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What does the user experience field have to say about social media?

In recent months, likely due to the rise of Twitter, potential clients of Adaptive Path have been asking more and more about social media, and how to respond to it. And while we have some definite ideas, one thing I realized is that the field of user experience has been oddly silent about how to engage in social media. If you read the blogs and mailing lists that designers frequent, they rarely address how to consider Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., from a user experience point of view.

This surprised me, since the UX community is a remarkably active participant in social media. Since the field began to take off in 1998 or so, blogs and mailing lists have been the single best means of learning about the field and leveling up.

I fear that the user experience field has defined itself by a series of artifacts (flow diagrams, architectures, wireframes) and this has placed a conceptual boundary on the kinds of problems we successfully engage. The user experience of social media is not addressed through wireframes — unless you work for one of these social media providers, your company’s or client’s user experience of social media will be outside of your design control. It’s meaningless to draw a wireframe of a Twitter conversation.

I suspect that in order to embrace this opportunity, user experience types will have to put down Visio and Omnigraffle and find other ways to “deliver”. The most obvious next step is that we’ll need to be more comfortable writing principles and guidelines, akin to Christian Crumlish’s recent piece for the ASIST Bulletin.

But, as designers, the distinct value we can bring is in experiential tangibility, and it leads me to wonder, how, as a field, can user experience folks best engage in the social media dialogue? Because right now, it’s sadly dominated by douchebags who seem to think that social media = a sexy new form of marketing communications.


  1. Yahoo’s Design Patterns (now totally buried on the site) include several good social patterns, although it’s a very incomplete set. Erin Malone’s got a fantastic-looking book in the works called Designing Social Interfaces which already has a working pattern library available. Josh Porter’s been writing about designing for social for quite a while at his site, and wrote Designing for the Social Web as well.

    Maybe what you mean is that those are too focussed on *building* social UX, rather than integrating your designs with existing social networks?

  2. Also, do I lose UX cred by admitting that I’m sort of tired of pattern libraries? Especially as structures for organizing books? All they really seem to capture is good intentions: “users need to know where they are, so provide clear sitewide navigation elements…and here are pictures of five examples.” Guidelines are fine, but they’re sort of like “voluntary codes of ethical conduct”. It’s a shame to not live up to them, but without enforcement mechanisms or oversight, they’re merely good suggestions, not reliable systems.

    For instance, not to pick on the in-progress version of what may be an excellent book, but the Workspaces pattern here seems sort of toothless, boiling down to “provide tools to support collaborative work.” Which is a great intention, but what specific automated mechanisms might help direct behaviors in the right directions? What metrics might be monitored to help make “paving the cowpath” decisions after v1?

  3. I’m not super familiar with Josh’s, Erin’s, or Christian’s work, but from what I can see, they’re basically Web Site Design books. Not to knock it, but when a potential client is talking to me about social media, it has almost nothing to do with “how do I make a better sign-up and registration process?” It’s almost always about, “How do I better engage existing social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, and the like?” And I’ve not seen any user experience take on that.

  4. I think Josh’s book does cover more than just web site design, but yes, these are all basically UI books, not discussions of integrating designs into a bigger ecosystem. Matt Jones has done a few presentations about Dopplr as a service that’s meant to live on the “coral reef” of social networks…which is still not quite what you’re getting at though.

    Still not really an answer, but did you see what Chris Fahey wrote the other day about dealing with social media? Basically: it’s mostly a question of finding the person who’s enthusiastic about engaging with users & customers via social media, and giving them the space to do it well.

  5. The pattern library still boils things down to artifacts, things that we can port around or show off as products or outcomes. They’re fantastic for providing suggestions to website design, but like you said, Peter, it fails to convey the “experiential” value in social media.

    Nicole Lazzaro spoke at BayCHI last night about fun in game design. The type of fun that resonated most with me WRT social media was “people fun.” This is what creates the experience and value of connecting through social media. (“The relationship is the message.”) But how do we convey that to clients? Bodystorming comes to mind. Illustrating experiences and long(er) scenarios through cartoon sketches could work too. Or anything that captures the holistic experience — in a non-scientific, non-categorical way — showing the emotional/fuzzy side of the social media experience.

