Hey startup, what’s your social interaction model?

I’ve been doing an awful lot of talking to potential clients in the past weeks. As a consequence, my social interaction design pitch has tightened up. I’m going to attempt a brief and concise (un-Chan-like) summary of why it is that I believe social media startups and services ought to know their social interaction design requirements.

I think that all companies involved in social media should have an interaction and communication model. This applies to those building end user experiences using social media, as well as those using social media for branding, service, sales, or other campaigns.

This model captures what users (will) do with the service. It identifies social elements, activities, content, and much more — all of which are provided by user participation. There’s no understating the importance of this: the process and outcome of your interaction model definitions will center your efforts on user-centric requirements, and cement your internal guidelines on paths forward through scale and population dynamics.

Interaction models are necessary because features and functionalities alone are just dead operations performed on information, data, and other bits of content.
The social value added to any system is added by users.

It’s added by virtue of their interests — which vary by personality and social habits. It’s added by virtue of these interests being social — they are meaningful to others, and are visible, too.

It’s added by virtue of these activities being captured and represented — users see their own actions reflected back to them, and so their individual presence becomes socially relevant.

And it’s added because social activities communicate — this tells us that activities take audiences into account, and that audiences create context in which social participation is grounded.

Your social interaction model will articulate what users will do. Not just in terms of interacting with your site or application, but interacting with others. In fact the crux of social interaction design is the recognition that in social media, the interaction is among users, not between the user and the interface.

While it is an abstraction, it will reflect coherent social practices in which presence, situations, contexts of action, turns of communication, arrangements of users and audiences, and distribution of attention all can be accounted for. It will be able to relate an individual user’s interests, personally and socially, to a number of relevant activities. And it will account for the social practices that can develop around use of a tool; and anticipate the interactions and content that result from the social outcomes of participation by users.

Whether you fashion your social interaction model by means of meetings and whiteboarding, copying others, or shooting for the moon is up to you. But just as you know the benefits of a marketing requirements doc and product requirements doc, so too, the social interaction design requirements capture and codify your company’s social aims and expectations.

More akin to the MRD, which tends to focus on use cases and scenarios, than the PRD, which identifies product feature requirements, the SxD doc is aggressively user-centric. This owes to the simple fact that we have little but our own observations of user behavior, and our understanding of what people do with social tools, for and in front of whom, and why, with which to identify user interests.

We need to build on the basis of interests because social tool use is deeply personal, and being social, often strays from the “needs, goals, and objectives” that govern conventional software use. Users engage voluntarily. We need not know exactly why — many users couldn’t tell you this anyways, and would fib about some cases. They are interested. That’s all that matters — because as long as we have this in mind, we will be thinking from the user’s perspective. And that’s what counts — thinking from user, not product, not business, not brand, not company, not feature perspectives.

(Transferring funds from savings to checking: a discrete transaction for which software is reliably efficient and in which the user experience is measurably successful or not, and the software performance effective, or not.)

Knowing your social interaction model focuses your mind, aligns it with user interests, and attunes it to the social outcomes that emerge from interaction. It’s as relevant and critical for its role in orienting your efforts as it is capturing social use cases.

Let’s say, for example, that you need to create trust. Trust among a user and a brand. Or between a user and another user. Trust is not a quantity, not a thing, and is not possessed by either a brand or a user. Trust describes a relation. It can be extended and given, just as it can be withdrawn and canceled. It is built on the basis of risk, for without risk, trust is unnecessary. It can be offloaded to system properties and mechanisms, where it functions as reliability, confidence, and dependability.

It can be represented, as in a badge, points, or other status- and reputation-endowing icon. But then, the bias introduced by the representations themselves must be taken into account. For they will inform and shape the behaviors of some users. And when this occurs, trust leaks, and leaks can be toxic.

You may not want to represent trust, to leverage it as a value added by social participation to content (products, brands, people). You may, instead, want to build relational trust among users. You may, in other words, be a LinkedIn and not a Yelp. Trust built among users might be realized as a measure of reputation capital, in which case you are dealing with the perception of trust. If, however, you are an OKCupid and you wish to capture interpersonal trust, valid and reliable experiences matter more than peer perceptions.

And that’s just trust. There are many more social attributes cited as sought-after social value adds. (As well as many that companies wish to avoid.) In addition to trust (be it reputation and perception; experiential and interpersonal; systemic and functional…) there are: desire, competition, collaboration, affinity, buzz, popularity, and much more.

Each is a social attribute brought into existence only by virtue of participating, engaged, individuals. Channeled, captured, articulated, leveraged, protected, constrained and so on by your system, yes. But produced only because users tacitly understand and voluntarily (with interest) participate in collusion with your desired efforts.

This is not the kind of social engineering you achieve on the fly. And the high failure rate of social media startups is testimony to this. Millions have been thrown down the drain by entrepreneurs who could identify what they’d built their platform for, but who couldn’t tell you how it worked, socio-logically speaking.

Users are not all alike. And most of us do not amble about with multiple user types and differentiated social practices in mind. We assume that our users are like us. Well they’re not. They don’t think, want, express, interpret, respond, stick around, or leave like us. Just ask a few of them. They won’t see your product for what you want, won’t use it as you hoped, and won’t establish the same tight affinity for it as you have (out of necessity).

So how are you going to capture the fleeting and transient attention and interest of an audience already distracted? Only on the basis of the engagement of others. For which you have designed for experiences that are diverse and multi-faceted. Interactive and ongoing.

A final thought on the importance of your social interaction model. All systems are dynamic and changing. New user habits and social practices emerge as tools and technologies make them possible; others then pass and fade away. There’s an element, a strong one, of the event, to all social media.

As event planners know when to schedule the coffee break, and when to open the bar, so, too, your social roadmap should anticipate future developments. Even if you cannibalize early practices for the sake of shaping new ones. A good model will not be stiff and inflexbile, but rather agile and dynamic.

That’s probably enough on this for now. There’s a book in here. But it’s a Friday.

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  • http://twitter.com/loretoparisi loretoparisi

    The keypoint is this

    “Users are not all alike. And most of us do not amble about with multiple user types and differentiated social practices in mind.”

    and the model is coming out of this is a behavioral interaction model.

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  • Anonymous

     ”Users are not all alike. And most of us do not amble about with multiple user types and differentiated social practices in mind.”

    User metrics on different platforms get very interesting. As an example, you may have a different aggregate cohort following you on Twitter than on Facebook – and still others on LinkedIn and a blog. Assuming you recognize this, and want a mashup of these cohorts as your client base/audience, how the groups interact can be a non-trivial issue.

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