Interaction design works, in part, because it is able to anticipate user behaviors. Design theory models interactions: with products or services and their features, functions, interface, and so on. And if we’re reasonably competent and a little lucky, we get the outcomes we expect.
But it’s one thing to model interactions with software or hardware, and another to model the social interactions so critical to social media.
The conventional (non-social) approach to interaction involves a single user experience. User-centric approaches provide ways of thinking through that user’s goals, needs, and objectives. The idea being that by modeling interactions based on theoretical notions of user-centric objectives, software can be designed to successfully and satisfactorily engage with the user.
In short, the interaction is between the user and the product (software). The design methodology defines user needs and thus suggests successful design solutions.
But the methodology is based on a functionalist view of interaction and an instrumentalist view of user goals. Functionalism, grossly stated, reduces human interests to causal sequences. It is based on the idea that we know what we want to achieve, and how to go about achieving it.
This is called instrumentalism because it suggests that humans do things for a reason, and human activity is understood as a combination of acts, actions, and activities in which ends are met by appropriate means. We all know where this leads us: to a view of human interaction that can be optimized, operationalized, quantified, and assessed in overly simplistic terms of success or failure, efficiency or inefficiency, and effectiveness of ineffectiveness.
The reason this approach fails to account for interactions around social media is two-fold. First, it fails to grasp the rich social dimensions of social interaction and communication, which as we experience daily are not governed by rational and instrumental goals alone. Secondly, it propagates a misleading claim that design structures and organizes interactions in social media (because design satisfies user needs and goals) — which of course it doesn’t.
Social interaction involves two users (or more). Their interactions with each other, mediated and facilitated by social media (the software), are what qualify whether a system “works” or not. But to incorporate the experiences of two users into a social interaction design methodology we need to do more than simply double up user-centricity (say, as a two-user framework). It’s not just a case of two users instead of one. It’s a case of two subjects communicating and interacting with each other. And that means relational dynamics.
The critical insight into a social interaction design model then must absolutely begin with human interaction. And the most fundamental idea in human interaction is that it rests on double contingency. Double contingency is the basis of inter-subjectivity: each subject intends and interprets meaning freely. The meaning experienced by one user, even if it explains some of what the user intends to communicate and do with the other user, is not the same as the meaning experienced and interpreted by the other. The contingency comes into play simply because meaning cannot be attached to the interaction, but “exists” only in the experiences of the users involved.
This generates some perplexing problems. As much as we would like to stabilize and define the interaction’s meaning, there is no such thing as objective meaning in social interaction. There is only the meaning experience by each participating user. Meaning is inter-subjective, not objective. An outsider cannot know it, define it, or even observe it. Designers are the outsiders, and in social media all interactions are meaning-based, not information based. (Information can be said to be “meaningful” objectively, but interactions are meaningful only to a person who experiences subjectively.)
The fact that as social interaction designers, we have no access to the subjective world of meaning and experience of the user does not mean we lose our ability to observe and describe what’s going on entirely. It means what it has meant to any professional in the human and social practices: we need to know how we know what we observe and describe, and be aware of the limitations of our knowledge acquired and explained. The meaning of an interaction, or of communication, is not what the observer thinks it is (that would be ridiculous). It belongs to experience itself, and in many ways is not even conscious to the person experiencing it.
From some perspectives this is not an intractable problem. Social interactions become consistent, recognizable, and familiar as personal and individual habits are taken up as routines, pastimes, games, and many other forms of “conventional” interaction. As long as we, as practitioners, grant that we cannot offer a complete account of the inner experience of each and every user, and that we seek instead to observe social media to find common social practices and forms of interaction, we can still model interactions and describe frames of experience in generalized terms.
(Note: The goal of social theory is to go from particular descriptions to general descriptions. User-centric design is of two-minds on this and is in some ways stricken with an internal paradox: emphasis on user experience lays claim to the particular (an individual); design for all intents and purposes can only model the general.)
Related design disciplines encounter a similar problem. One that may serve as an analogy is urban planning. Urban planning anticipates social interactions facilitated by architectural choices. It recognizes the importance of general social phenomena: traffic and traffic flow, congestion, activity, commerce, the congregation of people, and so on. Urban planners are social architects, and they can model and design for these social phenomena. They cannot guarantee that fans have a good game, but they design stadiums to the observed social practices of what people do when attending live events.
Or to take another example, multi-player games. Designers of multi-player games use social interactions as an intrinsic aspect of game play. The standard ingredients of game design — roles, positions, rules, scoring, powers, levels of difficulty, etc — are only the game’s elements, rules, and design. They are not the same as game play itself. Game designers anticipate the experience of game play by their users separately from the elements which comprise the game. They work game play and experience into the design by anticipating play: taking turns, slowing down, speeding up, providing back-channels for player communication, structuring collaboration, competition, and other social dependencies, etc.
Event planners represent another example. Event planners work with their understanding of large (or small) groups of people, often bringing their sense of time, timing, and duration to bear on activity scheduling (from the rituals of events like opening and closing ceremonies, to satisfying the seemingly banal needs of audiences, such as wi-fi, name tags, coffee breaks, and swag).
There are of course other examples of disciplines and professions that are social in nature.
Designing for the social interactions of people using social and communication applications, however, is complicated by the fact that the interaction is mediated. Social interactions online are not the same as they are offline. There is less “there,” there online: people aren’t together, so it is impossible to describe “what’s happening.” Often times, people aren’t interacting at the same time, so it is difficult to observe a temporality or duration. And in the absence of a sense of shared space or location and shared period of time, we lose our ability to refer to a “situation.” It becomes difficult to observe, let alone describe, what’s going on.
