I’d like to mediate briefly on a topic that’s also a recurring interest of mine — and one relevant to social interaction design. It’s the matter of user behavior. It circulates now and then within the design community, and when it does, it seems to crash like a rogue asteroid tumbling through a beltway of unhinged rocks and streaking stars.
This occurs, I think, because in matters of behavior, there are two fundamentally opposed views. Those from the perspective of intention, motive, agency, and other user-centric explanations of behavior-as-activity. And those from the perspective of behavior as response, reaction, informed and shaped by architectures, features, functions, and other forms of planned organization.
We know from older debates on human agency that behavior can be an expression of individual meanings, or a response to situations and contexts. Both are accurate in their own way. Behavior does of course manifest the inner experience and life of the mind. But life lived in place and time is always situated, and as such our choices necessarily reflect our experiences of what we perceive and how we interpret.
What behavior is not — and this is my philosophical inclination, is automatic, reactive, and direct response to stimulation. It’s not a chemical, physical, or other kind of simple response. If it involves meaningful activity, it necessarily involves interpretation and awareness.
The matter of behavior in social media and social tools, then, can never be about getting users to do what we want them to do. It is never as simple as that. Firstly, we don’t have that kind of access: our users do what they do not in response to our designs, but in response to other users (from which they develop a sense of what it means to them and where they fit). Secondly, behavior is an inadequate concept for social interaction and communication. These are more complicated and more inter-subjective (that is, dynamic) than is suggested by the idea of behavior.
Consider a conversation. Which statement or response would you ascribe to what cause? What behavior — verbal, physical, gestural — is explained by what stimulus? It’s simply impossible to identity the behavior response because in communication and interaction, the activity is too complex to be treated reductively.
But if we need to think differently about our interest in user behavior, this only means that we relinquish the notion that behavior is ours to control. We can’t get the kids to sit down and pay attention. But we can put chairs in the room, and install a teacher and a blackboard at the helm. We can begin the period at a set time, end class at a later time, and repeat as necessary.
In short, we can engender habits, routines, and activities. We can’t create norms or practices out of thin air. But we can give them a pretty good chance.
in doing so, it’s important that we maintain our focus on the user. To continue with the analogy, we’re interested in students learning, not in education. Education is the abstraction of learning. Education will occur if we have designed for learning.
It’s the same in designing for social media. Trust will occur if we design for dynamics of risk and trust-building (there’s no trust without risk). Reputation will occur if we design to feature experts. Loyalty occurs if we design for ongoing communication and relationships.
While it’s not always simple and straightforward, designing towards the dynamics of social interaction embraces and leverages the forces that are of consequence to users. Users engage with people and meanings, acts and social contexts.
This is where Facebook Places is about to trump Foursquare. Badges will strike many users as an unnecessary and secondary activity when place-based actions become part of the Facebook newsfeed.
Yes, there will be users who continue to play for the sake of earning and wearing badges. but the social utility of Facebook’s Place checkins solves a far more substantial point of resistance to geo-location. Namely, the “who cares” problem. My friends are more likely to care than my followers. Facebook has more of my friends than Foursquare.
So the matter of user behavior is approached best in terms of social interaction and its contexts — not as response to onscreen features, functionalities, and design. I think that as a field, we have a ways to go yet in naming and organizing the field of observed behaviors and practices. And there are many not yet observed, but which we might anticipate when technologies make certain kind of interactions possible.
Likewise, I think many of our social tools and services could benefit from a close look at their interaction models. If not only to catalog and identify present behaviors and uses, to better set targets aligned to real user practices.