The IxDA Helsinki October meeting was an evening filled with discussions about the current state of interaction design, the industry and new ideas. Paavo Westerberg rocked the house with an insightful and lively presentation about 15 Golden Rules for creative processes and event host Idean shared some impressions by their US-based staff in a video greeting. My own contribution - by invitation - was a brief presentation to trigger a discussion on the challenges of designing for social network sites, which I try to summarize below for further discussion (and to deliver the video that failed to run on stage).
Man-machine interfaces vs. online human-human interaction
Traditional interaction design thinking is under pressure in the case of social network services because we no longer are facing situations where a user fulfills a task on a computer (the roots of HCI and IxD), but we are designing systems that facilitate social processes between human beings. Such interactions are highly complex by nature and, other than for example the process of withdrawing money from an ATM, do not follow a clear structure; neither in terms of flow nor in terms of the information/content involved.
While in the case of an ATM we have all the tools needed to research and understand the users’ needs, make a value proposition and deliver exactly the value the user has been promised and is expecting, things get tricky with digitally mediated communication: Human relationships have uncountable nuances and involve not just the exchange of information, but sensual experiences, subtle signals and interpersonal factors; yet, the tools of information technology are at their core limited to two elements, zero and one.
Translating human interaction into binary, computerized data is a challenge of its own - making delivering on the value expectations a user may have from such system inevitably difficult. And the gratification experienced by the user does not come from the interface alone, but from the underlying logic.
In the quest for the creation of meaningful value through social network services, there is a risk that such concepts may be built upon assumptions that, while serving the purpose at first, will ultimately prohibit such applications from delivering what they were built for: Social value. To illustrate this point, the presentation discusses two “pitfalls” how SNS designs may fail to provide that value.
Pitfall 1: Enforced conformity
Since it is impossible to create systems able to represent the full range of interpersonal relationships, simplification is one of the designer’s weapons of choice. Most SNS services offer only limited types of interpersonal relation (from Facebook’s reciprocal “friend” model or Twitter’s unilateral “subscribe” to more granular concepts like Google+’s circles). This has implications on the visibility of information - at worst, there is not even a distinction between an acquaintance and a best friend.
As the digitalised world lacks implicit forms of exchange such as overhearing something being said, observing something as a bystander or sensing something from situational cues, automation is considered to be the provider of additional meta information; by interacting with the service, the system computes what it assumes to be implicit information (the abuse of such “meta information” is discussed in my previous post on “social littering”).
Jaron Lanier takes this thought even further. In a recently published video, he criticizes the attempt to force human identity and culture into what he calls “a regimentation scheme,” reducing human expression into database-formatted lists of data:
As becomes clear in his 2010 book “You are not a gadget”, Lanier is everything but critical about the capacities of technology to enhance human lives; his critique is about the lack of long-sighted responsibility by those shaping the tools that are to bring along such future.
Pitfall 2: The user hypothesis
The second problem a lot of SNS concepts seem to suffer from is the idealistic hypothesis applied to define their “users”. Probably influenced by the thinking of the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM, aka. diffusion theory), where technology adaption happens in phases from innovators and early adopters to laggards and will ultimately reach a 100% saturation of the market, the value proposition of social interaction services is often based on the assumed presence of a user’s peers.
However, as statistics reveal, the reality is that only a very limited share of people show a reliably regular user behaviour. For example in 2010, only 42% of the Finnish population were registered to an SNS and only 28% would use it at least daily; age groups over 45 even far less, with daily use at 2-11% (all of these numbers have improved slightly in 2011, but the underlying patterns remained the same).
Contrary to what it might look like, the non-use-induced weakness of such concepts is not a temporary issue while waiting for the laggards to become users:
Non-use of technology - or any product/service for that matter - is often not motivated by slow adaptation of innovations or some form of exclusion, but the result of conscious processes to either never begin the use of a product or to stop using it.
The problem the non-use phenomenon causes for interaction design is that the facilitated social processes cannot provide full value to the SNS users if some of their peers are not online:
- Social practice is limited to the sub-group of peers that is using the service;
- In an SNS, presence (though not necessarily permanent) is the precondition for interaction;
- SNS-mediated activities have limited applicability if their reach does not cover all peers.
The two effects created by the absence of the users that would be needed to fully deliver on the value proposition - described in further detail in the publication “The Absent Peer - Non-use in Social Interaction Design” - are the “social network mismatch” (the online network does not reflect reality) and the “sociality gap” (the creation of new online forms of sociality that are limited exclusively to the users).
A wicked problem
It appears that the current thinking is at least partially based on wrong assumptions. Both, the expectation that social life would adapt to our database models and the construction of designs that are only really valuable if everybody in a user’s social context is using them, may eventually fire back when users turn away from the service as they are after all only limited representations of the sociality they were looking for.
There would be many more challenges to be reviewed where the interaction design toolbox is struggling to provide the tools for incorporating social variety into SNS ecosystems. Yet, already the two aspects described allow to summarize that the major difference compared to “traditional” man-machine interfaces is that, in social interaction design, the interactive artefact itself does no longer deliver on its value proposition: While an ATM is perceived to directly provide the value and experience the user is looking for (easy withdrawal of cash through an intuitive interface), SNS front-ends are only the access layer to a complex system that claims to provide the abstract value and experience of social interactions mediated by a computer network.
As the issue is rooted in the general incompatibility of rich social variety and technology’s limited capability to accommodate unlimited variation, these are not problems that could be solved immediately; there is no simple recipe to overcome the challenge. They rather are aspects worth to keep in mind while we are shaping the future of social technology - grounding social technology concepts in social reality is the best way to provide social value.
If the interface-level artefacts we create are only mediators for the features of an SNS, we will need to find ways to create “value and experiences beyond the interface”. All these are thoughts in process. It was great fun to discuss them with the crowd afterwards. What do you think about this approach?