Sociability: Usability for Social Media

People who know me personally are familiar with my baroque inclinations for turning simple things into brid”s nests of complexity. I’m drawn to what lies behind, below, before, and because of anything that has to do with people. For reasons I have spent much of my life working through, I am naturally and insatiably interested in what people mean — much more than what I mean to people.

This makes me a pretty good accidental observer and, incidentally, analyst too. So when I work with social media clients — often application providers who “need” their users to get involved in their product or service — I always start from the perspective of their users. Product descriptions, such as “our platform is for ____” just tell me what the client wants. I might use his or her business interests to figure out what will count as a success (note to consultants: it’s not about you!). I will usually quickly assess what a client’s view of his or her users is, in fact, and even better, why he or she thinks users would want to use the product.

User experience, a term that bounces around within the hollows of my cranium, and the user, whose reflection I catch as if I am negotiating a hall of mirrors, are first and foremost the key to social media success. It’s strikes me as paradoxical that the user experience profession really doesn’t offer a description of the many experiences users have of social media. For uses we have a great deal of description; but for experience, relatively little. (The term “user” gives away our bias: use.)

My first deliverable to clients is usually an accounting of different user personalities and interests, specific to the ways in which their experiences of a company’s “social” may be engaging, disengaging, effective, ineffective, and so on. In all honesty, I don’t even use those terms. I simply describe the experiences.

My personality types are then means to think through the product or service from different angles. Not personas, for they are a fiction and a target audience, but personalities. Because each of us is limited by our own experience and, naturally, inclined to think others are more or less like us.

I’m going to start offering and pitching (softly) a Sociability review to clients. I’d like to do this not only for social applications but for businesses using social media, also. Sociability, because I think the usability issues of social media are social. And because I continually encounter the question “How do we get our users to do ___? “

One doesn’t get users to do anything, of course. One provides something the users know how to do and are interested in doing already. The Sociability review will probably take the form of a description. No high-falutin social interaction design theory, just a close reading of user contributions, of their interactions and communication, for insights into their motives and interests.

I don’t know who will pay for this, but it won’t cost much, as I have lived and breathed social and web for longer than I care to admit. And deeply — always and tirelessly reflecting on what it’s like for the other person. So this won’t be difficult. Even better, is that it will be interesting. I don’t think there are many folks out there who use deeply social analyses, or who wonder by nature at what lies beneath the social habits and practices that make up our daily lives. And who do social media analysis.

These media are to me all about the social that envelopes and embraces them, when they succeed, or the social that struggles and stumbles, when they fail. And insofar as social works only by the tacit and implicit engagement of users who “get it,” I think a Sociability assessment could be a valued addition to the usual marketing requirements and product specs we have relied upon for so long to define and steer design and development.

I’m putting my interests and passion for social theory to use. Theory development is an intellectual pursuit. The practice of it is where it comes to life. So the door is open. I’ll hang out the shingle later. I like this idea. Now to see if clients do, too.

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  • http://twitter.com/altovideo Mike

    “One doesn't get users to do anything, of course. One provides something the users know how to do and are interested in doing already.”

    There have been a few books on behavioral economics recently that I'm sure you are familiar with — “Predictably Irrational” and “Nudge”, for example. These books seem to make a completely opposite claim: human decision-making is remarkably sensitive to the way that choices are presented. For example, if I know that option A is the most popular choice compared to B and C, I'm more likely to choose A than if I didn't know that.

    It's possible to demonstrate experimentally that providing or withholding this information changes how people behave, so in what sense is this not getting users to do something? No-one claims to be able to guarantee that a particular choice will be made, but it does seem that we can have a big influence on what they choose.

    Isn't denying this an extreme libertarian position? No matter how manipulative, exploitative or even fraudulent a choice is, the user is responsible for the decision, because a priori is it impossible for it to be otherwise.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    I agree with you. My point is meant to emphasize the social context of interactions around social media. These to me are as much interactions with other people as they are with the product, and its content (as presented). This is why we need to understand the presentation layer not just as constraining choices and actions, but as facilitating the kinds of social activity that are familiar, interesting, comfortable, or what have you, to users.

    From my perspective it's in the social, not in the information, that this really plays out. Much of the economic theory around this is at some level still interested in utility; choices reflect values; values and behaviors may reflect socio-psychological factors. It's still choice theory though. The agent is an individual, behavior and action are individual.

    I think that in social media, action is oriented to the social “space.” Much of it involves how people think of themselves, see themselves, want to be seen, think of others, and so on. All of which manifest in how people appeal to the social for responses, communication, visibility, etc.

    Simplified, I suppose, social action may include but is not limited to economic behaviors and choices. Nor does even economic theory of irrational behavior have a good communication model (one that is inter-subjective, meaning individuals interpret each others' behavior).

    A lot of that stuff comes out of market theory, with broad-stroke views of social phenomena as effects of individual choices. Much of what I rely on comes from talk and speech situations, interaction situations, and the pragmatics of social interaction (gestures, cues, face, etc).