Bookmark: "Situated Software"

Sebastian Greger


Situated Software (via

Sometimes, an article from 18 years ago can still be of great relevance and inspiration. That’s what happened when I encountered Clay Shirky's essay on “Situated software” (by way of an equally interesting personal project by Robin Sloan) today.

Shirky uses the term “situated software” to describe

software designed in and for a particular social situation or context. This way of making software is in contrast with what I’ll call the Web School (the paradigm I learned to program in), where scalability, generality, and completeness were the key virtues.

The concept raises the important question whether software may not be actually be better if designed for a specific use case and social setting rather than aiming to create something that is universally applicable.

I tried to find out whether this concept has been developed beyond that essay, but could not find anything so far. I did, however, find some references to his text from back in 2004 – amongst them one by Meg Hourihan. She commented:

This gets to something I’ve been thinking about for sometime now, the possibility of using personas to represent groups rather than individuals. […] as Clay writes, there’s a power in groups that you don’t find when the same individuals operate in isolation. By creating group personas (groupas? grouponas?), perhaps we could better design and hone our software to utilize the group’s power. Then we could create software that’s honestly social and situated, and it wouldn’t necessarily be at odds with the breadth and reach of a Web School application.

The lacking social context of personas in how they are commonly applied has been something that has been bothering me for over a decade. While they can be a good vehicle for the consideration of target groups, their disconnectedness is just as much a major drawback as is the common ignorance for everybody not covered in one of a project’s personas.

Shirky’s final paragraph makes me think of another thing as well:

For all the value we get out of the current software ecosystem, it doesn’t include getting an application built for a handful of users to use for a few months. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see a new software niche, where communities get form-fit tools for very particular needs, tools that fail most previous test of design quality or success, but which nevertheless function well, because they are so well situated in the community that uses them.

…I can’t help but once again feel reminded of Vasilis van Gemert’s “Exclusive design” approach to accessibility, where we – even just for the purpose of broadening our perspective – design for a small group of people with specific needs rather than aiming to cover everybody’s needs wholesale.

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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