“Structure thus refers, in social analysis, to the structuring properties allowing the ‘binding’ of time-space in social systems, the properties which make it possible for discernibly similar social practices to exist across varying spans of time and space and which lend them ‘systemic’ form. To say that structure is a ‘virtual order’ of transformative relations means that social systems, as reproduced social practices, do not have ‘structures’ but rather exhibit ‘structural properties’ and that structure exists, as time-space presence, only its instantiations in such practices and as memory traces orienting the conduct of knowledgeable human agents.” Anthony Giddens
I like Anthony Giddens and a lot of my social interaction design thinking draws on his handling of systems and structural properties reproduced by acting agents, or people. It allows us to describe the systemic features of social tools and online social interactions without losing sight of users.
User-centricity is key to approaching any social interaction design challenges. And yet in mediated social interactions, emergent phenomena are both likely and necessary. People interact with people; any social service that fails to engage people with each other fails, period.
The challenge for any social theoretical view of “organized” human relations is how to both recognize structure and system without selling short acting subjects and the interests that motivate their actions. Giddens provides a compelling “both and” view of this analytical choice, calling the reproduction of system features “structuration.” (Structuralists have been known for dismissing the relevance of human agency, claiming that structures determine individual actions.)
This might all seem like high falutin gobbledy-gook, but designers design by generalized principles — by necessity. Designers need to work with models of social interaction, as well as software/application interaction (e.g. human computer interaction). Those models are accurate only insofar as they generalize individual behaviors and activities into social systemic features and structural properties.
User-centric design therefore needs a model of system and structural factors that accommodates user choices and actions without subsuming them to “design (or system) influence.”
Regardless of our personal views on design influence and user behavior, our design principles require general descriptions. Opinions and observations don’t make models. Structuration, I think, offers a theoretical advantage by placing structural and systemic properties in the service of the aggregate individual actions of actors (members, users). Design influences behavior, but in turn responds to behaviors in the aggregate (as emergent social events).
With structuration, designers can point to both design (system and structure) features as well as user interests without falling into a theoretical hole. Both design features and user actions can be rationally explained and inter-woven into a holistic analysis of design requirements and likely social outcomes.