- June
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Re-framing the problem: SxD

This post is about social interaction design. I’ve been gestating around the concept of “frames” for the past couple weeks. Frames of meaning, frames of experience, and frames as a concept for a user-centric description of social interactions.

I like frames because they can accommodate our need for a visual metaphor, a temporal metaphor, and a metaphor for meaning. Metaphors are generally a bad idea in theory, in that they communicate (descriptively) but do not explain. But structural and visual metaphors, spatial metaphors, and value/utility metaphors don’t work for me (or for social interactions, IMHO).
Concepts based on containers can lead us to think in and with boxes — good for presentation but inadequate to the actions that occur around them
Concepts based on place, space, and location can lead us to think in terms of structure and stability — good for a sense of design control but inadequate to the durations, episodes, and temporal experience of social interactions
Concepts based on structure, which can include containers as well as spaces, lead us to think architecturally — good for building and designing, but inadequate to the system dynamics of social media
Concepts based on value and utility can lead us to anticipate user needs and objectives — good for designing for success and usability but inadequate to the psychological dimensions of interactions, communication, and human relationships
Concepts based on writing, posting, and messaging can lead us to think in terms of communication — good for the medium’s shift from information to communication, but inadequate to the speech, performance, and social interaction dynamics of social media
Concepts based on conversation can lead us to think about the emerging flow- and talk-based trend away from pages and publishing to talk and relationships — but inadequate to the fragmentation and disaggregation of the “conversation” space
I’m borrowing from Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, a remarkable study of social encounters, and a work rich in concepts of social interactionism. Notably “keying” and “footing,” both of which cover the nuanced means by which we can reference social convention and indicate personal disposition and meaning to coordinate interactions.
Of course Goffman was a master of face to face interactions, and his observations and explanations hold for social media only to limited and clipped degree.
The challenge for social interaction design today, and my interest in the use of frames, is that it seems as if the conversational trend in social media may be running away from us. Namely, that both forms of online talk, and the proliferation of system messages and activity updates increasingly interconnected (think Facebook connect), have resulted two significantly (unintended) consequences.
  1. The interconnectedness of separate social media sites, services, desinations, and applications increases the number of arbitrary connections. Arbitrariness is increased when two separate nodes are coupled, when a connection is established, a message distributed, fed, published (etc) to a new context. What was contextually relevant in its original context (eg favoriting a video on Youtube) is more arbitrary when it appears on Friendfeed. Connectedness may serve the Friendfeed account holder, or his/her Friendfeed followers also. But the message itself is more arbitrary, or its meaning as an action is more arbitrary in distributed contexts than it is in its original context (where favoriting videos serves to rank videos).
  2. The proliferation of talk in social media, or shift from the page to flow, stream, and conversation, increases the ambiguity of communicative intent. Again, interconnectedness means that messages are viewed, fed, delivered, or otherwise included in a greater number of contexts. Facebook status updates in Seesmic, with the ability to comment from outside of Facebook. Aggregation of updates in Friendfeed, widget distribution of tweets, disaggregated listening on last.fm et al to blogs, Facebook, etc. The interconnectedness of communication platforms raises the degree of ambiguity in message and action intent: in what’s being said, why, to whom, and even about what.
  • The arbitrariness of connection can create discovery and serendipity, but also confuse and destabilize the very practice of communication itself. Where does one comment back? Where else will a comment appear? What value is captured by which other site or service if I share, rate, digg, forward, retweet etc an action, a system message, or a user’s message?
  • The ambiguity of intent can lead to a greater number of possible responses and reactions to an action, but increases the likelihood of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, our failure (from the perspective of communication).
Social media are social systems. Conceptually and theoretically, social systems have structure but also have actions and communication: thus a better model than architectures, places, utilities, and communication alone. Social media are reproduced constantly out of the information and communication they produce, and which they made available. In addition to making information visible and available, they permit actions that in turn create more communication and enable more actions. Some of these are system messages (user has done X, Y, or Z); some are human communication (status updates, tweets, comments, posts… ). Systems in other words report on their own use as well as facilitate use: and so they continue, ever producing and reproducing information and communication in the form of news that’s meaningful within the social system, actions which select information, and views of those actions which filter, sort, rank, and otherwise apply social evaluations.
As systems interconnect, sharing system messages and distributing user communications among one another, noise levels increase, connections increase, actions (possible and required) increase, and so on.
If social media become too interconnected and if they produce more activity and communication than each can filter/sort and allow users to manage, might they implode or collapse in on their own excess of activity and communication? This is strictly a system question — not a personal concern (yet).
And here’s where frames re-enter the picture. User centric design ought to be oriented to the framing of experience, and in social media particularly, common and shared frames of experience. Also common frames of reference, frames of communication, recognizable frames of action (games, rituals, pastimes etc), and temporal frames (routines and episodes).
Are we losing our frames? In terms of the user experience, is his or her experience running away from us? Can we no longer anticipate the user’s experience, due in part to the level of interconnectedness among social media? Can we no longer assess the user’s experience, due in part to the increased ambiguity surrounding his or her use of (our) applications and services? Can we no longer manage the user experience, insofar as there is now a high level of arbitrariness in the information selected, actions acted, communications created and sent, among users of social media?
If the user experience escapes us, if it is not possible to anticipate uses, to design and forward use cases, to define and order user interests, goals, and use benefits — what can we know of how social media will be used? Not knowing how they will be used, how can we anticipate consequences well enough to design for them?
This is where I am at the moment on this. Frames are still, I think, offer a strong conceptual “framework” for social interaction design. But it is possible that, as personas do more for the designer than they do incapturingtruths aboutthe user, frames will offer more to the designer than they will capture truths of social interactions.
There is one possible solution, but I can only suggest it for the moment. If workable, it strikes me it may change the design paradigm (conceptually at least). It’s a double accounting system. Akin and reminiscent of the double-entry book-keeping that revolutionized finance hundreds of years ago. I sense, and I’ve not yet worked this out, I sense that our action system is unilateral. One-sided. As communication is doubly contingent (two subjects, not one, thus two interpretations of meaning to be coordinated through inter-action), the correct framework for social interaction design probably needs to be a double accounting model. Action intended by user : action perceived and interpreted by user. One might then proceed with all design framing by accounting for user actions (by self) as well as views of user actions(by others). Each “side” has actions and an action system (grammar, language, etc). Or if one prefers, action : response.
I have to consider this further. System complexity may simply overwhelm the possibility of a durable design theoretical framework for social media. Or I may simply be lazy.
As always folks, your comments and pass around are sincerely welcome.


  • Wow. The post was almost zen-like. That wasn't light reading and i found myself reading it more to see how deep down the well went.

  • Now if one could only conceptualize in haiku….. The well goes pretty
    deep. Reaching into it and capturing amounts in the right measure is
    the hard part 😉

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