Re-framing the problem: Social Interaction Design

Introducing frames.

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This post is about social interaction design. I’ve been gestating around the concept of “frames” for the past couple weeks. Frames of meaning, frames of experience, and frames as a concept for a user-centric description of social interactions.

I like frames because they can accommodate our need for a visual metaphor, a temporal metaphor, and a metaphor for meaning. Metaphors are generally a bad idea in theory, in that they communicate (descriptively) but do not explain. But structural and visual metaphors, spatial metaphors, and value/utility metaphors don’t work for me (or for social interactions, IMHO).

  • Concepts based on containers can lead us to think in and with boxes — good for presentation but inadequate to the actions that occur around them;
  • Concepts based on place, space, and location can lead us to think in terms of structure and stability — good for a sense of design control but inadequate to the durations, episodes, and temporal experience of social interactions;
  • Concepts based on structure, which can include containers as well as spaces, lead us to think architecturally — good for building and designing, but inadequate to the system dynamics of social media;
  • Concepts based on value and utility can lead us to anticipate user needs and objectives — good for designing for success and usability but inadequate to the psychological dimensions of interactions, communication, and human relationships;
  • Concepts based on writing, posting, and messaging can lead us to think in terms of communication — good for the medium’s shift from information to communication, but inadequate to the speech, performance, and social interaction dynamics of social media;
  • Concepts based on conversation can lead us to think about the emerging flow- and talk-based trend away from pages and publishing to talk and relationships — but inadequate to the fragmentation and disaggregation of the “conversation” space.

I’m borrowing from Erving Goffman‘s Frame Analysis, a remarkable study of social encounters, and a work rich in concepts of social interactionism. Notably “keying” and “footing,” both of which cover the nuanced means by which we can reference social convention and indicate personal disposition and meaning to coordinate interactions.

Of course Goffman was a master of face to face interactions, and his observations and explanations hold for social media only to limited and clipped degree.

The challenge for social interaction design today, and my interest in the use of frames, is that it seems as if the conversational trend in social media may be running away from us. Namely, that both forms of online talk, and the proliferation of system messages and activity updates increasingly interconnected (think Facebook connect), have resulted two significantly (unintended) consequences.

  1. The interconnectedness of separate social media sites, services, desinations, and applications increases the number of arbitrary connections. Arbitrariness is increased when two separate nodes are coupled, when a connection is established, a message distributed, fed, published (etc) to a new context. What was contextually relevant in its original context (eg favoriting a video on Youtube) is more arbitrary when it appears on Friendfeed. Connectedness may serve the Friendfeed account holder, or his/her Friendfeed followers also. But the message itself is more arbitrary, or its meaning as an action is more arbitrary in distributed contexts than it is in its original context (where favoriting videos serves to rank videos).
  2. The proliferation of talk in social media, or shift from the page to flow, stream, and conversation, increases the ambiguity of communicative intent. Again, interconnectedness means that messages are viewed, fed, delivered, or otherwise included in a greater number of contexts. Facebook status updates in Seesmic, with the ability to comment from outside of Facebook. Aggregation of updates in Friendfeed, widget distribution of tweets, disaggregated listening on et al to blogs, Facebook, etc. The interconnectedness of communication platforms raises the degree of ambiguity in message and action intent: in what’s being said, why, to whom, and even about what.
  • The arbitrariness of connection can create discovery and serendipity, but also confuse and destabilize the very practice of communication itself. Where does one comment back? Where else will a comment appear? What value is captured by which other site or service if I share, rate, digg, forward, retweet etc an action, a system message, or a user’s message?
  • The ambiguity of intent can lead to a greater number of possible responses and reactions to an action, but increases the likelihood of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, our failure (from the perspective of communication).

Social media are social systems. Conceptually and theoretically, social systems have structure but also have actions and communication: thus a better model than architectures, places, utilities, and communication alone. Social media are reproduced constantly out of the information and communication they produce, and which they made available. In addition to making information visible and available, they permit actions that in turn create more communication and enable more actions. Some of these are system messages (user has done X, Y, or Z); some are human communication (status updates, tweets, comments, posts… ). Systems in other words report on their own use as well as facilitate use: and so they continue, ever producing and reproducing information and communication in the form of news that’s meaningful within the social system, actions which select information, and views of those actions which filter, sort, rank, and otherwise apply social evaluations.

As systems interconnect, sharing system messages and distributing user communications among one another, noise levels increase, connections increase, actions (possible and required) increase, and so on.

If social media become too interconnected and if they produce more activity and communication than each can filter/sort and allow users to manage, might they implode or collapse in on their own excess of activity and communication? This is strictly a system question — not a personal concern (yet).

And here’s where frames re-enter the picture. User centric design ought to be oriented to the framing of experience, and in social media particularly, common and shared frames of experience. Also common frames of reference, frames of communication, recognizable frames of action (games, rituals, pastimes etc), and temporal frames (routines and episodes).

Are we losing our frames? In terms of the user experience, is his or her experience running away from us? Can we no longer anticipate the user’s experience, due in part to the level of interconnectedness among social media? Can we no longer assess the user’s experience, due in part to the increased ambiguity surrounding his or her use of (our) applications and services? Can we no longer manage the user experience, insofar as there is now a high level of arbitrariness in the information selected, actions acted, communications created and sent, among users of social media?

If the user experience escapes us, if it is not possible to anticipate uses, to design and forward use cases, to define and order user interests, goals, and use benefits — what can we know of how social media will be used? Not knowing how they will be used, how can we anticipate consequences well enough to design for them?

This is where I am at the moment on this. Frames are still, I think, offer a strong conceptual “framework” for social interaction design. But it is possible that, as personas do more for the designer than they do incapturingtruths aboutthe user, frames will offer more to the designer than they will capture truths of social interactions.