We may then be tempted to describe interactions using what can be seen on the screen: posts, messages, ratings, votes, and so on. But that would be to miss out completely on the relationships, the intentions, motives, communication, symbolic interactions, and other aspects of social interaction which transcend empirical evidence. Not to mention time, which is such a critical dimension to social interactions. For all social interactions involve references to past activity and create opportunities for future activity. Relationships are nothing if not the orientation we take to others over time, moreso perhaps when we are absent from each other than when we are present.
Designers like to talk about context. Context situates activity, and activity’s acts and actions. Context situates participants, and frames their interactions for a stretch of time (an episode or period of time). Context, in design speak, is like situation in social interaction speak.
Most social encounters involve a situation. Situations supply almost unlimited possibilities for creating and experiencing meaning, using all aspects of social action and communication together. Meaningfully intended acts, taken up by participants oriented to a meaningful situation and meaningful interaction, may objectify their meaning intentions through language, use of symbols, engagement in ritualized social transactions, and so on. And because members of a shared cultural background can recognize these externalized intentions, and the languages and objects used for expression and communication, common practices can emerge and become familiar. (Familiarity breeds repetition, repetition becomes routine.)
The designer of social media must work without access to “a situation” and all the context that situations provide (which we can also describe as the framing of experience). Instead, designers have only their inherited orientation towards the user experience, and a framework of social practices continuously evolving around the media that sustain them.
(Second Note: We should note that users and experiences are different. Use cases conflate the two by combining a need, goal, or objective with the user experiencing that need, goal, or objective. It’s a phenomenological reduction of the experience used to define a generalizable “case.” In our (use) case: the user has the need that defines the utility of the use. This kind of definition of user experience conveniently leaves out the user interests unmet or inconsequential to an application’s functionality.)
Users are not just their needs and goals; and are not just the experience they are having now. In social media, user personality differences are profound and important. It is in fact likely that certain combinations of user personality types not only work well, but contribute to the growth and success of some social media systems. Users are different and their experiences are different.
So where do we stand, given that context defined as experience and practice involves factors that transcend what can be empirically observed? And given that a reduction of user centricity to needs and goals results in misleading use cases founded on a functionalist notion of utility?
We simply don’t have the language required to observe, describe, and explain existing online interactions yet. Nor to anticipate the possible field of online social interactions, let alone the probable future of social interaction design innovations.
To produce this framework, we would need to both describe the user’s interactions with a social media system and explain, if not predict, the social outcomes and practices that make the application a viable social system.
There may be an aporia in the theory and methodology. To wit, a complete and systematic description and framework of online social interaction may be impossible, not because such a framework simply could not account for all that goes on descriptively, not to mention proscriptively. Rather, because much of online social interaction is rife with “failure”: missed and failed communication, and failed or fading interactions.
With the breakdown sometimes comes a breakthrough. Failure, in this case, is not total. Failure may instead suggest that a design methodology oriented to success is simply the wrong approach to social phenomena.
Design normally regards its successes and failures in terms of functional efficiency and efficacy. But in social media, function is not the best metric. In fact, systems that are poor examples of design may indeed result in high volumes of use and activity: the less well something works, the more social interaction and communication may be involved in using it. We might say that people like mess and messy, or that they like to go where the action is (to quote sociologist Erving Goffman).
Can mess and failure be designed, such that social activity results? Possibly, though it might make more sense to think of mess as “ambiguity.”
Goffman observed that in social situations, rituals provided a means for corrective behavior and action when the communication itself had broken down. He observed that ritual picks up where grammar leaves off: that when grammatical rules are broken, other ways of making sense are required. And this is true in social media. So true, in fact, that the entire genre may be described as a failing, error-prone, discombobulated and wholly-uncoordinated mess of a social experiment. And that it is only through the persistence, tolerance, and fascination of its users that much of social media survives with users intact.
But if this is the case, and I believe that some degree it is, then the failures, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missed connections serve to create new forms of interaction. These interactions answer the need created by failure, and take shape as gestures, communication, acts, and the myriad tacit codes of conduct that distinguish people, groups, identities, and more.
Ambiguity, unresolved and unclarified, may drive users on to repeat and reiterate their attempts at expressing themselves and obtaining a response or reply. Ambiguity may motivate those who wish to know more or understand better. Ambiguity may fuel rich and complex social dynamics in which the myriad of acts intended to figure out what’s going on and how to do it in effect create what’s going and how it works.
These phenomena exceed the capabilities of design to regulate or control — but not the abilities of designers to anticipate and accommodate. A social interaction design discipline oriented to regulating social dynamics, responding with agility to emerging social practices, steering social outcomes by dynamically controlling, gating, preempting, and amplifying communication by means of navigation, content layout, emphasis, symbolic objects, and channeling might promise a new kind of design. One that oriented to outcomes but which emphasizes system processes and social dynamics over structure and stability.
I do not know if this means a different kind of design or a different kind of designer. Social interaction design, to me, is not a matter of designing the screen but of designing systems for interaction. It’s my impression that the boxes by which many of us design and with which we try to contain the experience need to be opened up to systems and their processes, and interactions and their social dynamics. It strikes me that user experience professionals could enjoy a rich and fascinating engagement with social media if we can further develop approaches to social interaction that accurately anticipate outcomes by means of a grasp of these dynamics.
This is by no means a finiished thought, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.