- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social Interaction Design: Structure

This post is inspired by today’s excellent reflection On the thoughtful use of points in social systems by Adin Levin of Socialtext. Adina summarizes a twitter conversation that unfolded yesterday among “Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and a few others on the thoughtful use of points and competition in social systems.”

I’m going to spin this off in a different direction for reasons of my own, but I highly recommend visiting Adina’s post.

I want to address just a few somewhat philosophical points salient to the social media design field in general, and important to my own practice of social interaction design more specifically.

There’s an intrinsic tension between three key positions, each of which we should have an understanding about. They are:

  • the user
  • the system
  • the social media professional

Why the third? Because we observe user actions and build or implement social media systems, and therefore have notions about the other two, how they inter-relate, and need to reflect on our notions to better understand how they shape what we can do.

The user has interests and motives that we will never have complete access to — in fact by most accounts the user himself isn’t aware of the reasons or causes of all his actions and choices. But the user matters to us because we do claim to take a user-centric approach to social media design. And not for no reason: capturing user interests and producing compelling and engaging social experiences is what it’s all about.

And we recognize that there’s this vast and complex social field there in which all manner of reasons, motives, incentives, interests, goals, and what have you that might account for what users do, why, and whether they will do it again. We won’t know all of that, but for that we should not consider the user a black box, or explain user behavior on the basis of causes external to him or her. The user supplies his own motives and experience.

Now there’s a natural tension between user-centricity and design. For the explanations of user action are subjective — anchored in the user’s own stream of activity, and embedded in the user’s experience of friendships and social structures that span time and space.

Design, however, needs objectivity. Things, elements, operations, ordered in support of functions having functionality. In short, uses.

Now, in the old days, that is, pre-social software, we could conflate the user and the use case. All was neat and tidy. The user was what her use of the software was, the use case described that use, and the system’s success was a clear binary situation. We could describe users by their needs (I need to do this “because of” motive) or goals (I want to do this “in order to” motive). These supplied the utility served by means of transactions with the software. Easy pass/fail system problem: was the software successful, efficient, and effective.

Design requirements could then be articulated on the basis of user flow, activity, or action sequencing (wizards step the interaction for simplicity and effectiveness). And more. The point, in other words, being that we could structure user action with elements, codify button functions, articulate requirements for screen content, layout, and navigation, and even structure time. Then, according to the system’s primary functions, we could filter data, sort results, and order them on the screen — using many tried and tested best practices.

Now, as professionals interested in designing and building social media, we need to consider a) the user experience b) the system design and c) our own perspectives and understanding of how a) and b) inter-relate.

  • We can take a roughly causal view of it: the user responds to design constraints.
  • Or a normative view: the user is constrained by the norms and values of a community of users
  • Or a functional view: the user has needs and goals, and uses social media to accomplish these with and through other users
  • Or a psychological view: social media present an external psychosocial world onto which users project their expectations, and from which they internalize the meanings of interaction outcomes
  • Or a communication view: users maintain relationships and engage in communication through social media as they would in daily life, with varying notions of what social media are, do, and of the people who use them

And there are other views, some of which pertain strongly to brands (users have passions), to marketers (users consume brand messaging), to mass media (user eyeballs have moved to social media), to customer service (users have the power), and so on.

My point being that each of us, as social media industry practitioner, likely has a take on this that leans in some direction or another.

I often find that design, engineering, and product folks tend to have more objective explanations of What Social Media do and how they work. Marketers, PR, Sales, etc have a more people (user) centric view. And so on.

We need both, but we also need to know the limits of our own perspectives — else we run the risk of confusing what it means to us with what it means to the user. And of confusing how the design works with what the user is doing. They are not the same.

Social interaction is a particular kind of action. Social action is oriented to another person. It has the relationship of “I : Thou” or of “We.” Now the fact that social media are media — that action is mediated by means of design elements that have their own “meanings” and by language as writing, sight as image or recording, and interaction through navigation — this all matters, for any social action is not directly social but mediately social.

Terms like proximity, connection, relationship, conversation — we need to recognize that these are terms applied to a world that is phenomenologically constructed and ontologically absent. Or better, imagined. I am, now, typing into a little box talking to you, attached to a little box. Terms we use to describe the social evoke precisely the social attributes that world is missing. It is missing proximity, connection, relationship, and conversation. Just a point worth making.

Clearly this point serves little purpose aside from dusting off our idiom a bit, but clarity in perspective requires a good wipe now and then.

So, to where I wanted to go with this. Social interaction needs to accommodate users, as individuals. Needs to accommodate users with other users (social action, communication, and social practices). Needs to accommodate design (structure of elements and resources, rules, functionalities, and systemness: structure in and over time).

Anthony Giddens has a nice take on this. His view, called “structuration theory,” claims that social structure is a duality: it is real, but doesn’t exist unless reproduced by people constrained and enabled by it. The user has agency, structure constrains and enables action. This is perfect (IMHO) for social systems.

He makes three helpful distinctions around structure:

  • structural principles: Principles of organization of societal totalities
  • structures: Rule-resource sets, involved in the institutional articulation of social systems
  • structural properties: Institutionalized features of social systems, stretching across time and space

I find these very useful. For the challenge is in trying not to confuse design and structure with causality (that a user responds to constraints). And it permits seeing the ways in which social “stuff” happens when users begin, haphazardly and around a particular tool, app, site (etc) to form practices (the sticky). For social practice is structuring: relations, behavior, expression, meanings.

There is “structure,” then, on the social side and on the design side. And in between, the interactions and communication are how the whole thing is reproduced, constantly, daily, all the time. (And why flow and streams are such an important shift.)

There is more to say here on interaction and communication (language has structure, interaction has structure), and how users use each to relate to each other, while also supplying the juice that turns the social media engine. But this was meant to be a quickie and I don’t want to violate your sense of good and proper form.

(I will say, though, that I think it’s in articulating social practices that supply social organization, use of symbolic elements that stabilize meanings used in social media (little design features, nav, icons etc), and then how the system transforms communication into infomation and social content, about which it offers system messages, views, aggregate data as a reflection of the system on its own use by users.)

So I think that as we move forward in our approach to designing the social, we might reflect on our positions and approaches. By doing so, we might shape the field, and I think it’s an emerging one, so that we can see how practitioners with different areas of focus and experience fit together.

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