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In the design and implementation of user profile UI, the following questions seem unavoidable:

  • What is the benefit to the user of completing a profile page?
  • What is the benefit to the site?
  • Why not just stick with a username? i.e. lose profile pic, bio, etc.

The example closest to my heart is the intranet at my company. One in four users have a profile picture and fewer still have contributed any more information than that. Here on ux.stackexchange, my at-a-glance tally of the question-askers on the front page as I write this question, shows that less than half have done more than create a username.

If users are so naturally disinclined to the complete profile, then what is the benefit that will supposedly be experienced if they do fill in all the blanks? Why do we go to all the trouble of creating user profile interfaces, if most people ignore them?

I have an intuitive answer, in that having e.g. profile pictures makes the experience more personal, and relatable, possibly increasing engagement. And in the case of this site e.g. the 'location' aspect of the profile helps in understanding (literally) where a person is coming from with their argument. Is English likely their first language? Do they come from a different culture?

But I'd like to know if there's any research, evidence, or significant findings that suggest it's a good thing to have completed user profiles, and if so, why?

  • 2
    Gamification -- I like wearing different UX hats... – DaveAlger Dec 16 '14 at 14:17
  • ... or Chameleons. – Ayesh K Dec 17 '14 at 2:34
  • This is basically why sites like Facebook don't work. It's core is profiles and nobody fills them :( – Jonathan Dec 23 '14 at 23:38
  • There are numerous different scenarios. If it is a linkedin account type and you are looking for a job you will probably aim to fill as much as possible. Whereas users might not be very keen on sharing certain information for a profile that will function properly regardless (e.g. facebook, twitter, stack exchange). It all goes down to the benefits and purpose of the profile (e.i. social network, professional network, academic, etc) – UX Research May 19 '17 at 20:21
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Short answer

Don't worry about everyone using all the features, only the most important ones will. And be sure you're actually doing something for the user in exchange for their time and data.

Long answer

Here's a statistic from several years ago that illustrates the issue well:

[by the end of 2009] about 80% of all Twitter users have tweeted fewer than ten times. [source]

There's that 80/20 rule again. Twitter was exploding with activity by the end of 2009. And 80% of it's users probably did nothing more than squat on a user name and leave that silly little egg avatar in it's default state. They didn't bother with the increasingly detailed user profile Twitter provided.

Here's my wild speculation: The percentage of users who completed all profile options during that time was in the single digits (and probably still is). But that's not the point. If you want users to be engaged, you want the really engaged ones to feel like you care about them and are giving them a voice. That tiny percent of deeply devoted users will make a big impact.

Take a look across the SE sites. As you noted, there are tons of question askers and lurkers who fill out the bare minimum (Office Space, anyone?). But look at it from another angle. There's that less-than-ten-percent group to thank again. They pour out their experience to answer questions, edit submissions, provide quality ranking, filter out junk, and gain profile cred along the way. Those select few crazies are building SE's killer search rank.

There's two sides to the coin. On the one side, you're rewarding the user by making them feel like part of the community. Maybe you're really good and you use that expanded profile to better tailor your service to their needs. There's the other side of the coin: You're also cataloging all that insight and capitalizing off of it in some way. If you're not, you will or should be. Or you'll lose.

Don't forget 'social sign in'. Allowing your users to log in with a social media account is a very fast way to get an expanded profile. It saves the user time and gives them one less log in to remember. And you are more likely to get rich data about the user. Jan Rain was a leader in this space, and still puts out some good info on the subject.

Just remember to give something back to the user. 'Gamification' is the buzz word, but it's really just about making sure the user isn't giving you time and data and getting nothing in return. Every service is different, so the model has to change too. For SE, it's about users who are passionate about a subject and want a little recognition in that space. They knocked it out of the park! Facebook created a whole bizarre, voyeuristic second life out of stealing your data. There's some backlash, but look at their average engagement! More power to ya, News Corp.

Once you figure out what your users want and/or need and how it relates to your brand, you'll know how much to ask and what to give in return.

Official research

I don't have any. You're going to have a hard time finding research on a question like "is completing a profile good". The data you're looking for is likely hidden behind internal test data. And it would change from one site/app to the next.

First you need to define measurable KPIs. Are you looking for conversions, time on site, average page views, number of return visits, etc? Once you know specifically what you're looking for, reach out to some non-direct competitors and see if they've collected similar data.

In the case of your intranet site, you probably aren't going to get much of a sample. Try just doing some guerrilla research. Who do you intend the expanded profiles to benefit and how? Identify a few people in the company and do an informal interview with them to see if your assumptions match their goals.

