- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Contractors, clients, and startups: an approach

Once long ago when I was a young web developer freelancing out of a shared work space here in San Francisco I did a job for a change management consulting firm. I was not building a site for one of their clients, but rather redoing their own corporate site. As it is for many in the service sector, it was easier for them to grasp client problems and needs than it was for them to address their own.

As I helped them to articulate their business offering as best works on a company web site, I learned something that has stuck with me over the many years since. They, like me, were in the business of taking on client problems and using outside perspectives and independence to create organizational change. Their success, like mine, depended on the validity and accuracy of the information they were able to obtain from key stakeholders. Now, I was in the business of building web sites, which is far less threatening than change management. Change management commonly results in pink slips and a bit of managerial musical chairs.

But the lesson I learned has worked for me as it did for them. It was this: when first engaging with client interviews and assessing client needs and issues, never tell the client that you’re there to fix their problem. Doing so puts client stakeholders on the defensive. Your interviews will be compromised by the psychology of power and your interactions will be muddied by dynamics of right and authority. They have a right to be right more than you, being that they are in the company you’ve been contracted to help.

Instead, reverse the psychology. You need their help to understand the problem. It’s not their problem that you’re fixing, but your problem they’re helping you to get your head around.

This simple bit of reverse psychology can make all the difference to your presence in the client company, and will contribute to your effectiveness as a change agent (regardless of your task). You will inspire the creative and productive problem solving skills of stakeholders already aware of their situation. You will faciliate collaborative information gathering and discovery. And most importantly, your contributions will be taken more seriously, for they will be as much those of your collaborators as they will be yours.

In social interaction design, being that the role can be filled quickly and tasks achieved relatively swiftly, your first task is to discover what the client understands about his or her own product’s support for social interaction. Every social media company has an idea of what it’s doing.

  • This idea may be platform related, as when a startup says that it has built a platform that users use to do X. The question, then, is: do users actually want to do X? Are they in need of a platform with which to do it?
  • This idea may be use case related, as when a startup says that it has created a process by which users can do X. The question, then, is: do users prefer to follow this process? Is this a process that users have been missing and in need of?
  • The company’s idea may be that it adds value or utility in some way, as when its product or service helps users do something faster, across more devices, in one place, or shared with friends. The question, then, is: will users change behaviors and habits in order to benefit from incremental improvements? Is the difference great enough to make a difference to users?
  • The company’s idea may be that it supports social experiences, as when its app or service captures user contributions for the purpose of making information and communication social. The question, then, is: what are the motives behind user participation, and are multiple user types captured and their interests met? Are the social models underlying the service sustainable and scalable, beyond the initial participation of the usual early adopters and social media enthusiasts?

The examples above are just that — examples. There are other considerations to take into account, of course. But in the interest of time, we’ll move along.

Let’s say that we have established a baseline of what the company believes it is doing, and can map this to what users do, and to what interests and motivates them. The next step may be to discover how the company sees users sustaining its product or service. User engagement is all, after all. We might turn to some of the fundamental features of social, and assess where product stakeholders stand on these:

Attention: How do users get it, give it, communicate it, represent it, and become personally invested in it (by reputation, popularity, followers, etc)?

Social economies: What can users do, what actions can they take, or activities can they participate in, that create socio-economic relations? What is owned, earned, achieved, won, given, shared, listed, ranked, and so on? Are these elements actual and of real value, of social status value, of personal utility, or are they group, community, or public?

Bias: What’s the bias in the system, and what social outcomes become more likely than others because of this bias? Is it vanity-visibility; ranking-leaderboard; activity-profile; connectedness-relevance; and so on? What kinds of individual user actions and which social activities account for predominant social practices?

Users and user types: What kinds of user types does the product or service have the most appeal to? What kinds of social dynamics emerge from interactions among these kinds of users? What kinds of users may be excluded from participation — and can these reasons be addressed?

These, again, are just examples. But important ones, for social products and services work only if they work for users. Many in our industry seem to operate on assumptions of what social media is and who uses it based on highly subjective and personal experience. It’s neither smart nor savvy, from business and engagement perspectives, to assume that our own social media experiences hold for other people. (Statistics on just how few people actually check in with Foursquare being on example.)

Having then discovered something about the user assumptions, use case assumptions, and social assumptions built and baked into a company product, we might examine development plans going forward. First of all, does the product roadmap lead development, or will development reflect and follow user feedback? While feedback is valuable, it is of course limited only to the product’s users; there’s no telling what kinds o users might use the product if it were different. Feedback tends also to come from more engaged users — what of those whose engagement hasn’t been fully captured? And since the product already limits what users can do with it, how might we know more about the unknowns we don’t yet know about (to misuse a Rumsfeldism)?

Better, is to use the roadmap to anticipate the two key axes of product development. These are the product’s features and functionalities; and its social practices and outcomes. The latter include content left behind by users — the very stuff from which non-participating users get their benefits. And it is the latter that cannot be controlled in the way that the former can. Social practices are dynamic, and reflect tendencies that can at best be steered with product design choices. But they are also those upon which new users are captured, and core users preserved, as the user base grows over time. Far better, then, to map ahead than map behind.

We have diverged somewhat from the opening of this post. Or perhaps not. Social media are built by people. They reflect assumptions made by those people. Those assumptions hail in part from the industry, but also reflect technical preferences and personality styles. Social interaction design can help to bridge the views held by the company, and the company that it keeps (its users).

Leave a Reply