Principles of Social Interaction Design?

Principles of Social Interaction Design

Principles of Social Interaction Design

Principles of Social Interaction Design?

Social media are talk technologies. They are the means of production in an age of communication. They aid in the production and exchange of knowledge and information and culture, based on human interests. They are media in which people see themselves represented. Their impact is as much psychological and social as it is technical.

In recent years, social media have come off the page. Social tools have become more talkative, mobile, and real-time.  They have taken a conversational turn. And as these social tools increasingly facilitate relationships and communication, their role in these deeply personal and social dynamics has become a matter for design. The need for a deeper understanding of the fit between tools and social interactions calls for a new design practice. This is social interaction design.

Social interaction design sits somewhere in between people and technology — in a place one might call the social interface. And the interactions that concern social interaction design are those among people, not just between the people and applications.

Design is concerned not only with social media products and services but also what people do with them.  Social interaction design covers the screen elements and application features of social media as well as “user” behaviors and social practices. It is in social practices, and the emergence of cultural pastimes and patterns of use, that social interaction design really comes into its own.

At the heart of social interaction design is a query. “What makes social media work?” Social media work because people figure out what a social tool is based on what they see other people doing. People are interested in the interactions and communications of people. Social interaction reveals what’s going on — what an application or site is about. These are social practices, and they are established through the self-reinforcing activities of participating users.

If it is use that makes a social tool successful, can success be designed? Were hits like Facebook and twitter designed for their success? Or did their adoption become a virtuous cycle, piling on growth, and resulting in success? And if it’s easy to identify the social interaction design in Facebook, what of twitter? Perhaps twitter owes its success less to design sophistication and more to simplicity?

Social interaction design wants to understand the ways in which the actions of individuals result in social outcomes. It wants a means of describing and explaining the communication and interaction practices of people in ways that relate to human interests. It wants methods and techniques that reflect what people do — not what technology enables.

This essay explores the factors that make up the user experience in social media. It is an examination of human psychology and the unique motives and motivations that underly use of social tools. It examines how users become interested in themselves and in others. And it proposes some design theoretical observations and descriptions tailored to the mechanics, if you will, of successful social media services.

The design world occasionally talks about “compelling the user” to behave in a certain way. Designers are encouraged to obtain desired behavioral outcomes by means of user incentives. Some designers may believe that “their” users indeed manifest the in-built preferences of the designer. In the world of social media, this kind of thinking has led to “gamification,” “game mechanics,” and more. Without directly confronting the assumptions made by game mechanics vis-a-vis the instincts of people and players, the case for design influence must still proceed from user experience. Incentives, motives, interests, needs, and so on must be recognized for what they are: human, individual, and social. Design might then seek to reflect and resonate with human interests. But it can never be the origin of them. This essay will argue that in social tools, the user interests must be qualified as competencies: skills of interpersonal and social interaction and communication.

These skills can relate to less obviously social habits, such as curating online content, social bookmarking, or building a “personal brand” and Klout. These are valid “user experiences,” and so are worth examining for deeper human interests also. The diversity of users and the wide spectrum their interests that makes the design of social media a unique challenge. And everyone is different. But unlike the design of physical products, the design of social tools depends absolutely and completely on the amplification of fundamental social experiences, no matter how much they are thinned out by the technology. Remove the audience, the representation of an audience, or even the hope of an audience, and all participation dies.


From the intro to Principles of Social Interaction Design (pdf: 175 pp – free download)


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Designing Social for the Enterprise


I remember attending a local unconference for social startups several years ago. This was in the heady days when social was fresh and much had yet to be defined. Session after session plumbed the myriad possibilities of mining user-generated content for valuable information. We had conversations about tagging, meta data, and standards — and the spirit of social sharing was genuine as tech-heads considered an ecosystem of open and federated social messaging, shared user activity, and notifications.
What struck me then, as it still does, was the emphasis on information over communication. It struck me because the activity behind the information produced on social tools usually comes from communication — posts, comments, gestural activity, and many other kinds of social interaction. Even “utilitarian” activities like list-making and curating are communication — users do them because there’s an audience for them.
In my view, all online social activity is a form of communication. I think of social tools as “tools of talk.” They may depend on software and technology to operate; and their “social space” is distant, absent, and discontinuous in real social terms. But they serve to mediate social activity. Consequently, the data or information they produce (capture and distribute) is created with social intent. It is information that means to communicate.
It may be a different market, but enterprise social is also a space in which buzz tends to focus on information: e.g. big data, social data, knowledge. Here again, we tend to gloss over the fact that this information is a great corpus of social interactions. These social interactions become “social facts” by virtue of digital materialities. Individual and personal statements, requests, responses, gestures, greetings, invitations, offers and more are all but linguistic productions of a social world. So the data they produce — content artifacts, texts, images, videos, and gestures — are the production of communication.
To view this “information space” as communication is an important shift of interpretation. And many big data experts know this. For communication does more than create information (or content) — it refers also to social relationships and to the rights and responsibilities of communication between individuals. It says more than it says. This difference is simple for us to see, but much harder for machines.
What’s interesting in the enterprise social space is that its sociality differs from that of the open and public social space. It’s organized, instrumental, purposeful and role-dependent. Different opportunities and constraints govern, if you will, the mediated talk that occurs across enterprise social.
Most fundamentally, this kind of talk is work talk. Talk that gets things done, that builds consensus, that coordinates activities and reproduces the organization day after day. So, in fact, information as content is in cases subordinate to the action-orientation of communication.
Any design of these enterprise social tools should therefore accommodate the specific needs of organizations and their employees. Artifacts are produced not simply to get attention or benefit their creators, but to serve organizational purposes of timing, aligning, connecting, transacting, obligating, and otherwise carrying on the business of work.
The design challenge, then, is to architect for interactions and communication. To design for intent and meaning, preserving as much as possible of the social characteristics of communication as of the information communicated. The designer adopts a new frame — one of users interacting with users, not with application interfaces. This frame provides the context for methodologies interested in social architecture, and in events over time. For communication is order and organization of social activity with duration and persistence. Information, viewed traditionally, is the content left behind.
Indeed our tools recognize much of this implicitly. Feeds, activity streams, and notifications all perform the service of binding activity to and over time. Content artifacts such as posts, comments, messages, and gestures permit forms of talk that easily connect to other relevant and related content. And all of it is and will be mined for meta content — trends — and for details.
(It’s interesting, in fact, that the tools designed for enterprise social increasingly embrace messages, not pages, as their platform. This shows that we have graduated from a web publishing content model to a communication/interaction model. Messages have content, like pages, but are talk, not writing. They’re addressed to people.)
The design methodologies for these kinds of products are still catching up to the paradigm shift inherent in our evolution from desktop to networked computing. Much remains for user experience and interaction design to do, in constructing models and heuristics, in moving past personas to contextualized activities, and in articulating “use cases” and flows that better reflect social activities.
Fascinating challenges lie ahead for user experience design, interaction design, and indeed social business design. But they all begin with recognition that behind all that data is communication and its intents. And thus there is always much more than what is said.
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Social design of the collaborative economy

