- October
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Designing social tools: core user types

In rolling out and growing a successful social product we need to always think from the user’s perspective. Audiences don’t view the product as we do, and we should have no reason to expect them to do with our platform as we have engineered and designed it. What it does, what it’s good for, and how it’s used should simply make sense.

The catch here is that audiences will naturally follow the lead of those who use the product the most. It’s the activity and communication left behind on the site or service by those for whom it is most compelling that informs others. This is just how social engagement works. We learn from others, by recognizing what they are doing and how.

This means that in early product development, we’ll need to design for some number of core users, not for all at once. Our reasons for this are two-fold.

Firstly, we want to engage certain user types in order to populate the site with the personalities and content that inform others according to the social interaction requirements we have set up for the product. People attract other people. And since a dead tool is of no use to anyone, leveraging the engagement of early adopters has a strong shaping effect on where the product’s audience grows from there.

Secondly, we want to elicit and sustain the social dynamics and interactions that we have determined best suit our product’s adoption going forward. So once we have captured the interest of core users, their activity will lead the participation of others. This is not science or engineering, but basic sociology. Social practices organize around and reflect the higher engagement and habits of leaders and heavy users. The growth of any live social event follows the same basic patterns.

In other words, we want the engagement of a small core set of user types in order to get both usage (activity) and content (their communication, contributions, etc) in support of our product’s social goals. And we want to do so, furthermore, in order to spawn the kinds of social dynamics that are naturally socially occurring, and which reproduce themselves. Organic social use will get the product going as a viable social system.

I like to identify user types by psychological profiles, if you will. But whether or not you use a personality type, or some other description of user type, is up to you. I prefer to think psychologically because I like to get as close to the motives and motivations behind the uses, behaviors, and social interactions that core users find interesting to them.

If you are more comfortable thinking in terms of users as an extension of your product’s features and functionalities, then that may work also. It matters most that we think from a user perspective, and not from a product perspective. So choose the approach that best allows you to frame your thinking centered on users — that’s the important part.

In most cases, we begin by identifying users whose egos can get into our social product or service. These are people for whom our product best extends how they see themselves, and their place or position in the system. These kinds of people will most readily see what to do with the product, and will have the skills and know-how to do so. Think of the social product as an ego extension. Those who project most easily and richly into the experience will be most likely to get involved.

(There are possibly counter examples, such as with social tools designed for more private experiences. One could argue that dating is not about going big online. But in some ways even this counter example is imperfect — dating profiles are about how we appear, and how we are received.)

With our core user types defined, we can capture scenarios and use cases from a user experience perspective. We do this in order to validate the features and functionalities we have planned (and which often serve our business needs). How do our users want to see themselves? How do they want to appear? What do they want to see of others? How much do they want to interact directly with others, indirectly with others, and to what extent should this activity be captured, preserved, and structured? What’s best experienced in realtime, and what is best saved?

These and many other common distinctions required of social tools can be laid out in scenarios written from a strictly user-centric and experiential perspective. And these, not a tight narratives that focus on the tool alone, but as broader stories that relate the user’s daily habits and pastimes.

With these scenarios in place, we can enumerate some of the social dynamics that are likely to emerge as the product’s audience grows. The shift to celebrities on twitter, for example. Which could have been anticipated by many of twitter’s early users, but was viewed almost as a cultural shift and threat to twitter’s community’s identity when it happened.

If trust, loyalty, reputation, celebrity, respect, collaboration, conversation and other social pastimes are essential to both the functionality of your social product and critical to its longevity as a source of quality content and experience, then think through these social dynamics. A core set of users will indeed bias future growth in some directions more probably than others.

This exercise, of defining core user types and identifying key social dynamics, is an important early stage step in road mapping product development of any social tool. Everyday activities of users are enabled by our social tool’s features. In identifying user types and scenarios, we then set up our thinking about social design constraints. By then, if we have been successful, we will have actual users and cultural and social practices with which to steer forward growth.


  • Interesting and good points. This post proposes two main ways of thinking about core user types – one psychological, and the second about the product features and functions. I suspect that there is an important characterization in the middle – there are psychological attributes that relate closely to the activity of the site. Take photo-sharing, for example. There may be some who share photos for ego gratification – they want praise for their beautiful or striking compositions – and some who share for social bonding – to exchange a photo that captures a shared social moment. But the person who is an artistic exhibitionist with their photographs may be a shy person who dresses plainly – their is little carry over between their psychological disposition with respect to photography and with respect to clothes shopping. Psychology is good, but it is risky to generalize based on presumed attributes of a personality; we are not self-consistent. To your other point, on the importance of the “early adopters of a service”, this is a key thing that Flickr did well, and I suspect a key aspect of FourSquare’s weakness. The people aspects of growing an early community are very important and relate only moderately to the tool.

  • adina,

    i need to learn not to propose opposing or dualistic approaches — you’ll always speak for the middle 😉

    In terms more of a user’s deeper motives and motivations for engaging online, I do think psychology is helpful, and I do think there is consistency of a sort over time. Individual user actions and site-based activities of course scatter somewhat around the these deeper motives and won’t correlate precisely to an abstracted psychological personality description.

    But I didn’t mean to contrast psychological user modeling with product or feature centric modeling. That would suggest that deeper motives and individual actions (use cases) belong on the same level of analysis. Which I don’t think they do. I would approach features and functionalities from a perspective of actions and activities that may or may not support the deeper motives of a user’s interest and engagement. The dichotomy you describe was not one I intended.

    My reason for admitting that thinking about users in context of product features and functionalities was simply to acknowledge that many designers are both more competent and comfortable thinking in those terms. I still believe that thinking features and functionalities through from a set of different user interests is valuable, if only as a heuristic (frame of mind stuff). I can’t tell you how often I’m in product meetings in which the tendency is to discuss what it does, at the cost of why a person uses it and for what.

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