- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social Interaction Design simplified

I have been asked recently to explain Social Interaction Design (SxD) in simple terms. What it is to design and designers, and to user experience design fields in particular (interaction design and information architecture). But also what it is to social media in general, including application development, social media business design, strategies, and their execution.

Folks who know what I’m trying to do with Social Interaction Design know that I’m after a description of individual and social practices around social applications that starts from the user experience. This is important to me and to the theory and framework of SxD for a simple reason. If the framework is to be accurate and valuable it needs to account for social dimensions intrinsically (not by metaphor, analogy, or anecdote). That is, grounded in the individual experience. For there is no “there” there in online interactions — all communication and interaction is lifted out of the context of place, and dislocated from the continuity of time and presence that frames our face to face encounters. (Social interaction online is not “like” interaction face to face, but is different for reasons worth exploring.)

Starting from the user experience also forces the designer, architect, marketer, strategist, or other social media professional to think from the user’s perspective. Thinking from the perspective of product, problem, solution, utility, or branding is fine, but excludes the experience: what people do, why, and how many people “together” produce social outcomes.

The user centric approach here is deeper than it is in conventional design for the simple reason that social interaction involves users interacting with users. Not with the screen, with functions, features, elements, content, navigation, or what have you. And not with the brand, product, or service. Users don’t talk about brands, they talk to each other. How they talk to each other in ways that also bring attention to a brand is what is interesting to me — and requires a more holistic approach to social media than use of media as media.


While I resist anecdotal descriptions for the reason that I’m after the dynamics of social from a view of participation, I’ll use one here to see if I can better convey what I’m talking about.

Take a lunch. Lunch is a meal. One might explain it as a means of satisfying the universal human need to eat food. This would explain lunch from the perspective of satisfying “needs.” This is true, but it’s an inadequate description of what goes on when we’re having lunch

[Google meets our “need” to find information.]

For example, there’s is the matter of what’s for lunch. Lunch has content. The food itself is not just food to be eaten for the satisfaction of metabolic conversion into energy. It comes in all different forms: recipes, menus, dishes and all the rest of it.

[Twitter has created a new form of talk.]

But the lunch itself is also not the sum of it. Our fellow diners have different tastes, and what’s tasty to one may be just so-so to another. If food tastes good, “good” is not an objective property of the food. It’s the experience of those of us who think the food is good.

[Foursquare combines the social of popular places to go with the personal recommendations of things we think are good.]

But the meal served, good or not, is again not the sum of it. Where are we going for lunch? And what’s “where?” In choosing where to have lunch together we may run through many different kinds of restaurants, and compare them on the basis of quality, price, reputation, style, ambience, and so on. (Is it hip?) Regardless of which attribute we agree on, and by which we choose our lunch place, the value choice we have made is not objective either. Value is in how we value. What’s a valid reason for choosing our lunch place, say “it’s new and it’s getting popular” may not be valid for another (it’s overpriced; it’s not the real thing).

[Yelp is about taste and opinion. Reviews illustrate the many ways in which users disclose their tastes, identify with merchants, and express their values.]

And what about who’s going? Are we friends? Co-workers? Are we having a work lunch or lunch to catch up with each other? Surely these are important social aspects of going out for lunch.

[Linkedin social practices, even when their design is similar to Facebook, are social in different ways.]

But in these respects, then, what matters more: the type of relationships we have (eg work); the status of our relationships (one of us is tagging along); or how we feel (bummer, because now we’re going to have to listen to him complain about the boss)? If we talk about how relationships affect the experience, we have to acknowledge that there are different ways of characterizing what a relationship is.

[Facebook is popular in part because there are so many ways to engage and relate to friends near and far, new and old, from greetings to games]

And there’s our communication and interactions with each other. Are we boisterous and comfortable with each other? Do we bring work to the table? Do we have lunch to talk casually about work, or because we genuinely like each other? Both, of course, could serve friendship, or serve our workplace.

[Social practices vary significantly from dating to jobs sites.]

If in fact this is a working lunch, then the social context is actually “work.” Our lunch is an extension of work insofar as we continue relationships with each other as employees in a non-work environment. But this makes us better co-workers, improves the basis of our appreciation for each other, and helps out our communication. As a work lunch, this lunch works (is work of a different sort).

[Social media in the enterprise don’t work the same way as public social media.]

And so on we could go. We could talk about plates and silverware. We could talk about the space and its design. Its location. Or we could talk about the service and presentation. None of these would describe whether we enjoyed lunch, or account for the “experience” in toto. None would explain why we had lunch, or be able to predict whether we will do it again (and how soon).

I have dramatically over-simplified this example to show that there are different ways of observing social practices, describing them, and accounting for their elements, their organization, value, social routines, and social significations.

We see similar differences taken every day in how we describe social media. You and I will at times use industry trends, business transformations, technical innovation, social habits, information needs, communication practices, designs, features, types, and more to describe What goes on with social media and How people do it.

We might attribute the medium’s popularity to changes in how we connect with people. To how we talk and stay in touch. To disruption in the marketplace. To the demographics of various audiences and their use of social tools. To the fortunes of big players and the ecosystem of application developers. To the periodic success of a product or service and its trickle down effect in copying and extending hits like the iPhone or twitter. To the cultural trends like personal branding, status updates, blogging, social networking, and many more.

My aim with social interaction design is to contextualize these various and valid descriptions and observations, but to seek a deeper accounting of the user’s practices and how they add up to the social practices we see, and will see emerging, in social media. My hope is to help to shape the field in ways that will result in clear assessments and insightful and useful explanations — connected, ultimately, to human experience.