Merchant of Venice

Lots of interesting attention of late being paid to the collaborative economy. Collaborative economies are of course nothing new. Prior to the rise of capitalism and the organization of society around production and economic trade, most societies were collaborative economies. Though they were bound by traditions, non-monetary trade and exchange, and on principles of gifts, debts, and social obligations. These disappeared when labor was lifted out of social structure and negotiated by means of money.

What’s happening today is perhaps less a sign of an emergent collaborative economy than a spate of social tools seeking to leverage collaborative exchange — in short, collaborative practices mediated by technologies. In cultural terms, what’s new is the possibility that technologies can create and sustain the conditions required for collaborative exchange. It used to be it took social institutions to accomplish this. But as we now know, technologies can serve as substitutes or proxies for deeper social traditions and norms. At least, they can try.

Designing these tools, and indeed practices, entails not only technical development. The social uptake of these practices must be designed also. For this, we have to accept that technology alone does not produce the cultural and social prerequisites for interactions as high-stakes as the temporary rental and exchange of personal property and services. Trust is the barrier to entry. And the higher the risk, the greater the trust needed for success.

Our society is characterized by a myriad of differentiated and expert systems. In them we place our confidence, for none of us is intimately or professionally familiar with the mechanics of each. We invest confidence in systems in place of knowledge, and so our knowledge of these expert systems is subject to a degree of uncertainty. At times this comes around to bite us — housing markets, Lehman, etc.

The system becomes a mediator of technical and social interactions. And confidence in the system serves to mitigate the risks inherent in transactions among strangers.

In traditional societies, this trust is sedimented into social relationships bound by social norms. Right and wrong, and the forces of social membership, guarantee expectations. In modern societies, by contrast, expert systems not traditions mediate these relationships. Which in turn can now be temporary, and less personally invested. Law and legal resolution pick up where traditions left off.

The design of these collaborative practices thus proceeds on two levels. First, a social architecture comprising of social technologies capable of producing enduring and connected interpersonal contact and exchange. Second, a regime of social routines and practices sustained by consistent and socially acceptable communications and activities. The former provides the means; the latter becomes the production.

While confidence in social technologies (expert systems) can be secured somewhat by well-financed and effective technology design, trust among participants cannot. It must emerge on its own terms, by means of social interaction, individual accountability, connectedness (social graph), and legitimacy.

Where many social tools function to reproduce or facilitate direct interpersonal communication, both social architectures and practices of collaborative economies must involve indirect relationships. They must be built around “the third,” or the triangle.

In social networking terms, direct communication is dyadic — it’s a pair or couple, and a relationship between A : B. Triangulation involves A : B : C. And what makes it the building block of social relationships is that an action A : B affects C. As in architecture, the triangle is much stronger than the pair. The triangle is Shakespeare — the basis of all dramatic form. For it is strengthened by loyalty and broken by betrayal. (Drama ensues.)

Social engineering, then, of collaborative practices succeeds or fails on the basis of effective triangulation. A mediating system and its social architecture to serve the “third,” or intermediary role in transactions (branding +). And a culture of social interactions (communication and actions) in which a third party is implicated in the transactions of pairs. This third party can be a public, a relationship (friend or peer), a review board — the list is long. But only with a third is the cost of betrayal raised to prices worthy of trust.

It used to be we talked of social capital, and of the attention economy. This was early days for social, and both social capital and the attention economy were centered on self-presentation of individuals. They were about a social form preoccupied with “me,” and the production of “me.” Collaborative practices, and collaborative economics, hold a greater promise for social. For they rest on the assimilation of social tools into daily transactions with higher stakes (personal property and services). Tools now no longer simply serve the expression of me, but the implication of me into transactional practices.

I suspect that as we get deeper into the complexities of designing these tools, we will make greater use of meta social information to architect reputation systems. These will in various ways fold the third into the sociality of these tools and services. We might learn from technical systems. But likely, we will learn too, from Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice asks for a pound of flesh.



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