The Questions We Ask

A couple of weeks ago I gave the 5 Principles, 5 Practices, 5 Anti-Patterns talk to the IxDA Los Angeles group. It was a great group of people and they asked me some really tough questions at the end of the talk. I thought some of them were so good, I have been thinking about them since and wanted to share more thoughts about the ideas.

1. We are now seeing lots of people online and using sites like Facebook. People are living out their experiences online and sharing all sorts of things  – pics, comments etc. What do you think about the fact that people are now realizing that all the things they share online can be found and seen by prospective employers, by spouses, by parents – sometimes long after the original events occured? How do we as designers, let people know that this can happen, that what goes up is hard to control once it is free on the internet, and how should we be thinking about giving people controls over their content?

I think this was the gist of the question. In general, as discussed by danah boyd in many of her talks and research papers, and discussed in our book, we are seeing this sense of Many Publics. We are also seeing the evolution of attitudes and behaviors and generational differences. What is shocking to our parents, our bosses etc.,  like finding the pictures of our coworkers or prospective employees partying like idiots when they were in college, is not as shocking to the younger generation. What we may have deemed youthful indulgence, when heard about in an anecdote, was not visible for all in the past, non-online life, but today these experiences will eventually have to be re-categorized and put into their appropriate place even if they can still be retrieved instantly with the flick of a mouse.

Everyone is stupid when they are young. We do dumb things. We used be able to leave those things in the past as we grew up. Our personal and our professional lives could be kept separate. Today this is much harder as more and more people are coralling their network across various contexts in the same spaces – like Facebook. I believe that the generations up and coming, who have lived their whole lives online, will have a better attitude about the blurring of these public, private, youthful, professional lines than those of us who spent part of our life living one way and now another.

As designers and creators of social spaces, we need to educate people about the visibility of their images and words. We need to remind people, in polite and gentle ways, that what goes up on the internet often takes on a life of its own and is often difficult to remove later. I know I can find postings to email lists from 10 years ago through google.

Additionally, we need to make sure the tools to manage contexts and circles of connections are available and understood by users. This doesn’t mean having everything always up front and center – the complexity would kill any usability – but the tools should be easily accessed, easy to use once found and learned and control over who sees what, when, should be always available to people.

2. How do you know which social patterns to bring together around a particular social object? Which will work best and why?

This is a really good question. We have almost 96 patterns and proto-patterns in the book and a design team shouldn’t and can’t use them all. I reminded the audience to think about their users and to think about what it is that people do around their social object traditionally. What I mean by this is, what behaviors are people already doing. For example, if travel is your topic,  think about how people research travel today. If it’s knitting, what do people already do on or offline. Who do they talk to, how do they find new yarns, new patterns, new ideas? What do they do with items they have made, how do they share successes and problems?

Most things that people are interested in have an offline life (unless all you are interested in is online games, designing online and other tech related things).  Remembering to look at the obvious and then look at the social patterns that support the most basic of these behaviors. This is what you should start with and then support those interfaces with related patterns. This can help constrain what is designed and built allowing you to start simple and grow as needed or as your customers demand.

3. Do you work with marketing when designing social interfaces and experiences?

A little unpacking of this question reveals that the person asking was really trying to understand how a site that sells something can utlize social features to not only create an interesting social experience but also market to it’s users in meaningful ways.

I would think back to question 2 and what behaviors people already have around the topic and support those. Additionally, I would consider the features that provide the most viral impact in the least annoying manner to get the word out about your product or your service. Christina Wodtke talks a lot about Viral Distribution in her talk from Web 2.0 (start at slide 95) and she reminds us that in order for things to go viral we need to make sure that the ability to share and distribute is FRICTIONLESS (it’s got to be easy, drop dead easy), it must be AT HAND (it has to be readily available and convenient, everywhere that makes sense),  it must be IMPACTFUL (meaning you need to get bang for the buck. If you are going to spend time and effort creating a viral tool, it needs to be worth it), it must be TARGETED (the tools need to be available to the right people at the right time), and must support OUTREACH (does it have a broader life beyond the simple share, can it be rebroadcast or aggregated for even more reach).

When thinking about social patterns to support and encourage social behavior, the needs of the business must always be considered. This balance can be tenuous and sometimes can sway too far one way or the other to the detriment of the business or to the detriment of the community. If it’s all about selling or marketing then eventually the community will falter and if it’s all community at the expense of the core product or business supporting the community then that doesn’t generally make good business sense.

People need to remember that for some sites, tools as simple as sharing from one reader to a prospective reader, may be all that’s needed.

There were more really good questions asked that I will recount here in a future post.

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.

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