Beyond user behavior: designing social

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/daveixd Dave Malouf

    Adrian, I'm not sure I agree w/ some of the specifics of this piece, but they turn out to be less important compared to the total meaning of the piece. I do think that people do respond, react, to stimuli. Cognitively speaking we do know that this is true. Those reactions are not however rote, They have contexts, and the infinite permutations of total properties that make up an individual's context is just barely predictable and I would argue that level of predictability is degrading even as we learn more about humanity and the human condition.

    My point to your piece is that the artifacts we design are the spaces and the spaces in between the interaction between humans. They are also the means of control. Your piece seems to undervalue the effect this has on the context of technologically mediaed social experiences.

    – dave

  • aslevin

    There is some recent data that lends credence to your prediction – or at least reinforces the narrow appeal of FourSquare. According to a recent Forrester study, the users of location-based services (FourSquare, Gowalla, Brightkite – with FourSquare the current market leader) are 80% male and 70% are between 19 and 35 years old. Usage is concentrated among a relatively small number of heavy users – only 1% of users do so more than once a week, but those frequent users have contributed over 100 million FourSquare checkins. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/are_locati

    What this suggests to me is that the competitively-focused and shallow game mechanics in FourSquare has been appealing to a very narrow segment of the population, and has not attracted – perhaps even repelled – users who have other motivations. It will be interesting to see if the simpler, more purely socially focused experience in Facebook gets greater adoption than the competitively focused experience in FourSquare.

    It will also be interesting to see, as 3rd parties start to use location as a platform for more specialized affordances and services, which other types of action gain traction. I suspect that we'll see a diversity of services that address different wants, different interests, and different dispositions.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Dave,

    I appreciate your sentiments. Tho perhaps not as guilty of it here, I do sometimes make use of Nietzsche's maxim that truth is exposed by means of exaggeration.

    There's enough literature to the influence, impact, regulation, or control over experience that I feel comfortable arguing the contrary. Clearly, social engineering is not what we're after or what this is about. That would be fascism, and I don't think any of us see our social design efforts as hewing to that kind of (party) line. Shaping, informing, guiding — I prefer those as concepts, but still, only if explained as the products or outcomes of social interaction.

    I don't know if I can ever overstate this. But the thought experiment to use here as an illustration might be: take a social service, prior to launch. It's got no users yet. What's it for? How is it used? Who's going to use it? With whom? what will happen? None of those questions are within our reach until users become involved. Experimental conclusions: that it is in the concrete content of interaction and communication left behind by users that we learn what it's about. That's precisely how users do it — they learn from the actions of others.

    If I walk down the hallway, am I walking down the hallway or going to the bathroom? Which is a better description of my activity? Of my intent? Am I walking down the hallways because it was designed by an architect? To the bathroom where the architect located it? Or because no matter where the damn thing is, I'm headed there pronto? Speaking for myself, I'll go out back if I have to, where nobody put the bathroom and possibly off the margins of the blueprint the building was drafted on.

    I view all of the design choices available to the social software designer as systemic and structural constraints on action. But as all systems theorists will tell you, a system is both constraining and enabling. For in constraining action, it makes some actions more probable than others.

    This is the gist of how I see social interaction design working: at the level of meaningful action, as anticipated by a designer whose understanding of individual and social activity, and captured in design sensitive to current and emergent online practices.

    I suspect that you could agree with that. It's neither difficult nor revolutionary. Where I represent a slightly marginal view of all this is in my emphasis on the socio-logical over the cognitive-behavioral. In my view cognition is fine when looking at a face. But is not enough if the face is looking back at you.

    Always up for good commentary. Cheers mate.

    adrian

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Adina,

    I saw that and yes, I think it probably confirms what I would have argued on principle. Foursquare may claim to have game mechanics, but game mechanics without a game are like Vegas — just a mockery of the real thing.

    I have no qualms with Foursquare having used badges and checkins to populate their service. Well done and all the power to them. Personally I wish they'd become a recommendation service. When I can check in using Facebook I'm going to feel pretty dumb if I'm going for badges. If anything, badge earners may wind up looking like wallflowers with no real social opportunities available to them but the virtual and synthetic social substitutes of badges and points.

    At some point social games played in real life look to people exactly what they are: substitutes.