Designing Social Tools Around User Interests

About social interests

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The key to designing social media well lies in designing it for a user’s social interests. Conventional software addresses the user’s task-oriented needs and objectives. But social media succeed when they engage the user’s social interests.

Social interests involve two psychological insights: that users are interested in others generally (social activities, or what’s going on); and users are interested in others particularly (another user).

Each of these is doubled up by the self-reflexivity of social action: users are interested in how they themselves appear to others in general (one’s self image, impressions made, the stuff of “self-presentation” common in social media); and another particular user’s relationship to him or her (e.g. their interest in us).

From this we can quickly see that social media are not a matter of straightforward goal-oriented interaction design. As users, we are aware (if not consciously) of what and how social activities proceed. We become interested in ourselves, in how we are perceived, and in the relation others take up to us.

Thus the interest captivated by social media is twofold: it’s a self-interest and an Other-interest. And the habits that engage users with social media engage users are not just the interaction between a user and the site, but between the user and other users. In the course of using social tools, reciprocity by others, and our mutual recognition of each other, deepens our interests and interactions.

the interest captivated by social media is twofold: it’s a self-interest and an Other-interest

Because social tools use a medium that works by representing our identities and activities, representations themselves become interesting. Klout is an example of meta data used to create social reputation that becomes motivating in and of itself. Many other representations that have become meaningful (for better or worse) include follower numbers on twitter, being listed, circled, commented on; or being retweeted, cited, tagged, and badged.

Activities that would normally pass by unnoticed in the daily course of work and life accrue different meanings when they are captured and represented online. We become extended. These extensions of ourselves (our social media presences) reflect on us. In turn, we become interested in an externalized and represented “version” of ourselves.

This is possible, as a motivation of action and habit, only because we’re able to form and sustain the ideas involved in extended presence. The idea of friendship, the idea of relationships, the idea of popularity, of importance and attention are all motivating and interesting. Social media can seem to make friends count for more than friendship. In some cases this is positive. In others, it is undermining.

To the social interaction designer, this doesn’t matter. All mediated activities that users may take an interest in become motives and those motives become habit — the ingredient, if you will, of successful social tool design and adoption.

The task of social interaction design is to capture and sustain user interest, even if it’s an interest in the abstraction and idea of accumulating friendships, getting noticed, becoming popular, and so on. Doing that requires successfully generating and feeding interests.

the task of social interaction design is to capture and sustain user interest

To the extent that these might produce meaningful and valuable information in the form of commerce, viral communication, social marketing or meta data, human interests are critical factors of social interaction design. A site or system that fails to captivate these basic social interests will wither on the vine.

The user may become interested in any of the following. Note that in each case we are talking about the perceived status of an interest and relation. Social realities are all subjective, interpreted, and can only be validated to the extent that communication provides truthful and sincere verification. Social media require neither to be successful.

Social and interpersonal interests grow from Self to include an Other in person; Others as friends, peers, groups; Others in general (an audience); and online social activities and pastimes.

The user’s interests develop around:

  • his or her own self image as represented
  • his or her image and presentation as a reflection of acknowledgment by others
  • a particular person the interest that person has in oneself
  • a scene or social activitysocial position, or who’s who
  • an audience or community
  • news and social facts, as circulated by known people

These personal and social interests become habits of use. Habits form not around needs and goals, but again, around the deeper motives that structure individual personality and sense of self. Habits are supported and extended by the tools themselves, and are ever evolving with change in the industry and technologies. Social technologies are simply the functional application of individual and social techniques, applied to identity, relating, interacting, and communicating.

User’s activities can include:

  • collecting socially relevant items (including friends)
  • accumulating socially relevant distinction
  • sself promotion, brand promotion, site promotion, profile promotion (social capital)
  • appealing to others through requests, posts (bog, video, audio), and comments, etc
  • participating in collaboration (wiki, lists, tagging)
  • extending daily activities such as shopping, bookmarking, keeping in touch
  • avoiding risks, embarrassment, social faux pas and failures (real or imagined)
  • work and work-related successes (admittedly more or less interesting)
  • social games, including socialized games, and gamified social
  • small habits, from instagramming to music sharing
  • influence monitoring, projection of persona and reputation

To conclude, then, social tools can never be grasped from a technical or functional perspective alone. Granted, they are designed, architected, built and extended by means of current industry technologies and standards. But their use, and use is the central orientation of any user experience or interaction designer, is explained not on the basis of what tools do, but why and how they are used. The uses of social tools are not utilitarian — comprising of tasks, needs, or goals. Rather, they are intrinsically psychological and social. And as such, comprise of the relational interests people take in their own self and relations to others as represented and communicated online.

Adrian Chan

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

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