The sociability spec: documenting social interaction requirements

The social interaction requirements doc
We’re all familiar with the MRD and PRD, documents used to set market and product requirements for a new software application or service. For social media products, I think there’s another piece of documentation worth writing. I have call it the social interaction requirements document (SxRD?). This document details the sociability of a product, service, or even campaign, and serves to capture social dimensions.

There are a couple reasons I think this document might stand apart from the other two. First, it is used to align business needs with user social practices that will support those needs. And secondly, it forces a user-centric appreciation of a product’s social utilities. Who will use it, why, for what, and what will be the social outcomes of their participation? Not features and functionality, but support of relationships, interactions, and communication.

These aspects of a social media product’s use are so critical that a separate brief written from user perspectives can be essential to getting the social mix right. In contrast to use cases seen from the product or business perspective, sociability starts with user interests and personalities.

For reasons similar to those that apply for social media products and services, brand campaigns and marketing efforts can be served by addressing social requirements also. For these focus on the conversation space and the many kinds of interactions and communication users adopt through tools that the campaign will depend upon. Again, the point of the document is to frame the business perspective in social terms: from within the social diversity of an audience’s many members.

Set goals
The document should begin, as do the others, with your organizational goals. These should include what you want to achieve with your social media product, service, or campaign. Identify outcomes you wish to achieve, for your own benefit as well as that of users. Set metrics for success, and select means by which to measure them. These may be simple and freely available analytics (such Google alerts and analytics), or third party applications. If you wish to measure the impact of traffic produced across social media, as well as influential blogs and users it’s coming from, there are many tools by which to measure that, too.

Having set goals and objectives for social outcomes, now recognize that reaching them depends upon user participation. Not just of individual users, but in social practices and participation that builds on its own. This is where objective metrics and analytics should be complemented by a more subjective interpretation and review of social outcomes: in short, a sociability assessment.

Sociablity
The sociability assessment will be used to help align you with user interests. Because users will engage with your site for reasons not just beyond your control and direct influence, but out of interests they themselves bring to the experience, insight into this aspect of social media participation is key. It takes many different kinds of users, with different habits around using, interacting, and communicating with friends and others through social media. The dynamics of their interactions will determine whether your efforts are successful.

Sociability applies not just to social media apps and sites, but to brands and their campaigns, also. In the case of applications, it’s a description of social usability. In the case of brands, and use of social media for campaign purposes, it’s a description of the audience and marketplace focused on how members relate, interact, and communicate. Not from a market segmentation perspective, but according to how users actually use social media, and for what.

Real users, not user categories
This approach goes a level deeper than the categories often used to group social media users. Take the category of “creators,” for example. While many users may belong to the “creators” category, the term describes a group and doesn’t explain motives, behaviors, and social participation.

There are, of course, many reasons a user’s activity in social media might result in content created. But they’re different, and if understood in terms of the user’s interests and personality, can align you with how core personalities help to galvanize and sustain your audience’s engagement. After all, users interact not just with content and features, but with each other.

Interest users take in each other, in making contact, developing relationships, giving and getting attention — these and many more of the features of social interaction are the reason that “creators” get up in the morning. (This includes the mere perception of being visible, relevant, and socially involved, too.) To create, for somebody; or for an idea, belief, value, principle; for reputation or standing, or out of a sense of reciprocity, group membership, or expectation. Not “I’m a creator, thus I must arise and create as it is who I am!”

User interests and personalities
Not all users are alike, and their reasons for using social media vary by site or tool as well as by interest and more. Some professional experts, for example, may be more inclined to use twitter for the purpose of soap-boxing (nothing wrong with that!), building an audience and reputation. Others may use Wikipedia to collaborate around getting the story right, say on topics of deep personal interest. Where the expert may pursue and defend his or her opinion, the Wikipedian may care more about accuracy and objectivity. Each is personally invested, but with attention being driven differently, and resulting in different kinds of content created.

Likewise, the expert or pundit can draw an audience of fans, where the Wikipedian does not. This is not to say that experts just get more attention and personal branding; Wikipedians presumably take pride in getting the story right — a quality that may reflect their values and belief in collaboration for the greater good. What is important is that some types of users go well together. Experts attract fans, fans supply the audience and reputation by which the expert is motivated. Combinations can lead to dynamics that fuel rapid adoption, or which corrupt and endanger it.

Causes and effects
Many other social media applications, from review and recommendation sites to conversational tools and social games, attract and serve different kinds of users for reasons related to their different ways of producing sociability. Social dynamics not only provide the attention, followings, conversation, and other kinds of interactions that in turn generate more content and participation. They are the dynamo and engine of any social media success.

Brands should recognize this, and supplement their use of analytics tools and metrics with sociability descriptions. Tools don’t (yet) provide analysis of these distinctions, let alone suggest ways to leverage the nuances beneath the “soft stuff” of social media. And while numbers may be a measure of results, but reveal little of their inner workings. Effects can be quantified, but causes will always take a human evaluation. The rising importance of community managers is a step in the right direction, although community managers can get close to their communities and may do well to step up occasionally for an “objective” review of site, service, or campaign engagement.

Conclusion
The art of the social interaction design requirements spec, and of sociability assessments performed after product launch and over the course of a campaign, complements the science of quantitative analysis. Nowhere else does a medium offer so much information about what’s going on than in social media. But it’s not for this reason alone that you might take a big picture look at the sociability of your business, and build the soft skills by which to understand how user engagement, thick or thin, passing or lasting, can be sustaining and sustained.

For more on sociability for brands, see: Sociability review

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