Beyond Usage Lifecycle in designing for social

I had a chance this morning to catch up with unopened items in google reader. Something I used to keep up with daily, but which I now fall behind on. Occasionally something catches my attention and sticks with me. I can then choose to move on with the day or write something to it. This morning I’m choosing the latter.

At the risk of being curmudgeonly, I need to split some hairs on some tips from Josh Porter. I like Josh’s post and have followed his blog for several years. We differ, however, in our approach to social interaction and social design. My impression is that Josh emphasizes design where I emphasize social interactions.

As designers, whether UI, UX, interaction designers or information architects, we use terms to identify key practices and approaches. They allow us to communicate what we’re doing — to each other, as a design field or community, and to clients. Terms simplify and sediment some of our more complex methodological approaches into a language readily accessible.

Josh makes good and reasonable points on the Usage Lifecycle. I don’t disagree with the importance of framing design from user-centric perspectives. But I do have to take issue with applying usage lifecycle stages to social tools.

Here’s an excerpt from Creating Engaged and Passionate Users, Part 1:

There are five main stages that users traverse through with web sites and applications: 1) Unaware, 2) Interested, 3) First-time User, 4) Customer, and 5) Passionate Customer. Design decisions are best made when designers know what lifecycle stage someone is in and what they’re trying to do at that moment. It’s a very simple idea, but it changes the entire approach to design.

Yes, it’s good to start with the user. And in conventional, non-social software, it is true that new users first learn and then build competence with an application. But usage lifecycle stages don’t describe or explain what users do on social tools.

I don’t think that the cycle is unaware > interested > user > customer > passionate customer. That’s to describe use as a relation between user and tool. The relation is between user and other users, and between the user and his or her own emotional, personal, psychological, and social investments in a social experience that happens to be mediated by an application.

The tool, as a focus of user experience, recedes in social and becomes a kind of social architecture. Foremost in the mind of the user are communication, perception, social motives, activities, and so on. Not design or software functionalities.

Now, it’s unclear to me how much of what Josh writes in the post is really focused on social media. But I can’t wrap my head around these observations. They are neither descriptive (of the user experience) nor explanatory (of user actions, including their motives and consequent behaviors). Furthermore, these observations describe just one user. As we know, social interaction design concerns the outcomes of use of tools by many users.

Josh writes:

The best way to get users passionate about these types of applications is to make them better at their jobs as email marketers.
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This really has to do with focusing on the experience users have when they interact with your product and working on getting users good at what the application does.
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This was an eye opener for me, as I suddenly saw this same mistake applied over and over in social software projects. For users, personal value comes first, it precedes social value almost all the time.
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I try to keep this in mind. If you focus on giving users personal value first, then and only then will people start sharing that value with others.

The points I take issue with are a) that designers influence the users and their experience directly; b) that personal value comes first; c) that users share what is personally valuable necessarily; d) that it is value that is shared; e) that “sharing” is some kind of social action.

My concerns:

a) I think the best we can do in social interaction design is architect social tools to structure interaction opportunities, organize communication and content views, and systematize ongoing interaction and communication. Each user then has his or her own experience according to his or her relationships, communication, engagement with social phenomena (groups, or themed activities such as dating or professional networking), interests, and so on. We can design the car, and the roadways, but not the experience of driving in traffic. How users like driving and what their experience is when they hit traffic is beyond our direct influence. (I will say that I agree with the sentiment that we help users be good at something — I just think that’s a matter of the user’s experience, not an outcome of our design choices.)

b) I completely disagree that personal value comes first. In social, personal is social. There’s no isolating personal from social. All social interests, motives, behaviors, actions, interactions, relationships, and communication are fundamentally intersubjective. That is, our individual experiences include our awareness of other people, interpretations of what they intend or mean, how we are perceived and received, and so on.

his is philosophical, but I feel strongly that social design must begin with the sociological assumption that all social facts are intersubjective. So I take issue with the notion that personal value is privileged over and distinct from social value. In fact I’d like to see a clear definition of personal value vs social value. Because it seems that personal value is subjective while social value somehow is objective. Which makes no sense. And which would somehow suggest slippage from user experience as subjective experience to social practices as being objectively defined: logically contradictory.