  • Is there a summary point that goes with this answer, perhaps that relates it back to the original question about benefit? – dennislees Dec 16 '14 at 14:35
  • Sorry if I went a little too long-form for SE. TL;DR version added. – plainclothes Dec 17 '14 at 1:09
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    Just want to chime in on Social Sign-in. I encourage developers to use these credentials tools instead of creating a username and password. Google, Facebook, etc have security experts who know what they're doing. The average developer doesn't and will probably screw up user credentials if they try to roll their own. Don't reinvent the wheel! Use existing credentials tools and avoid storing passwords like the plague. – mouseas Dec 18 '14 at 23:25
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    @mouseas - "The Average Developer .. will probably screw up user credentials" all I have to say to that is NO , no no no no , that is not the case , EVEN if you do allow registering with another site you still have to have the ability to register independently from any other site. There are lots of benifits to using OAuth , but because "Average Developers" are incapable , sorry... but I do not consider you an average developer if you can not handle simple secured registration – Scott Selby Dec 24 '14 at 2:17
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+25

There isn't a general "one size fits all" reason, but there are several context-based reasons.

User Benefits

Empathy, Credibility & Confidence

If a user can tell that somebody works in a similar space to them, has similar interests, skills, situations or concerns then they are more likely to consider their contributions to be worthwhile.

A completed profile can let a user express why other users should consider anything they say to be worthwhile - which can then be backed up by their body of contributions or their activity.

Differentiating between similarly named users

If you've got two users with remarkably similar names on your site / in your service or application, more detailed profile information can help somebody trying to contact one of them to pick the right one.

Allow cross-site / cross-tool identity

Yours will not be the only site or tool any given user uses. Profile fields can be used to let users connect their profile in one place with their profile in another, should they wish to do so, allowing them to extend their identity beyond the bounds of your site.

Product / App / Site Benefits

When your users have filled in profiles, you can use the data for research in a whole pile of different ways.

  • Look word usage (frequency, language and vocabulary) in free text fields - it'll tell you a lot about what matters to your users and let you tailor your experience accordingly
  • Aggregate profile data & mine for demographics (how relevant that is depends on context)
  • Look at what links your users enter to get an idea of what other tools / apps they use

Also...

  • (in many applications) Users who have filled in a profile voluntarily, not through coercion have made more of an investment, so retention is more likely.

Why not just a username?

A username is a name badge. It provides a means to collect a user's contributions together, but it does nothing to tell other users why they should give two bits about who you are.

Summary

A profile is a "why you should care what I say, do or think" resumé that's quicker and easier to read than a user's whole body of contribution. The body of contribution is more relevant, but a user doesn't get one of those until they've been around a fair while...

2
  1. User benefit: some services create a situation where completing a profile addresses the user need. Here in Stack Exchange you get a badge after completing, so completing your user profile affects your status & exposure directly. Gamification has a plethora technics for that, Dave Alger is right.

  2. Product benefit: more complete the profiles are, more precisely Product/User Management or Marketing can profile (pun unintended) their Target Audience.

  3. Some services do stick to the username (they probably have other means for profiling and reaching out, or don't need to do it at all). Some, however, go to extreme extents like requesting users' personal data or even ID scans.

0
  1. Benefits to user:

    • Brag about their profile score, improve their CV in real life (same name on both LinkedIn and SE)
    • bring 'back-link' to their own website
    • make their profile look real (with their real name), not like a clone
    • distinguish himself (by photo) from another one with a slightly similar user name (dennislees vs denisles)
  2. Benefits to site:

    • Get stats of users (bio)
    • Make the site more credible (with real experts, whose name can be found on LinkedIn)
  3. Not just username:

    • slightly similar ones (told above)
    • looks like clones (told above)
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I'm not sure this question can be answered without precise website context... By example, I don't think people will always upload a picture because it makes the experience more personnal. Question seems to be : who will see me profile ? what do I want to show them ?

Besides, on my own experience and observations, it also widely depends of user engagement into the service.

  • Thanks for your response. This question is specifically asking for concrete references that can demonstrate any benefit for completing (or even having) a complete profile. I've not been able to find any. – dennislees Dec 22 '14 at 21:05
  • Yes, on my mind, you might have not find any because there's maybe no signifiant absolute benefice for having a complete profile, it might just widely depend on each specific situation. Just an idea. – Florent Goumy Dec 23 '14 at 7:54
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In his fascinating lecture titled Gameful Design, design guru Sebastian Deterding asks: What makes games fun? He talks about two forces that makes humans do what they do: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Without going into all the details now, extrinsic is 'outside' motivation such as points, badges, rewards, etc. But if that was all there was to it, the most fantastic game in the world would be just a big button that rewards you a million points every time you click it, right?

The REAL motivation is intrinsic.

Deterding asks, (slide 40) 'what intrinsic motivation drives passionate users?' What makes them take the time to fill in product reviews or answer questions on StackExchange, for example?

Is it because (he asks the audience):

  1. The product is awesome?
  2. The company is awesome?
  3. The experience is awesome?

The answer he gives is, that the user himself is awesome. IOW, people take the time to do these tasks because it make them feel awesome, it make them feel like experts, it gives meaning to their work.

So, Bottom line: Create a truly meaningful experience for your users, and they will complete their user profiles.

View this great lecture on SlideShare to learn more.

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