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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Gravity7 to Enterprise…UX and social in the workaday world

I’ve been working in the enterprise now for over a year. As a full throated and once- incorrigible independent, the experience has been fascinating. DeloitteDigital is an incredible group of talent, smarts, and opportunity. Its studio culture is strong and eagerly defended. Its influence on design, development, UX, IT, and many other projects at Deloitte has been measurable. But if anything, I feel like I’m just getting started.

The enterprise world is of course a complete 180 from the social startup and before that indie web culture I spent most of my life in. Projects, rhythms, process, delivery — you name it, relinquishing independence is a blessing and a curse. What you lose in control and self-motivation you gain in challenges, opportunities, and rewards. Frankly, I love it, even if at times the extra weight of organizational coordination can slow things down.

There are vast opportunities in the enterprise to bring UX and design thinking to bear on strategy and outcomes. And on tools and practices. Standards for technology and design are completely different — lower design-wise sometimes than in the consumer world; but more complicated and richly nuanced. The “sociality” of the enterprise, as I’ve suggested before, is a different beast altogether from open, public social. It’s structured, organized, coordinated; it has targets and objectives; and its participants have roles and obligations (and are paid to meet them).

For somebody interested in social interaction design, this completely changes the frame. No longer is user adoption a matter of tractor-beaming new users onto social platforms through social invitations, memes, and launches. No longer is social activity a reflection of user personality and shiny surfaces alone — just as communication within the enterprise is not so much talk to attract attention but talk to get things done.

Truly very little of this has yet been unwrapped and rendered into the conceptual frames, methodologies, and practices which characterize corporate consulting. Sure, social business gets nods here and there, but truly mature, integrated social business looks to me still fuzzy and ambiguous. Where, in IT, does it properly transform business processes — beyond technologies? Where, in marketing, does it become a set of metrics, standards, and normalized processes by which customer interactions acquire new levels of influence and respect? The corporate world, siloed as its departments often are, is still learning how to modify the brainpan to accommodate what social and its technologies can do.

What’s become clear is that what works in the open social and public environment doesn’t translate directly to the enterprise space. This holds true for communication and sharing apps as it does for social techniques like gamification, likes, and friending. But all work is, fundamentally, accomplished by means of communication. And all employees are, whether they embrace it or not, members of a network. So the foundation for leveraging the personal (motivational) and social-collective attributes of social interaction design are there. They just need to be designed differently.

If you are in user experience and looking for the next new thing, give the corporate world a second look. And if you’re interested in social tools, well certainly consider the enterprise space. Mistakes have been made, and will be rectified, as we all figure out the boundaries and enablers that work in work life. You may need to expand your mind some — get educated in sociology, organizational theory, business process management, and a few other things not likely to feature on Mashable. But a good social architect should know these things anyways.

Impacts are real in the corporate world. And interest in innovation and design is genuine. And yes, the challenges are worth it.

 

 

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The conundrum of corporate social media use

The world of institutional social media use is fraught with tricky choices and ambiguous policy diktats. What can an institution say and not say? What can it do and what should it not do? Is a Like an expression of alignment (alike), admiration (I like that), or endorsement (Like this please, I do)? Is a reblog a verbal act or simply a mediated relay? What’s a follow?!

Every and any individual engaged to handle his or her company’s social media engagement must make a hundred choices a day. Whether to post, comment, retweet, and like. Each time walking a line that is at best well articulated but imperfectly mapped to the medium.

And that is the rub. The cultures that thrive on each social medium — tumblr, pinterest, twitter, Facebook, instagram — are intrinsic to the brand and tool. They are specific. A like in one isn’t the same as a like in another. For in the former, the like surfaces content and permits its amplification — in short the Like is an act of communication visible to an audience. Whereas in the latter, the Like is a gesture but not an amplifying act of relay — the Like is seen in a feed but doesn’t re-post content.

My guess is that it would be impossible to craft a set of social media policies adequate to the small-differences-greatly-amplified across different social media tools/channels.

This means in essence that institutional social media practices are always a matter of negotiation. And thus, how an institution engages — speaking, listening, declaring, supporting, commenting, iterating, appreciating, recognizing — can only be decided in terms that are subjective and personal. Institutional personality, not policy, shape expression and thus the face shared in social media.

I think part of the problem is that social media renders communicative acts into artifacts of content. In this way, social media transform what are many acts and gestures into a lasting testimony and record. It becomes impossible to obtain or return to the intentional meaning of an act — a like — once context is lost to the past. Acts will always be worn down over time, intentions becoming but residual meanings supplanted by the form of content (whose stability appears permanent but is not).

This dualism — of action versus form; of intent and expressed — dogs every institutional blogger. Whether to participate, and emphasize participation. Or to write and state, emphasizing expression. Whether to engage on social media as an active member, or to conduct PR using social media as another channel of distribution.

It is a conundrum. The medium is a talk medium. The interaction is a form of talk. So whether the act of talking, or the preservation of what is said, defines the personality of a brand active on social media is beyond anyone’s control. And becomes inevitably a source of disruption.

 

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