c) I don’t get the argument that people share their personal value. What is that? Is it like talking? When I talk I look at the other person and we pay attention to each other while taking turns speaking and listening. It doesn’t feel like I’m sharing my personal value. So this makes no sense to me as a description of user activity on social media. Furthermore, my own conversations tend to include a number of things that escape “sharing personal value.” I ask questions. I offer help and advice. I agree or inquire further. I smile and laugh. And as far as I know, the other person usually gets all of this. Now granted this unfolds differently online, but I would still prefer to ground social interaction online on talk than have to defend some new kind of social behavior called “sharing personal value.”

d) I don’t get what value is. It seems to be some kind of objective unit of meaning that I presume is valuable (to me, to him or her, and if so why for the both of us?). But I know of know communication theory, no version of linguistics, and certainly no psychology that describes communication in terms of disclosure, expression, or exchange of value. Here again I sense that the concept is supposed to be objective — but in all things social, action is intersubjective. There’s no privileged position from which a value would be measured or deemed to be valuable in a way that all would agree with and accept.

e) I don’t get what “sharing” is. If the concept here is that in social media, we share our personal value with others, or share what is personally valuable to us with others, then there’s apparently some global form of communication action that discloses this value in such a manner that others share in it. Now this just flies against all the linguistics and communication theory I know of. For we all know that there’s no fixed meaning or unit of exchange in communication.

And if we approach this from an action perspective, “sharing” isn’t one of them. It may be an intent — I want to share (but then I have to either say something, show you something, draw something, point to something… ). It may be that I share a bookmark — but then the action is bookmarking and from there the issue is whether or not you subscribe to me, follow my bookmarks, nav to it by tags… it’s not shared unless you see it and even then, you have to click it for my action of sharing to really have been successful. Even then there’s no telling whether or not you liked it, agreed with it, or what have you. So have you shared my “value”? I just don’t get this.

A couple more points. We won’t understand what users experience on social tools from a lifecycle perspective. Fact is that many of us start using an application by signing in with Facebook or twitter. Our first “action” on that tool may in fact be seeing or posting content to friends or followers. The social context is already there; mentally, we’re among friends, peers, and colleagues. There’s no passage here from mildly interested to passionate. Just a user doing social stuff they’ve done elsewhere but somewhat differently, according to the tool’s features and design.

And lifecycle descriptions lump all users into one big bucket of competence, which I take issue with. Competence, or use, of a tool, isn’t the primary experience in social media, and all users don’t have experiences that can be described according to their familiarity (interest > passion) with the tool. First timers on dating sites may be way more engaged than those who’ve had an account for a couple years. Besides, the passion there is in another person, not the dating site.

Users have different personalities, and their psychologies vary in ways that may be manifest in how they interact and communicate with others. And in ways that manifest in how they engage in a particular social media audience. Differences among the many kinds of twitter users are not explained by lifecycle stages. Those who publish, those who get chatty, those who follow to get followers, those who retweet links, are different because of what they’re doing, not because of how well they know the tool.

That’s all. Just had to rant a bit. I take this all pretty seriously because I see real value in using social theory and psychology as a source for social interaction design methodologies. My apologies if I come across as flippant at times, but I wrote this while thinking aloud.

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  • Anonymous

    I agree with most of this critique: that the personal experience is not necessarily primary, that the social experience is intersubjective and conversational, that “sharing value” is too transactional to capture what is going on in social interaction, that design fosters social experiences and doesn’t determine them.

    I also think the critique of personal and social value misparses what Porter is saying a bit unfairly. The adoption trajectory that Porter describes is based on “social object” systems like Flickr and delicious where the user starts by doing something valuable to them personally (like storing and organizing their own pictures) and then moves to discovering what is shared by others and sharing with others. Simply parsing the statement, then, first “personal value” is about managing one’s own photos, and the “value shared” is about realizing that one can share the photos with others, and benefit from other’s photos.

    As you mention rightly, this trajectory isn’t the same trajectory in other social software – one starts using Facebook because friends are there to affiliate with and talk to, not because of any individual, personal thing. And this trajectory isn’t the case for all users even in flickr – some, I strongly suspect, started posting on flickr only because they want to share, say, pictures of a party or a vacation, because they are anticipating their friends reactions, and it never was a personal photo management shoebox app for them.

    I do think the personal/social sequence is one valid dimension in thinking about adoption of social software (not the same order for all people, or all functions). There are other lifecycle considerations about the growth of groups, about handling signal to noise, about handling social context, about social roles in groups of people (conveners, hosts, tummlers, etc). I think lifecycle is a valid analytical consideration, but the personal/social sequence is not always the case, and insufficiently nuanced to explain or seek to enhance the social experiences.