  6. Another way to identify the value in something: strip away the underlying technology and see what’s left over. In social media, the tools help us connect and communicate; after that, x, y, and z are made possible. So another way to think about the “experiential” value of social tools is to see what they enable (what behaviors and practices arise from them), not just what their interface elements make possible.

  7. Thanks for the linkage, Andrew.

    And while I think *good people* running your social media identity on a day to day basis will make or break your social strategy, there is also a huge *UX Design* component to it, too.

    Like AP, Behavior is also facing increased needs from clients for social media strategies. Because social media is a user experience, a lot of what we already do translates well — to Brynn’s point, we already have to deal with the broader behavioral context of user experiences. But because of things like the aforementioned importance of hiring good community managers, spokespeople, customer relations specialists, and strategies relating to marketing (if you build it, they will not necessarily come), there are obviously components of delivering a social media strategy that go far beyond traditional UX design.

  8. Peter,

    I’ve shared the same complaint with ixd and ia folks. But the conversation is happening. Will Evans, Dave Malouf, Chris Baum, Jeroen van Geel, Thomas Vander Wal, Josh Damon Williams, Michael Leis — and that’s of course just a short list — all engaged in the needs of social interaction or social experience design.

    That said, there are some barriers to work our way over. Firstly, recognizing that one can’t really “design” social practices any more than one could engineer social situations. It’s not in the features, on the screen, or through the navigation. And yet we recognize that as architects we do need the insights of urban planners if our work is to facilitate and sustain the kinds of social practices that make a site/service/app socially compelling and engaging over time.

    Personally I’ve been writing about social interaction design for 3 years now. I use psychology, applied to the user experience as a means of identifying user interests and user competencies with online social interaction and communication.

    Then sociology, applied to social practices, their “theme” or main activity, their interaction and, increasingly, now, conversation models (as twitter and social media become more conversational).

    A bit of conversation modeling can be applied to different kinds of linguistic and symbolic interactions: to differentiate statements, eg questions, answers, requests, recommendations, invitations, greetings, etc.

    We can identify, if not to control then at least to anticipate, the kinds of interactions that work at different scales of social media use and complexity. Obviously behaviors change as populations grow. I’ve floated with some folks the idea of an “agile” approach to social media design and deployment: a lot of platforms come with all the pieces needed for an entire city to function, but don’t have an install/deploy method that might start small and scale up as user behaviors stick and develop (organically).

    There’s another thing — social software fails, regularly, all the time, and perhaps even by necessity. The interactions are between people using tacit social conventions, familiar gestures, conversational forms, involving long-standing behavioral expectations (etiquette) BUT EACH having their own experience, and consequently, being engaged by and through whatever kinds of interactions and communications catch their interest or sustain their participation. Hardly any of this is specific to software and most is carried by the users.

    As designers I think we have a very limited understanding of social systems, how they grow and become self-sustaining, and so our products tend to “fail.” Ironically, or not, its this failure that can produce more communication and participation — for failing software creates ambiguities, and I think it’s those relational, interactional, and communicative ambiguities that often attract participation. Transactions in social media are open, unfinished and unresolved — resolving, or trying to resolve, the social ambiguities sprung out of the incomplete encounters we have with others online fuels the engine that runs social practices.


  9. Social design does not survive contact with the user. You cannot design it ahead of time and expect it to work 100%…you have to use it or watch how people use it and then react. In this way design is not the planning some people make it out to be…it’s a reaction to use. Or, more likely, it’s a constant game of plan, release, observe, fix plan…

    Craig Newmark is reacting daily to the stuff people do. He’s designing solutions…tweaking the system’s levers, so to speak. Not only can you not plan it ahead of time, but the community learns and changes too, so what worked a month ago doesn’t work any more.

    It’s as much community management as it is “design” in the normal sense. And, oh by the way, it’s often hard to take what worked in one community and apply it to another. Each community is different. Each has its own norms. Building reputation on ravelry is completely different than on yelp, etc. I think we can generalize some things…such as the need for a reputation system, and we can borrow some things that have worked from gaming (leveling, badges, etc), but we’re still at the beginning here.

