they invite buyers back to the site, they might have a chance.
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