There is one possible solution, but I can only suggest it for the moment. If workable, it strikes me it may change the design paradigm (conceptually at least). It’s a double accounting system. Akin and reminiscent of the double-entry book-keeping that revolutionized finance hundreds of years ago. I sense, and I’ve not yet worked this out, I sense that our action system is unilateral. One-sided. As communication is doubly contingent (two subjects, not one, thus two interpretations of meaning to be coordinated through inter-action), the correct framework for social interaction design probably needs to be a double accounting model. Action intended by user : action perceived and interpreted by user. One might then proceed with all design framing by accounting for user actions (by self) as well as views of user actions(by others). Each “side” has actions and an action system (grammar, language, etc). Or if one prefers, action : response.

I have to consider this further. System complexity may simply overwhelm the possibility of a durable design theoretical framework for social media. Or I may simply be lazy.

Adrian Chan

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

18 comments on this article

  1. Great article, Adrian. I, for one, have accepted arbitrariness and ambiguity as part of designing for social media for the larger part: you have to plan for the content to appear anywhere – often without any context. The smaller part being systems such as Facebook Connect; because the entire communication process happens within a Facebook interface, designers have the opportunity to frame the interaction better. For example, “Do you want to publish this to your Facebook wall?” Or the following “Comment on your photo?” dialog which prompts the user to add more context.

    I believe Facebook Connect is a big indicator of where social interactions are going, and will play a large part in answering the questions you pose in this article. The obvious problem is that it’s closed and only available to Facebook. This is a problem much bigger than Facebook – maybe even bigger than Google. We need to start thinking about web communication systems much more broadly and not just the means to solve one service’s plan for world domination.

  2. Josh,

    Thanks for the comment and I agree w/ you on FB connect. It’s a game changer. Context is becoming less of a spatial, layout, and design issue and more an experiential issue: the experience of browsing content + qualifying it + pushing updates to friends changes the user’s relationship to his/her audience, in fact involves a different audience (friends), and thus behavior. These behavioral consequences need to be a part of our design language…


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  4. Kieron on

    I think we as designers must be mindful of the larger user journey and how users feel amidst the connectedness.

    We don’t want to effect user behaviour but design for it and ensure the appropriateness of our designs against the users goal.

    Just something else to think about….

  5. Thanks for sharing.

    Love the concept of “frames” as schema. Another thought-start is in the reply to John: the concept of mapping “behavioral consequences.” I’m going to chew on that one awhile.

  6. Kieron, Trey,

    I believe there’s an aspect in social media of what some sociologists describe as “narrating the self.” Roughly put, we “construct” ourselves in modern times, and social media would be a way of making ourselves a social and public Self, as well as connecting it to friends and social groups, and as a way of talking about our Self. The Self talk is partly to create impressions, partly to get a sense of control (over circumstances, relations, self image, etc), partly to appeal to others, and so on..

    In narrating the Self, using social media, are the arcs and longer story lines you suggest, Kieron.

    Trey, the use of frames would be a very explicit alternative to the “architecture” conventionally used as main conceptual metaphor and practice. Yes, architecture can still describe the factual and “real” aspects online media. But frames would orient us to the user experience.

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  8. This is a brilliant post. Thank you. A group of us here in the U.K. are working on what you are talking about, and linked to a community of users in Cardiff, Wales. It’s called Digital Butetown. and #digitalbutetown. For me, one issue you point at is how can we collectivize a personalized economy. Answer, you can’t. But surely you can create oases for people to drink at. And opportunities for digital migrants to sidle up to and jump from one network to another. Maybe it’s these sorts of phenomena – pools and bridge points – that are key. But yes, they make a bit of nonsense of the idea of framing. :(

  9. David,

    Thanks for your comment — will check out butetown. Interesting point on collective action, collectives, collective economies (which are different things of course). I’ve been wondering whether is an attempt to apply wiki-like collectivism to decision making and recommendations.

    Which is a tough nut to crack, given that decisions are personal and decision reasons/selections are subjective. Different problem as they’re trying to get use collective (anonymous, impersonal, non-social) decision making to create objectivity in the logical choices involved in making a choice (say, best 70s movie).

    But where wikipedia can leverage the commitment many of its users/contributors have to “truth” and accuracy, which is an impersonal and non-social mentality and thus is in line with the site’s interaction model, the interaction model for is personal, and subjective. It’s about the choices each person makes when making a decision: none of which is objective.

    Clay Shirky argues that collective action is the most difficult and rare of social action. I’ve been thinking about whether or not it’s a contradiction in terms, or an outcome that can in fact be structured. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that collective action is a contradiction in terms but that collective outcomes are not. (Insofar as “action” is a motivated act, I dont see how individuals can act for a collective — that would be social action to me, group action, community or what have you — membership based and thus cooperative, collaborative but not “collective”)…

    Which brings us full circle perhaps: it would take an interaction framework sensitive to actions and reactions, statements and responses, or the contingencies of acts and responses, to shape interaction models capable of using personally or socially motivated acts to produce collective results. … Worth thinking about. If we’re to have success turning back climate change, I think it’s going to take just this kind of a system.

  10. I’ve run a couple of urban renewal programs in the past in the U.K. that have established narratives over time which have provided enough access points and have had sufficient eclat for people to want to self-organize, join in and provide their own chapter in the story. Each new chapter changes the story in some way and re-frames the frame. Because the entire programs haven’t been locked in to government funding rounds but people have raised finance as they go for their projects – much like film producers – different sub-initiatives have been able to progress and deliver at their own natural speeds. worth thinking about. good to meet u here.

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