  • I've found the following conceptual tools useful.

    1. We act initially to act out an identity. The props – lunch, food, etc – are by-the-by.
    2. Each activity has a script that is relatively well known.
    3. The bit part players (in our eyes) or service providers make themselves visible through the props.
    4. Any interactions follow a spiral described by Losada – balanced attention to info outside and inside our little script, balance inquiry and assertion (conversation), positive>negative around 5:1.
    5. And of course the Ryan and Deci ARC -Autonomy, Relatedness, Competence see recently in Dan Pink and Jane McGonigal

    Late here, so will try to process your list against this list tomorrow.

  • Thanks Jo,

    My take is a bit different, but I'll summarize it in a separate post this wk. A couple quick points, because your list is interesting.

    I dont start from an identity acted or presented, but rather from social action through which participants act according to personality and social competencies. Identity is, to me, too stable a concept. I prefer experiences framed by the interactions (activities, communication, but also self-serving actions that are surfaced at the other end as aggregated social activity).

    I also rely less on scripts than on frames, for which I like Goffman's work. In part because scripts often fail online. There are so many discontinuous interactions, unfinished exchanges, fade outs and so on that we lose a lot of the context (or stage) that a script requires for its successful performance.

    There are also many ways in which tools have unintended consequences, and resulting in some interesting social effects. Tweets @replied to a person but seen by others, for example: surely there are then two audiences, the @replyname and the author's followers.

    All this contributes to the user experience, in my opinion, and suggests to me that we shouldn't assume the meaning of an activity or action is the same for us as it is for the user involved.

    In other words I prefer an intersubjective approach to an objective one. This comment, for example, will be read differently by you than by somebody else. Your experience will be different, enough so that you may consider responding here or elsewhere. Another reader may follow this up with a comment addressed to me, or to you, and that reader may have in mind to be seen here, to make a point about you or me, or about him/herself, or to the audience s/he believes is “here.”

    Those, to me, are all matters of intersubjective (social) action: stuff done with another person in mind. And it's there that these media can be motivating, compelling, engaging, etc. Most characterizations call this “commenting.” But user experience is particular; “commenting” is a generic term. Commenting to whom, in front of whom, for what reason, about what, and so on. Or as in this case, not “commenting” but “replying.” (Since all linguistic statements that are about something could be called “comments.”)


  • Agree on all points (bowing my head in deference at frames vs scripts – will have to look up the difference).

    I learned my framework from hoteliers who make the off-missed point. We don't go to them for a bed. We could sleep on the streets or at a friends. When we use their bed we act out an identity – so we agree. My untechnical use of a technical word is to blame.

    I agree that the intersubjective is the focus – the tough for psychologists who've been heavily schooled to think differently.

    Till later!

  • The art, it seems, will be to critique the various tools and community practices as they interrelate with things people do and say and get out of the experience, as informed by the tools and practices. Where “get out of the experience” includes changed relationships, not just “results.” And then how variables in design and practice relate to differences in experience.

    Cross-cultural will be important here. I was laughing with recognition in the paragraphs about restaurants and work/social connections – this is among other things a lovely text on the social construction of San Francisco. And various tools (Yelp, Dodgeball and its descendents) are SF-influenced in form.

    parenthetically, I like the distinction between identity and interactions – it's why social networking as profile-based assertions seemed boring as dirt and the stream-based model is a lot more live. Someone's last.fm stream is more interesting than an at-a-given-point list of favorite bands, though the latter serves as an assertion of identity & tribe.

    Finally, I am not sure I understand the reluctance to use stories to explain the interpersonal interactions with social software/social media. It is possible and too easy to freeze individual examples into a false canonical narrative. The stories that play out involve a complex array of people, motivations, and relationships that continually change. Still, stories are the way people understand and model interpersonal interactions. Complex stories – novels, plays, movies, are the way we understand such interactions.

    There are issues of narrative form. Addressing a customer support issue problem that comes in via social media hopefully has a structure of tension and resolution. Sharing music links with blip and twitter is informal, episodic, with no particular ending; short dramatic arcs like like pingpong and possibly larger episodic dramatic arcs around sociality and community.

    So I think there's a need for models that highlight variables of time, temperament, practice and relationship; and observational practices that get evidence; and stories to illustrate patterns that play out.

  • Adina

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'll keep this short as I hope to clarify some theoretical positions in a different post, and let this stand as the simplification that it is.

    On stories, I have nothing against using them as a description. But stories represent characters within narrative form and can tend to implicate the character's decisions or choices within the storyline and as a reflection of the story told. Very good for describing, but I need a theory that explores the user's experience. In some cases we might frame that experience in story terms, for example where a user using social media to accomplish something over time. But cases of interaction or communication are more complicated and I think appropriately addressed from the descriptions of social encounters as observed, for example, by Goffman. I'd love to do a Goffmanesque set of experience descriptions of the many different interactions, including the many misunderstandings and “breakdowns,” that can occur on twitter (and which are the reason twitter simply doesn't work for a lot of people).

    I'll get to this later, but I like Anthony Giddens' approach to structure. He resolves the structural problem by using a model of agency and structure instead of identity/community. He does this because in his view we engage with many interconnected and interdependent “systems”, all lacking clear boundaries, but each having consistency from the perspective of interaction. We then don't have to characterize social media on a spectrum from individual use on up to community and “collective action.” And instead of describing social media we describe the user experience, interactions, and communication. It's a shift of focus.


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