    So…in my work I’m using my client’s products…seeing how people bend and break them, and then reacting to them by improving the design bit by bit. I’ve had to change the way I work with people…I can’t just deliver something and walk away. (I call this the agency problem)

    That’s not to say we can’t write about our successes and best practices, and I’ll be the first to admit that my book was an early shot in the dark, but what I’ve learned since then is that without actual engagement we know almost nothing.

  10. We must always start with a goal in our work-even if that goal is all about discovering the unknown.

    I personally see social tools as part of the mechanisms we use to meet the goals. In my work, social media has just been an extension of what can be done to meet goals for users and for business.

    As User Experience practitioners we should be ahead of these possibilities. As consultants in this field it is even more imperative to be aware of the possible. We don’t serve clients well if we don’t bring that to the table for them.

    I see lots of people running after shiny new things-that’s nothing new. The rise in social media ‘douchebaggery’ has happened because more people in marketing are out of work and have time to explore this ‘area of expertise’. Also-it’s easy. “I have a Facebook page and a MySpace page and a Twitter account. I’m a social media expert!”

    I think there is a huge opportunity for thought leadership-but also a HUGE stigma. I myself have participated in teaching specific social media techniques and strategies-when I have done this, my UX colleagues have largely made fun of me.

    Why it’s not happening-Social Media is the definition of iteration & it crosses all kinds of organizational lines. It does not lend itself well to ‘project based’ work. Because many UX companies are set up to handle work in that manner, maybe some of the deeper thinking hasn’t happened as people are only beginning to spend money on this kind of work. Much thought leadership stems from work that you are practicing. If you are not practicing the work, you won’t have the deeper insights.

  11. Nice article. I actually wrote a blog post on my company web site about the rise of the “social media expert,” which pretty much coincides with your point about the area being dominated by douchebags. I compare this social media blitz to the same gold rush when SEO got popular and then when AdWords expert began to crawl out of the woodworks.

  12. Brad Burnham at Union Square dubbed (a good chunk of) social software as “lightweight governance models.” When you use those words, it completely changes how you consider designing and improving a system since you’re playing the role of architect, party-planner, and guardian. The UX canon only helps with the initial architecture, yet the main value arises during repeated usage/post launch. Joshua’s example of Newmark is perfect since Craig controls and manages the spectrum of needs—for both the features and the users.

    Rarely can large corporations absorb this kind of model—and rarely can the UX community deliver it to them—since the web-governed “governance model” is at odds with a corporation’s hierarchical, analogue model. Really, what folks like Newmark, Stewart Butterfield, and Ev Williams are doing isn’t so much designing systems that a corporation can use, but rather creating systems that make redundant the very existence of traditional corporations. In other words, it’s not that companies need to use “social systems.” They need to become them.

  13. Peter,

    It is essentially a difference in disciplinary origins. UX, at least until recently, is dominated by cognitive and behavioral perspectives on interaction. Their common unit of design is behavior. Behavior is much easier to relate directly to goals.

    Social media, when done well, tacitly draws from an apprach to design in which the common unit of design is the social act. Social acts do not directly relate to goals, but instead occur in a milieu of activity in which interaction with people is the key rather than interaction with technical artifacts. Goals are achieved in that social interaction process.

    Unfortunately, you even see the traditional language of UX slip into the discussions of social media design such as that of Adrian Chan’s comment above in which he talks about behavior changing. Social action is what occurs between people in social media, not behavior.


    Larry Irons

  14. Peter – I think you are right – what most of us are concentrating on is the design of the user experience – or rather the design of the software. And yes to those who mentioned it above, Christian’s and my book does focus on the UI aspects of social software. A year ago when we started the project, there wasn’t a holistic collection (other than Joshua’s terrific book) about the types of interactions and interfaces needed or principles and anti-patterns for the designer to consider that could be found all in one place. That’s why the book.
    In the year since, a lot of people have been talking about this and we have as well so it seems like that’s all we talk about.
    Several of my marketing friends and some of my clients, however are talking about the other side of social – how do you as a company – engage across the landscape in a meaningful conversations with your customers. And from what I have seen it is primarily a marketing driven exercise.
    It would seem to me, that companies should be engaging their user experience people – particularly the senior and strategic ones – to help create a plan or process for how they engage with their customer, both within their company and with their products but in all these tangential places where people are talking about their company or products like twitter, facebook, etc. As part of a holistic user experience – or brand experience – it should be folded into the strategy just as much as the design of the product might be.
    From what one of my marketing friends says – who spends lots of time advising clients about this very thing – there are a lot of wannabes and so called experts – who really don’t get it, giving a lot of bad advice to their clients.
    The UX discipline would do well to expand our horizons and think about the entire lifecycle of what customers do and need and weave that into our practices. The buck doesn’t stop when the artifacts are delivered but should keep moving into a holistic cycle.

