At IDEA2009, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone, authors of the forthcoming book “Designing Social Interfaces”, gave an overview of some key steps and design patterns that can be used when creating social software or sites.
Christian started by reiterating that social experience design is about the interaction between people rather than the interface between the human and the computer – and that while you can fairly well control one person’s experience with a system, you cannot predict or control how people will choose to interact with each other.
As such, when you design a social experience, all you can really do is provide a framework. You can set the basic rules and capabilities, but the participants will finish the design for you.
Five steps of social experience design
1. Give people a way to be identified
Without a name, profile or avatar they cannot maintain relationships across sessions.
2. Give people a way to distinguish themselves from others
For example, the MIT personas art project cannot distinguish between people who share the same name. This is also why Facebook added usernames.
3. Give people something to do
Friendster failed because people had nothing to do besides accumulate followers. Attempts to create groups through “fakesters” were blocked by Friendster as TOS violations. They failed to recognize the users’ attempts to interact in new ways.
4. Enable a bridge to real life events
People want to take what they are doing online into the real world, talk about it and bring it back again. Research has shown that bringing social interaction into the offline world enriches the content and strengthens the relationships of all involved.
5. Let the community elevate people & content they value
A good example is Flickr “interestingness”, which is derived from the amount of user activity around each image.
Five design patterns you can use
1. Pave the cowpaths
There is an often quoted story about an architect who couldn’t get agreement on where to lay the paths between the buildings on new site. So he grassed everywhere, allowed people to form their own paths, and then came back and paved those. The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t try and push people towards the behavior you expect – you should instead react to the way they use the space. An example of this is Twitter RTs and @replies, which were both created by users and later adopted in the platform.
2. Talk like a person
There is no point in hiding the fact that there are humans behind your product or site. Flickr, Dopplr and GetSatisfaction are examples of sites that have benefited from setting a very human, conversational tone and avoiding engineering speak or business speak.
3. Be open. Play well with others.
Enable data portability in & out. Don’t build the whole ecosystem when you can plug into existing third party components. Provide APIs for interoperability. Use open source where possible.
4. Learn from games.
People like to collect, share, compete, rate, challenge and all sorts of other fun activities. Sometimes, a work activity can be made to feel like a game. Enable game-like activities and your community will flourish. Make sure users can create their own games too. Would you prefer to use a spreadsheet or a game?
5. Respect the ethical dimension
Recognize that wherever people interact, they will build relationships and may betray or harm other people. Be prepared to encourage good behaviour in the society you create, and discourage the bad. Also recognize the trust the users put in you to treat them well and protect their information. Be conscious of the consequences of your actions on your users.
Five design anti patterns to avoid
1. Cargo Cult
This is a reference to Pacific islands where natives build model airplanes when the US bases were deserted after WWII. They believed the presence of these planes would encourage cargo and supplies to be delivered once again. In the electronic world, this means you cannot just copy an interface from a successful social site and expect the same results. There may be other underlying differences.
2. Don’t break email
Recognize that people have existing habits, the most common of which is email. Let new habits evolve from people’s existing behaviors rather than forcing people to shift wholesale to new paradigms. Allow conversations to take place across mediums, For example. Basecamp fixed this with their “reply above the line” feature.
3. The Password Anti-Pattern
This refers to the practice of requesting user’s credentials to pull in contacts from address books. This trains users to give away their passwords, and creates issues of trust. Instead, use alternatives like OAuth, Facebook Connect or OpenID.
4. The Ex-Boyfriend Bug
While it is usually true that communication networks reveal relationships, recognize that sometimes there are good reasons why two people with 35 friends in common might not want to connect. As Rex Sorgatz put it, “the ‘people you should know’ list on Facebook is actually a list of people you hate.”
5. Potemkin Village
This refers to the Russian minister Potemkin who created fake villages to fool Empress Catherine II on her visit to Crimea in 1787. In a social site, you shouldn’t have lots of categories for conversations you hope will happen – this will divide your audience and hinder growth. Instead, put all your users in the same place, and wait for them to tell you when they want a separate area. This is what happened with Grateful Dead fans in the net.music group in the early days of Usenet.
Christian and Erin followed up this session with an opportunity for attendees to try out their new Social Mania game which educates about the things that need to be considered when designing from a social perspective, and can be used as an ice-breaker with teams or clients.