On social interaction design and the detective

I have a thing for British television. It’s from having grown up in Edinburgh, I’m sure. But it is bolstered by the fact that some British television is in fact really good.

One of my favorites is the crime drama “Cracker,” which features Robbie Coltrane (whom you might know as Hagrid of Potter fame). This three-season gem is a masterpiece of the form. In it, Coltrane plays a hard-drinking, hard-living forensic psychologist who is called in by the police to help solve particularly nasty crimes.

The series pits the cops against the killers, and the psychologist against the cops. For in spite of Coltrane’s nominal role as a psychological copper, his method of insight and principle inevitably runs up against his more empirical and evidence-collecting colleagues.

Both psychologist and cop are after the truth. But where the cop sees it in a trail of evidence, the psychologist sees it in motives. Like the cops, he’s on the killer’s trail, but the trail forged by the killer’s instincts, not that which he leaves behind.

The series opens with Coltrane giving a university lecture on forensic psychology. He tosses out the canon of literature on psychology and instructs students to use what they know: what’s in their hearts. (The scene is only a minute in length, and runs from 1:20 to 2:20.)

As in Cracker, online social interaction might be approached with both evidence (through research) and human insight. Measurement and metrics for the provision of evidence and user activity data; and insights for an understanding of what users do, and why. The approach might be a kind of forensic social analysis, and would address not just social design in the abstract but in its particular emergence on a specific social platform.

And were it to exist, it could prove to be truly interesting. Media companies and advertisers alike would plunder its findings for more effective ways of reaching their targets. Investors and developers would rely on it for more accurate expectations and better assessments of risk in startup investments.

There isn’t yet any such thing as forensic social analysis. But in the meantime, we can take some inspiration from Coltrane’s message to his students. And write a script of our own.

We start by borrowing from Hitchcock, who once famously declared that he’d never made a Whodunnit film. His films were never about who committed the crime, but why, and for whom. In fact some of Hitchcock’s films open with the crime, and so this part of the mystery is solved already. What Hitch does is to then unfold the reasons behind the crime, usually by involving the audience in the solution to a puzzle that his characters are not yet privy to. Hitch’s victims are sometimes unwitting perpetrators, of crimes committed on behalf of or by proxy for somebody else.

The audience is involved in social media, too, as is the medium that sees (though it’s not a camera, but a browser). We all know the experience of being seen, perhaps of being watched, and possibly of being caught in the act. But these are not netcrimes, and our actors are not the hunters and the hunted. Resemblance between media may include the function of audiences but ends at narrative forms. In social media we write our own scripts and stage our own performances. But there are still motives and interests involved.

In Cracker, the deductive reasoning employed by Coltrane’s character Fitz draws on his inner truths and personal experiences. Fitz is a dark man, deceitful, corrupt, manipulative, and deeply human. All the better to catch the thief by. But again this is not detective work that we’re talking about in social media, so do the parallels of crimes committed and thoughts thought hold any merit? If design would normally choose to deduce, if marketing would prefer to research, if engineering would prefer to map, and if the entrepreneur would prefer to succeed, what if any role befits the gut? And whose?

Coltrane’s not informidable gut is a belly full of appetites and instincts that indeed serve his forensic inclinations — as well as his gastronomic impulses. As it is for us, his interest is less in mapping the territory covered, but in covering the territory not yet mapped. He wants to know where the killer will be next.

Is there not a possible lesson here in the task of anticipating what users want to do? In grasping motives, understanding what the social is capable of? For the purpose of thinking creatively and constructively about social application design?

It’s not that requirements specs, integration of user feedback, usability testing, and user flow miss the point entirely. But if we focus just on the elements of design and its architecture, we risk thinking that we have addressed possibilities (framed as “needs”) and are in control of the design process. Social tends to run away with design — on the basis of how users have begun to interact with one another. And that’s where the possibilities for a social app get really interesting: not in use cases per se but actual social and cultural practices.

For example, I just received notice of a new feature on a social site. It’s “featured members.” This is a common feature and it’s thus easy to grasp why it’s been implemented. But I happen to know, given the site’s theme and core activities, that there are other less obvious ways in which the site could support its community and enrich individual as well as social practices.

These would require that developers approach social using Fitz’s deductive reasoning, and human insight into how social dynamics work. And they would have to take some risks in trying new practices that best practices such as the featured member section addresses. They would have to draw upon intrinsic directions surfaced by the community at hand, not the extrinsic options presented by design solutions.

My point is that the social interaction designer should call on creative insights informed by observation and participation in an application’s social practices and cultures. Innovation ought to be driven by use of our social skills, as much as it is by our knowledge of application features.

Once a social system has a population, what it can do and what can be done with it becomes specific. To build out incrementally according to common or “best” design practices risks missing out on opportunities made available by a specific user population. Improvements can be made in design, yes, but those improvements will be limited by how we frame our approach.

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