  15. The current interest in social media is connected to the novelty of interactions using systems like Facebook and Twitter, and I think it’s unlikely that UX / design can really respond to what’s novel without placing it in a continuum going back through bigger trends and perspectives. The “new” that we need to design for, to us, is the “current new”–we know it will become the “not new”–and we want our designs to be not just “current new,” but go beyond that.

    So, as an alternative comment: UX is 90% about social media, except we don’t always talk a lot about “the people.”

    Specifically, in UX, we often assume that our clients are responsible for their realm of social contracts, and we are then designing corresponding contexts, interactions, sites, etc., that serve those social contracts, defined in their terms.

    So, the social contracts around, say, a sitemap, are implicit, rather than “in the diagram.” The sitemap always shows what, but rarely shows who–with the who being both specific individuals (rather than personas or roles), but also the “who” who is trying to define a realm of social contracts.

    In my experience, it’s rare to do UX and not do some design work around the social contracts, e.g., organization design, process reengineering, customer service–plus designing the self-service interactions that become possible via websites, etc. Also, UX addresses strategy: why define the social contract in this way vs that way.

    i think Brad Burnham’s phrase of “lightweight governance models” (quoted by Mark Ury, above) makes a good distinction–a lot of UX is around social interactions that are tightly governed, e.g., buying a book on Amazon.

    Buying a book on Amazon is 90% social media in one sense: I send a message, someone gets it, sends me back a message, etc. But, tight governance allows people to be implicit / invisible in the interaction–e.g., a “shipper” packs the “customer’s” book rather than “Jenny” packs a book for “Bob.”

    With social media, there’s still a lot of “what” to talk about in UX terms. And, for our clients at least, they need UX people to talk to about that–e.g., if someone asks me a question about their order on Twitter, what do I send back on Twitter and what do I need to have happen via the website.

    But, then the “who” becomes more important subject in our work.

  16. Excellent post Peter.

    I have run into this countless times. Most of my work in the last 4 to 5 years has been with organizations trying to bring these social tools/services into their internal practices and occasionally use them to engage through or outside the firewall. I also have been working with the companies building tools for these organizations to help them make large steps improving the tools and services. One large problem is adoption and engagement with the tools as not only are many of the tools for organizations designed poorly for use (let alone experience) the tools and services they are copying (“web design karaoke” has become one of my favorite phrases) do not work well.

    Normally I get involved after tools are in place and organizations are trying to remedy what they have to get great percentage of use. What most organizations has is a perceived low percentage of use and adoption. But, when looking at the tools they are using and what they are copying their 12% adoption is much better than the 14 Million people on the web using that same tool (14 Million translates into about 8% US web users and 2% global web users).

    But, at the heart of the problem is poor understanding of user experience, particularly around social interaction. The other problems relate to sociality (how people interact with each other in small groups to a collective group) and people’s comfort with that. At the overlap of user experience and sociality is a giant gap right now. Many in the UX community who are talking about designing for social are lacking depth in understanding and guiding in ways that are not beneficial for use.

    In writing a book for O’Reilly and trying to explain benefits organizations were finding as well as difficulties they were having I ran into the problem of finding no models that were usable to think these social results through. It took 18 months or more of deconstructing and pulling things back together to get a set of models that really work well enough to evaluate things and plan for them early.

    I really like what Christian and Erin have done, but it is a starting point that need some deep “it depends” understandings around it. What they have, in my view, is a great starting point to thinking. I am also a deep fan of what Adrian Chan has been doing, while he and I are on slightly different paths, what we have is complementary. But what Adrian and I have is largely outside the UX community.

