A Case for Social Interaction Design

My Social Interaction Design project is in progress. This is an excerpt from an introductory section.

Social software services that fail to develop into social practices among their users will fail in the marketplace. Social interaction designers, by designing with social outcomes in mind, can help shape the feature mix and design the user experience such that these sites produce results benefiting individuals and organizations.

Social software applications work on several levels simultaneously: they enable communication, interaction, and social relations. We need to think of these three separately because they are different kinds of systems. The recording and distribution of communication as text is different from getting a member’s attention, or, say, making connections based on who knows whom.

Here, in brief, are the key differences between communication, interaction, and society:

  • Our primary concern in communication is reaching understanding about what we’re saying: making ourselves understood.
  • Our primary concern in interaction is handling the dramatic character of social performances and our performances as participants, including such psychological features as personal comfort levels, insecurities, dispositions, attention-sharing, and more.
  • Social systems are built on relations among members, and they are maintained only as long as those relations are reproduced. Any online community, in other words, needs to succeed at the very basic task of connecting members and compelling them to stay in communication. Only participation will do that; no software can do that for them.

Social software engages each of these, certainly, but it does so differently. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting. Its manner of facilitating communication results in searchable archives. Its manner of mediating interaction protects us from embarrassment. Its manner of connecting people permits relationships between some unlikely bedfellows. So in communication, we can focus on how these technologies enable the capture, storage, and distribution of information. In interaction we can look at how non face-to-face encounters are shaped by their removal from physical immediacy and co-temporality. In relations, we can examine the conditions that permit or block connections, with an eye on the groups and communities they support or empower.

Technology designers are a feature-driven bunch, as are user interface designers. We tend to think that failed user experiences can be repaired with better-designed interfaces. Social interaction design would embrace and extend this approach, but with the added premise that any time two or more people use a technology for communication, issues pertaining to social interaction become relevant. Be they matters of interpersonal misunderstanding, or of social performance and public behavior, the successes and failures of social software involve a social interface. Now of course none of us can legislate how people should behave or what they should say. So how then do we design social interactions? We don’t. Rather, we design the architecture that enables it.

In this paper I suggest that social interaction designers will need to leverage interfaces, back-end architecture, navigation schemas, features and functions to obtain second order effects. If a first order design feature is a common web feature like a popup window or a form, then second order effects are the social phenomena that unfold when a whole number of users engage with that form—when members all say that they’re single, for example, though they’re not. Second order effects are more complex than their first order ingredients because they’re social. And because they’re social, all we can do as designers is apply leverage with our balance of first order widgets.

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