Social interaction design is not just and strictly “design.” There’s no designing social, insofar as designed social interactions and experiences would be nothing shy of the nefarious and misguided efforts of past European social engineers. To say nothing more of the matter. (Don’t mention the war. I did, but I think I got away with it.) Social outcomes aren’t for the designing: social outcomes happen. They’re events: live, and as easily affected as the proverbial typhoon by the far-away butterfly.
But designed they must be. For all online experiences are designed. Any social site or tool has been designed for social interaction, whether consciously or not. Site architects and designers, engineers and marketers, have had social in mind while building out features and functionalities. Or have witnessed social occurring, after the fact. Design is; either by design or not. What the user experiences, and how interactions among users are shaped by technology — is by means of design.
And yet the design of social interactions and of experiences dependent on social participation remains a black art to many. A factor in product development, but as much an afterthought and realization as a force of intelligent foresight. Lean UX, thepreferred design orientation for those building lean companies, privileges live and agile social testing. Products are launched to small audiences, and scaled up as technology and user participation grows. I don’t know if this is truly intended, or a concession to market unknowns and, moreso, submission to the black magic of user engagement.
The butterfly is no reason to ignore the storm. No reason to forego storm science, storm tracking, or storm preparation. Whether you ascribe engagement around your social product as a result of your design choices, or as a matter of whim and fancy, that engagement itself does have structure and order. People are not haphazard, nor are social practices.
- social interaction is social action
- social action is action taken with the knowledge and awareness, if not even interest, in the audience at hand
- social action is known, if not intended, to mean something to an other person in particular, or to other people in general
- social action is taken by a person who knows that it reflects on them
- the point of an action can be in these social dimensions — not in the “apparent” objective or object
- when action is social, it communicates
- when communication is a way of doing things, it is action
- many social tools depend on ways of organizing and structuring communication; communication is itself a system of action
- communication, as an action system, is only “understood” by people, for “what is said” and “what to do” are different things
- social data starts with communication, and for this reason always carries signals that are meta data
- gestures are a means of communicating without use of language
- gestures, like communication, make sense according to their action system: a context or frame of who, what, why, and what to do
- social action systems provide meaning necessary for using and interpreting gestures and communication, actions and behaviors
- all social action unfolds over time
- interaction is serial in nature: it comprises of actions for which there are sometimes responses
- all social interaction design involves architecting temporal social engagement for the purpose of facilitating on-going, independent, social systems.
- user experience design for social products includes both the individual user experience, and the forms of social clustering and of social interactions
- in most cases, the user experience of non-members and non-participants is also of critical interest
Social interaction design matters as long as you care about what happens around your product. But it does require a shift in framing the design problem. Onscreen design, features and functionalities, and conventional user experience still of course matter. But they are only part of the equation. Social outcomes — what happens when users are actively involved with a product — are not explained by what is onscreen. There is no “objective” design focus. Users are as engaged with who they are, how they appear, who they know or are connected to, what they do, and so on, as they are with the product’s features. Yes, these are design outcomes. It’s just that they are mediated by the actions and behaviors of users with each other — and not strictly by your product design.
There are a couple simple metaphors possibly worth using here. The first involves the screen. Design is design for and of what’s on the screen. But in social, the screen has three modes. It is mirror, and reflects the user; it is window, and shows other users; and it is surface, on which is content. We are a culture of screens, and have a sophisticated relationship to the screen. These three modes are the modes of the social interface: mirror, window, surface.
A second metaphor worth mentioning helps to simplify social relations. It is that all social is built out of ones, twos, and threes. A self, a couple, and a triangle. Social units of anything larger break down: four into two twos or a three and one, for example. And in fact in social preferences, or those competencies of social interaction and communication, there are again these three primary axes: self (one), other (two), and group (three). So, you can think about users in terms of self-oriented, other-oriented, and group-oriented. This is not to say that people all divide into one of these categories. But insofar as the medium amplifies social factors, and insofar as simple models are of design help (who would use this feature?), this model fits social action and communication nicely.
And remember, it is not just that there are different “types” of users. Or that people have different kinds of social skills and competencies. For it would be one thing to understand the user experience of different kinds of people, and to design products and services to best suit them. No, there is more: social interactions have dynamics. Pundits need fans. Socialites need wallflowers. Inviters need guests. The myriad of things that we do, socially, are not only recognizable for the activities that they are, but for who is involved in them. Your product may need the buy in, and engagement, of some core user types — whose actions and communication provide the critical “aha” to others trying out the product.
Social interaction design, then, is worth considering any time your product or service depends upon successful adoption by users. It helps when you want not only user growth, but sustained engagement. It helps when your design and development decisions have impact at scale — and when conventional user experience or interaction design guidelines fail to provide insight into the social dynamics and outcomes that matter to you.