The defining characteristic of social media is a revolutionary undermining of the distinction between producers and consumers of media. Instead of producing content, social media services merely facilitate user interaction. Given this, one would have thought that the tenets of User-Centred Design (UCD) would be highly pertinent to the design of social media. In fact it is very difficult to find a major social media service which was created via a genuine UCD process (almost as difficult as finding an interaction designer who does not wax lyrical about the importance of UCD). Blogger, craigslist, Delicious, eBay, Facebook, Flickr, Gaia Online, Last.fm, LiveJournal, Skype, Wikipedia: none of these pioneering legends of social media were born out of the ethnographic observation techniques, ‘personas’, ‘scenarios’, low-fidelity prototyping or constant pre-development testing that characterise UCD. Why don’t UCD techniques seem to be necessary for the creation of great social media? I propose five main reasons, not all of which are peculiar to social media.
1) Self-centred design is a valid approach
The history of social media is full of examples of designers designing for themselves and then finding that their designs are immensely popular with others. When Delicious founder Joshua Shachter solved his own information management problem, millions of others were waiting for someone to solve the same problem. When Blogger’s Meg Hourihan and Evan Williams and LiveJournal’s Brad Fitzpatrick wanted an easier way to update people about what they were doing, millions of others wanted the same thing. Because these designers were designing for their own requirements, they didn’t need to research user requirements to develop a great concept.
2) Personal experience can be an adequate substitute for user research
In those cases where a social media service was not created to serve the founder’s own requirements it can still be said that the founders had a good understanding of the user requirements, not through UCD research techniques, but through their own experience. In the cases of Facebook and Last.fm, the designers had a good understanding of their target users—students and music fans—because of the milieu in which they worked and socialised.
In the cases of EBay, Flickr, Skype and Wikipedia the focus is on activities which are common to virtually all web-users: buying and selling, photo-sharing, making phone calls and looking up articles in encyclopaedias. These activities are so well-understood and nearly-universal in the developed world that it simply wasn’t necessary for the founders to know any more than they already did through their own everyday experiences.
3) The nature of social media discourages early prototyping
One thing that is striking in the stories of social media entrepreneurs is the credit which most of them give to their users for shaping the design of the service. Social media makes it very easy for users to give feedback about the service and for their digital imprint to be monitored. This may not be as valuable as the face-to-face observation advocated by UCD, but it is much more convenient.
Moreover, it is relatively easy to redevelop social media services. UCD grew out of traditional 3D product design, where there is an immense gulf—financial and technical—between a prototype and a working product released to the public. In contrast, the Web makes the distinction between an online prototype and a finished product almost arbitrary. But while post-development prototyping is easier with social media, pre-development prototyping is actually harder because the social interactions of a community of users cannot be simulated. Thus the nature of social media tends to encourage the suspension of pre-development prototyping in the knowledge that the most valuable results issue from post-development prototypes.
4) An emphasis on simplicity offsets the need for User-Centred Design
Basecamp stands out amongst social media success stories because of its dismissive attitude to user feedback. Its nonetheless immense popularity can be partly explained by its founders’ belief ‘that there is beauty and wisdom in Web-hosted, bite-size software built to accomplish narrow tasks’. Skype cofounder Niklas Zennström shares these sentiments: ‘Skype is easy enough to use so that people don’t need to be tech savvy… If you can use a Web browser, you can use Skype’.
Anything which conscientiously focuses on providing only the broadest and most essential features in a simple, easy to grasp interface is very likely to be highly usable. It seems that an emphasis on simplicity and an awareness of usability principles can be adequate substitutes for guaranteeing usability through usability testing.
5) Implementing a User-Centred Design process is often not worth the required time and expense
None of this is to say that UCD is actually detrimental to good design. It is difficult to imagine how UCD techniques could do anything but improve design. Unfortunately, good design is not the only factor contributing to the success of a product: expenses and speed are both vital factors and both can sometimes be adversely affected by UCD processes.
Of course not all social media services can be designed in a simple and straightforward form that makes usability a given; some activities are necessarily complex. Likewise, it cannot be imagined that for every potentially successful social media service there is an available designer with sufficient relevant personal experience to be able to design it without user research. The rise of niche social networking and enterprise 2.0 is likely to strengthen the need for UCD research techniques in the design of social media. Niche groups and businesses are going to require specialised, potentially complex, social media services which cannot be created by designers relying on personal experience and an emphasis on simplicity.
Finally, it is important to note that UCD is not an ‘all or nothing’ approach. The User-Centred Design process can be broken down and simplified so that only the aspects which are most needed are used. Some form of pre-development usability testing of an interface is almost always worth implementing.
With these disclaimers it is possible to conclude that while cheaper and nimbler alternatives render UCD generally unsuitable for the design of social media, UCD should never be rejected entirely and looks set to become less generally unsuitable as a result of future trends.
N.B. This is a summary of a much larger article User-centred design and the user-driven web: Is a user-centred design process suitable for social interaction design?
Top photo by: DerrickT