    I have spent most of my time the last few years working with social tools makers, people deploying them, and customers using them. There are great people with UX as part of their roles who are working inside some of the tool/services makers who have really deep understanding of social interactions gained from experience developing/designing, researching, and iterating for improve engagement and use. Many of these people, when asked if they participate in the UX communities state the discussions and conferences are really thin in understanding and depth that they need to do their job around social interactions. Sadly, this has been my experience as well and why I mostly deal with people confronted with these problems on a regular basis and are pushed to understand and resolve them.

    I agree with Joshua about community managers being central as it is part of the four part balance of tools (features & functionality), user experience, sociality, and engagement services (community managers). Where these overlap tells where there are imbalances and gaps.

    One thing that many “social media experts” have is experience using the tools and far too many only have use of tools and services as their defining “expertise”. But for many in UX that is the problem too, it is use of the tools and how a small percentage of UX people have engaged in these tools by using them. Identifying what is broken, how humans interact socially, how people interact with kinetic information services, and the value placed on information flowing through these services is needed as a foundation.

    How to add a layer user experience on top of things that are grasped from a perspective of use, it not all that helpful. What is needed is an understanding from the foundation of human interactions with others, social behaviors, social fear & comfort, information flows (content, context, volume, and velocity), and human interactions w/ interfaces.

  17. Erin Malone said: “And from what I have seen it is primarily a marketing driven exercise.”

    Indeed, what clients are looking for regarding social media advice is almost invariably some help with marketing and/or public relations. It’s about relationships, messaging, personality, emotions — the eternal toolkit of the marketing profession.

    I’ve been arguing for a long time that the hostile firewall between marketing and UX is hurting both disciplines more than it has ever helped them. The idea that UX designers aren’t here to make people do stuff and think stuff they didn’t want to do is preventing many of us from having anything to offer clients in the world of social media. We still think we can win by simply building a better mousetrap. UX people think people choose social media products because people have certain UI preferences or because the features are better on one product versus another. That’s just way too simplistic. It’s also about the people, the culture, and the brand. Social networks are platforms, but they are also human cultures. They are clubs where people make emotional connections. Marketers know how to tap into, manipulate, exploit, and even create cultures. Do UX people?

    Perhaps the first step for a UX professional to be able to offer anything of value in social media is to embrace the fact that they are doing marketing.

    Larry Irons wrote: “Social action is what occurs between people in social media, not behavior.”

    I’m not sure I can see the difference. How is a social action not a behavior? Sociology is all about behavior. Just because it’s a behavior that involves other people doesn’t mean it’s not a behavior. It’s hard to imagine any behavior, in fact, that isn’t to some degree social.

    What’s more, in light of the aforementioned observation that social media’s primary function in the real world is (whether we like it or not) to help market and promote products, services, brands, and ideas, it’s hard for me to imagine that changing user behavior (buy something, vote for somebody) isn’t the quintessential objective of any social media strategy.

  18. This is a great set of comments folks. I see a few opportunities for clarification and possibly some for connection.

    –Larry’s point on social acts is right. Social interactions on and through social media are social acts: interactions involving individual user acts intended to communicate, if not something linguistic then symbolic expressions. Point being the act relates to other people, and not just to the software.

    –This takes us to the next insight, which is that the transactional and interaction models for social media should address social practices. Here the term “behavior” has two uses. User behaviors and social behaviors. Perhaps the latter is inaccurate. But as UX is not the only discipline to refer to meaningful behaviors the important distinction we might want to make is that a social behavior is not *just* the isolated or non-social behavior of an individual user. I prefer :social practices” to behaviors, but behavior is fine w me if we mean it as social behavior. It’s still built on socially meaningful actions

    –lightweight governance is a nice phrase and one I’ll use again. But we should note that sites don’t govern, and social systems only barely govern themselves. Self governance is possible in many face to face situations on the basis of conentions; it’s possible in non-face to face social institutions by means of norms. So as long as we don’t assign governance the power to regulate or to describe self-regulating social systems.

