From user to practice-centric design

I’ve been telling people lately that I think social interaction design (SxD) needs to be a distinct design discipline, or specialty, because social and communication technologies become embedded in practices. And these social practices of ours, be they about dating, getting jobs, meeting up, coordinating whatnot and so on, involve communication technology as a way of talking (producing) communication as well as publishing/listing/circulating (recording) it.
These talk systems, be they organized for socializing (MySpace.com), for jobs (LinkedIn.com), for community blogging (our very own GoingOn.com) produce and record activity at the same time. No matter how you look at it, this is weird. Until you accept that in a dissociated and displaced space-time continuum, interaction (which is two or more people communicating) can occur only if it is re-presented within a mediating medium. Synchronous or asynchronous, doesn’t matter. The point is that if we cannot use our voices, our ears, our eyes, bodies, and faces, we need a secondary medium by which to express ourselves and by which to be impressed (receive) others.
Social Interaction Design argues that traditional UI (user interface design), UX (user experience design), and IxD (interaction design) fields are too user-centric. I say “too” only because social interaction design is user-centric in the plural form. We’re interested in the social practices, and not the user practices, of these technologies. This isn’t about splitting hairs. A user-centric approach looks for user needs, goals, and objectives, and measures the software’s success in delivering on those needs. But a social technology typically has to facilitate user experiences that are social in nature and that permit users to have and present social competence. Dating sites are not just about getting dates. (It could be argued that they’re about the hope and curiosity invested in dating rituals, spread out over time, more than they’re about face-to-face set ups). They’re about doing well in the marketplace, about getting positive feedback and interest from others, about acknowledgment, flirting, and so on–none of which fit in a cognitive model of the user.
Social software, social technology, social media designers need to think about how the tools become adopted and embedded into existing social practices. How do they intervene in the timing and organization of activities? In the presentation and reproduction of authority and hierarchy (say, in the office place, or even at home). How do they permit play, of personality, preference, interest, and relation? How do they create or facilitate new relationships; and how do they enable the surveillance of existing relationships? Orkut.com, a Google social networking site, is used to create new relationships in the US, but in Brazil apparently provides a lot of members with a chance to “monitor” their new dating friends.
Practice-oriented disciplines hold a few theoretical assumptions that would serve many designers well. One is that in any interaction situation, a participant has to know What’s going on before s/he can know How to proceed. A communicative interaction then is taken not just as utterences or statements exchange, but as moves. Moves tend to unfold serially. If there’s a group, there’s a floor, and the constraints of speech require that all cannot speak at once but must take turns, at speaking, and at giving their attention. If we’re talking about the ongoing activities of a social group, we’ll see signs of membership, in speech, tokens, dress, and other stylistic expressions.
If you’re in the Web 2.0 space, you probably recognize some of this in the sites, software, and tools you’ve been using. The approach to Web 2.0 can learn from social interaction design, if it wants to live on (as it likely will) and flourish.

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