On the importance of social interaction design for social startups

This post is an attempt at reaching the startups and social application companies out there that don’t have in-house social interaction design. And the many angels, funders, and venture firms that back them. I would like to say a few things about the role social interaction design can play. With a focus on when to use it, bring it into the product development process, and why.

The skills used by social interaction designers are uncommon, and for now, unconventional. In contrast to the talents of UI designers, the elegance of coders, the knowledge-base of production designers and CSS gods, social interaction design is as much a work in progress as the medium to which it attends.

When compared, however, with the story-telling and writing skills of marketing and PR, and when contrasted with the business logic of entrepreneurs and founders, social interaction design offers both method and objectivity to complement gut-sense and market instincts.

I write this post because I am a poor salesman — relying instead on my field to sell itself — and because I frequently have to first define the problem before I can pitch my services as a fitting solution.

The problem, as I see it, is that many small startups, and even some larger social media companies and efforts, lack user-centric and objective definitions of their goals and objectives. Companies are started to extend existing practices or applications, to take advantage of emerging market and social technology trends, and to explore opportunities in the marketplace. Those are either product or business-centric approaches, and they take user participation and interest for granted.

But the participation of users is precisely what will shape a company’s success. Social interaction design should be an essential step in vetting and defining product and service features. It can be relatively quick, and is not a full-time requirement. But insofar as it supplements the skills already covered by engineers, front-end designers, and business sense, it is a role that should not be overlooked.

What the social interaction designer brings to the equation is:

  • an understanding of different kinds of users (these replace standard use cases)
  • user interests
  • user skills and preferences in communication and interaction
  • social dynamics that occur in online populations
  • the complementary and mutually-engaging dynamics of different user types
  • an understanding of personal and social habits and practices
  • an understanding of the medium’s ways of creating presence and visibility
  • an ability to go from actions to social activities
  • appreciation of how to use design, layout, feature definitions, and more to capture user contributions and present content for use by non-participants
  • an awareness of market trends that goes deeper than knowing what’s popular

These contributions are critical when you are first defining social product or application features and functionality. But they are also valuable as you roll out, and proceed with revs and releases. Early product planning and design meetings need to accommodate the social interaction requirements of your audience, and of your product and business. Then later, when you have a working user base, user feedback and observed user behaviors will guide many of your todo lists.

Bear in mind that there are limitations to what you can get out of user feedback. It is essential that you attend to it — these are your users, after all. But try to resist allowing an existing user base to hijack or derail your product vision. Users can only do what you have allowed them to do — your product shapes behaviors and their social outcomes. You cannot know what users might do, given a different product design, or given features intended for the future.

For this, social interaction design draws on breadth of experience and a set of principles and insights that can ground exploration and feature development. In the right hands, social interaction design appreciates the specificity of your particular execution and product features, informed by human social interaction and communication principles and insights framed more globally.

Working off of user feedback alone is to design reactively — in response to activity that is already just a reflection of your prior design choices. Design influenced by a social interaction designer broadens your perspectives, allowing you to design with foresight. You net the capacity to anticipate not how features will work, but what users will likely do, and more so, how social dynamics may emerge.

In the time I have spent developing web applications and consulting to startups I have seen many a whiteboard decorated with the schemata of a company’s product development. But rarely have I seen flows or diagrams capturing user behaviors and social practices. These are what really matter.

Blueprints and roadmaps are for sure relevant and necessary. But unless the inner workings of a product’s functionality have been accompanied by a look at social outcomes — what happens when a new or existing user population actually wraps its habits around the product — the roadmap may bear little relation to the territory on which the population has taken up residence.

There is another reason to flip the whiteboard: product roadmaps can provide the illusion that all is under control. Soon your efforts are committed to meeting development targets and milestones. Project management oversees and coordinates resources allocated, mapping tasks to release cycles. All of this tends to occur according to software development traditions. But again, none of these reflect the active and dynamic practices of users.

In some cases, social application developers turn to incentive models and frameworks such as game mechanics. Here again, influences are generic and often poorly conceived “universals.” In short, What (all) users do. But there’s no such thing. Users become engaged according to their own personalities and interests, in the context of friendships and peer relations, or with perceived audiences and fans. Their activities reflect how they see themselves online as well as what’s interesting. They are explained by user experience insights, and by the social outcomes of various online practices.

All of this is nuanced. Your concerns are specific: specific to your users and to their interactions around your product or service. The direction provided by incentive models are universal and generic, but your community of users is individual and particular. By analogy, you are concerned not with students and learning in general, but with this school or this classroom in particular. All solutions do not apply equally, but should be pursued with the subtlety characteristic of good design.

All of this should seem fairly obvious. It does to me. But our industry is witness to the commonplace of highly-anticipated product design changes and subsequent audience revolts time and time again. This may reflect a hubris on the part of the companies that build social tools. Or it may indicate that somewhere in the product design process certain important questions were simply not asked. Either because the team did not consider them relevant; or, more likely, because the questions worth posing were not yet a step in the design process. Given that social tools only work if they work for users, this just simply makes no sense.

In our industry, as in so many others, great products are built out of great user experiences. We’re still learning how to do this, and consequently, we’re still learning what to ask and how to frame our observations. Where success matters, however, this learning should belong to the design process of every social media company.

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