    –we can’t design this stuff but we can anticipate outcomes. As site owners (eg. Craig Newmark) tweak over time they use past experiences. I think we can better anticipate what happens, but more importantly, admit that we need to better understand the interaction of social dynamics and site architectures, features, etc. Assuming that what we do on the screen and behind it can shape social practices, we don’t know what the barriers to adoption are, nor what are the thresholds beyond which new practices emerge and stick. Thresholds would be different, for example, if a site’s core users adopted new features (e.g. #followfriday) than if only new users adopted them (auito follow). Adoption by core users on twitter lowers the threshold because their influence accelerates adoption and imbues it w/ insider social appeal. (imho)

    –there’s a guns, bullets, and every tool is a weapon if you hold it right aspect of this missing, too. That’s intent, agency, motivation and motives. Which is where we need the most help: users have so many motives, so many ways of understanding what’s going on, how to act, what to expect, that a properly user-centric approach to this would be too complex to be of any good. A personas 2.0 based on personalities may help as a heuristic (user social interests and competencies). This is worth exploring. We all know a bad community when we see one, but cannot explain how to design to attract, or better, sustain a good one. This may be marketing. Or there may be a craft to seeding and launching a social service that could be integrated into social ux as a kind of “agile social development” — features to appeal to the in crowd first? It seems worth debate. Vanderwal’s insights into failing and broken implementations are important here. Not enough of us recognize the tendencies of social media to fade; and of complex communities to stumble.

  19. I like to tell the story of my former life training to become a marriage and family therapist. In my graduate level training, I learned how systems theory is applied to relationships. That is, if a mom, dad, and child come in for therapy because the parents want the therapist to “fix their kid,” often we find the real issue is with the marriage itself. The child’s behavior is only a side effect of the root issue. While the parents define the “system” as their child, our training forced us to focus on a larger system: the family unit.

    I think the same idea can be applied to this issue. Traditionally, practitioners in the user experience field define the user experience “system” in a more limiting fashion than perhaps we should. This may be due to the fact that we do not have the power to redefine the system – it may have been thrust upon us. On the other hand, this may be due, in part, to how we engage stakeholders. For example, I’m an “innie” working within the Product Development team in my company. I do not have as many opportunities as I’d like to engage stakeholders outside my department. My focus is often on the “child” – users. Still other practitioners are “outties,” often engaged by one division within an organization. When we conduct our work, we are often tasked with designing for discrete specifications, use cases, and requirements that can be linked to various drivers and stakeholders, but while we likely have ample time to conduct user research, do we have ample time to conduct stakeholder research, even dare I say it, have the authority to challenge some of the drivers? I would suspect this opportunity is more easily given to those in the field with more authority; that is, persons who run their own consulting shops and are paid to think strategically rather than simply executing designs that meet use cases.

    I also think that there are two kinds of experience designers (although perhaps a few of us are blessed with both skill sets). There are the Planners, those who think strategically and abstractly, looking to define the problem and determine a high level solution. These folks might wear a few hats: that of designer AND organizational manager. I suspect that fine organizations like Adaptive Path and Behavior are successful because they are able to engage the right cross-section of organizational stakeholders, working to achieve buy-in among and between these folks. Then there are the Executers, those who are happy to receive their marching orders and like to be in the weeds with attention to detail.

    I think the User Experience field CAN have a lot to say about social media, but it’s one thing to define and design the tool (which may be used for intended and unintended consequences). It’s quite another to strategically think how it can be leveraged to benefit stakeholders in addition to the user. I’ve heard some colleagues suggest we should no longer be called “User Experience Design” professionals. Instead, we should be called “Experience Design” professionals. I think this can be a valid take because more and more we are realizing that a user’s experience with a “system” is defined, not only by the interaction they have with a product we may design and build, but by something larger. Social media, when effectively used, widens my definition of system, which can be a positive. Consider some complaints people have with Comcast. They may be disgruntled for a variety of reasons, but when good old Twitter user @comcastcares replies to this person, their experience might become more positive.

    If we are truly interested in designing positive user experiences, we need to first think about redefining the “system” and then consider adding other tools into our “design” toolkit. Tools that do not necessarily involve sketching a possible website design, but instead identifying the right stakeholders, determining their goals for ensuring a positive (holistic) user experience, and then working across organizational silos to achieve these goals together.

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