Mirror, surface, window – three modes of the social screen

User experience designers like their conceptual models. We are professionally prone to build and rely on models and abstractions — mental constructs known not for their accuracy but perhaps for their utility.

In the world of social tools, and of using social for commercial (client) purposes, our models are still well under construction. But due to the greater complexity of understanding the “function” of technologies implicated in social activities and behaviors, concepts are important.

Models are less a description of empirical reality and always more a framework or framing. They allow us to see more than is immediately visible; and to assume more than we may know in fact. In designing for social interaction, I like to frame the user experience around the three modes of social surfaces. Yes, those shiny and reflective screens through which so many of our interactions are mediated.

Screens are surfaces. Drawing on a long history of image making and communication, these surfaces are variously used to render, present, and display all kinds of content. We read this content, interact with it, watch it, and create with it. Computing screens are digital paper, but also application interfaces, and televisual screens — surfaces on which content is designed for interaction. This mode, in which the screen is a surface, is its primary mode.

But in social, screens reflect. Shiny surfaces catch our attention, present us to others, and serve as digital mirrors. This is the social function, if you will, of the networked screen. It’s a phenomenon unique to the medium, indeed it’s very power, and is the reason social interaction design must combine conventional design with user motives and social behaviors. This mode, the mirror mode, is the mode by which certain activities amplify, reflect, feed back on themselves, and capture attention.

The third mode is that of the window or lens. Here, the content of the screen is another person or persons. And this does not need to be visually presented. A chat “window” delivers communication, regardless of whether the other user is on camera. In this mode the screen is transparent. Cognitively, the user is engaged in communication and the screen’s function is to mediate this interaction.

Three modes — surface, mirror, and window — comprise the screens of social media and frame the designer’s approach to everything from UI details to big picture social functionality. Why might this conceptual model be helpful?

The user-centric approach to design and functionality starts and ends with the user. But much of the time it is in the service of a brand, an application, media — something else. UX tells us to think from the user’s perspective. But this is hard to do. Brands tend to see themselves in what they make; media tend to track and measure their own success; applications count use. Everyone counts audiences.

In thinking from the user’s perspective, and recognizing the screen’s three modes, you can more easily relate to the user’s investment in online experiences. Not “are they customers of our brand identity,” but instead “do they see themselves reflected in our brand?” Not “do they like our thing” but “is our thing an extension of their activities?”

The three modes of the screen help us to get past thinking in terms of objects, and to instead think in terms of experiences. In short, not objects but subjects (people). And in doing so, with this framing technique, we align to the facets of experience that are so unique to social media. That is, the projection, reflection, and reaching through the wire that explain how this medium works.

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