Social Interaction Design Primer II: 1. Introduction

Defining the field of social interaction design

A few months ago my Social Interaction Design Primer was published on Johnny (check it out). In this primer I tried to create a solid ground for social interaction design. Since then I’ve thought, read and discussed a lot… which caused me to write this follow up, which is somewhat longer. So in the next week I will publish it in parts (five in total). Sit back and read my thoughts on why social interaction design should be taken serious.

Attention: this article is part of a series.

I like to say that a film theorist is not necessary if you want to make a good film. I don’t know that a social interaction designer is necessary if you want to make a good social media application. But I have one compelling reason to argue the case: we are, in 2008, depending heavily on best practices and are deeply set in copy-cat design mode, neither of which are a substitute for the innovation we’re supposed to be good at. Maybe we engineer well. Maybe we finance, fund, and launch well. Maybe we socialize well. But the social engineering built into social media shouldn’t be copied from others for then it adds nothing, and if what is added is only a design or feature iteration, it won’t be long before we’re out of beta testers.

Social interaction design is user-centric by necessity and by choice, in keeping with conventional software design approaches.

In some ways all of us in social media design are involved in building the same application. But it’s as if each company has taken on a certain part, or version, of social media. As a result, we’re given to take our applications at face value, and to see in them what we have built and what works. But each application is designed, engineered, and populated — and myriad choices and compromises go into the final product.

Social interaction design may be a design theory, but in practice its aim is to help all of us to anticipate not only how our applications work when used, but where we are going, and how to get there. It is difficult to outline the invisible, and to describe the intangible. But that is what we have to do in the case of designing social media, not only because the “social” is just an aggregation of distributed individual user experiences and poorly coordinated and loosely-coupled user activities, but because as users we tend not to be self-aware of our motives and intentions in social interactions.

My aim in ’A Social Interaction Design Primer’ was to introduce some key concepts and briefly sketch their role in a user-centric design framework for social media. I was hoping to also make a case for social interaction design, if not as a relative of user experience and interaction design disciplines overall, then as an extension of them. What follows is an attempt to tease out the features of the hidden dimension of social media use, and to explicate them for the purposes of helping designers, engineers, and architects anticipate what their products do and how users will use them. Interaction mediated by technologies can be understood by means of social action theories. But we will need to modify them to take the mediation of the device into account. We will need to develop systems of social action and identify forms of common online social interactions. I will introduce some here, and hint at what might be involved in a more exhaustive grammar or framework for social interaction design.

Social interaction design is user-centric by necessity and by choice, in keeping with conventional software design approaches. But it is interested in more than just the user experience alone. For if design is to facilitate, lead, steer, structure, and organize social interactions, it must be able to anticipate what happens when more than one user is involved. To this end we draw heavily on psychology, sociology, media, and communication theories, mixing them together to get beyond the interaction of user with the interface and to the social practices that make social media successful (or not!).

Interests are not simply individual or personal interests, but are already social in nature: the user’s interest always solicits the interest of another user.

I touched on a high level theoretical approach to the social interface in the primer, describing it as having three modes: mirror, content surface, and window. I supplemented those with three modes of user engagement: with the Self, with an Other, and around a Relationship. I suggested that there are distinct user personality types for social media users organized around communication and interaction-oriented motives and interests. I have described these in terms of user competencies, and suggested that (online) social competencies are a more robust description of user behavior than conventional views of user needs and goals.

Interests are not simply individual or personal interests, but are already social in nature: the user’s interest always solicits the interest of another user. Social media interaction is simply much more “human,” ambiguous, messy, informal, open-ended, multi-layered, and contingent than the kind of user action modeling applied to conventional non-social interfaces (ATMs, stoves, books). This primer explicates the first primer and seeks to apply insights to social media application design.


What follows is going to get a bit involved, so I’ll begin with an overview of the theory’s application. The space is Web 2.0, the industry or market place is social media applications. These include web page-based apps as well as many others (desktop twitter apps, facebook social apps, widgets, and so on). The design approach is modified web design, and uses the features and functionality of the web 2.0 application engines (back-end) which enable social interaction and the social production of content and individual communication and interactions.

So let’s do a quick round up of the design elements with which we’re working. There is page layout, content organization, design and branding, navigation, information architecture, actions (forms, buttons, etc.), and so on. These are comprised of components that can be multi-purposed: buttons, containers, boxes, windows, lists, links, and so on.

Now, what distinguishes Web 2.0 from 1.0 is that application and site content is of and by people. Consequently, many of the Web 1.0 elements reflect their own use. Use can be shown by detailing it on the page, as in dynamically changing views (counts) to a profile, number of comments, members, and so on.It can be shown by dynamically changing the contents of a content block (e.g. tags). Or it can be shown by re-arranging content (as in ranking and leader-boards). In this way the web elements common to web 1.0 applications become social in web 2.0: they reflect their use by the site’s audience. Lists on social media, for example, usually update according to the number of clicks on the links in the list. A block of “new member” pictures changes as new members join. Social participation such as rating, submitting, linking, voting, and commenting will push submitted content higher, or lower, according to participation. Tags, too, reflect “folksonomic” logic as users use them to find content by keywords. In other words, social systems reflect their own use.

Gone is the evergreen or “static” organization of content. Social media are, in systems terms, “self-observing” or “second order” systems: they can observe and capture their own activity and dynamically re-present it back to users. Social interaction design, then, approaches online sites and tools as “social systems.” At a theoretical level, the challenge then becomes modeling and framing the system. At a practical and design level, the challenge involves features, architecture, and screen design such that social activity can be handled for the purpose of desired individual and social outcomes.

In the next part of this post we will examine social media action systems, and with them, learn a bit about how social media involve everyday social activity, but in a different way.

Image by victoriapeckham

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

5 comments on this article

  1. Awesome! I can’t wait to read the ones to come. A very promising start.

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