July 8, 2011 UPA 2011: Designing for the Social Web

Andrew Albjerg
User Experience Department

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta to attend the Usability Professionals Association International Conference, 2011. As I'm quite new to the field of usability, this was a great chance for me to meet some of the leading professionals in UX and to learn more about the discipline. I was able to take classes covering a wide variety of subjects; from the basics of conducting diagnostic usability exams to how Chinese web design patterns differ from those of other countries, and many other topics in between. While it was all interesting, one of the most compelling speeches of the entire conference was the keynote address given by Paul Adams, currently the Global Brand Experience Manager at Facebook. The title of his speech, which was also the theme of the conference as a whole, was, “Designing for Social Change,” but what it really focused on was on how to design for a web that is becoming more and more social. He focused on how the web is becoming an increasingly social place, and on how understanding social networks that exist outside of the web can help us create better, more useful and more usable social experiences on the web. This in some ways represents another dimension to usability. Whereas usability tends to focus on how to design products that are usable for the individual user, it is becoming increasingly important for us to also think about how to design products that are usable for individuals interacting as a part of the larger social web.

Designing for individuals.

When people started developing software and webpages several decades ago, the way the end product looked and operated was determined more by the underlying technology that the product was developed for than the actual end user of the product. MS-DOS, for example, while highly functional was a nightmare from a basic usability standpoint. If you were someone with a lot of time on your hands you could learn how to use a program like MS-DOS, but for the average person it was too difficult and confusing to be of much use. Over time, however, as computers have become a larger and larger part of the daily lives of people around the world, we've done a much better job of designing software and webpages that are not only functional, but usable. We've been able to achieve this because we started to focus not just on the technical aspects of the software and the machines it was to be used on, but on the people who were going to use the software. By implementing our knowledge of how people learn, process information, remember things, etc, we've been able to design products that are not only functional, but usable. Basically, we've had to implement our knowledge of how humans work to make products that work for humans.

Designing for people in groups.

The entire internet itself is undergoing a transformation right now. In the past few years we've seen a transformation in the web as it becomes a more and more social place. Understanding this and learning how to design for and operate in this environment will be crucial in the coming years. As Paul Adam's stated in his speech, the web is being redesigned around people. This process is in many ways similar to the development of usable products for individual users, but on a broader scale. Just as we had to learn how to design products that worked around how humans work as individuals, we now need to learn how to create social web products that are designed around how people work in groups. This was a key point of Paul Adams' speech, and while I won't go into all the details of it here, I will focus on a few of his main points. (you can see some slides of his explaining this in more detail here: http://www.slideshare.net/padday/how-your-customers-social-circles-influence-what-they-buy-what-they-do-and-where-they-go )

One size does not fit all:

One of the key points that Adam's made was that there are a variety of different relationship types that people have in real life and on the web. He characterizes them as strong ties, weak ties, and temporary ties. Strong ties are the types of relationships we have with our family and close friends, weak ties are the types of relationships we have with our acquaintances from university or previous places we've lived or worked, and temporary ties are the types of relationships that we have with a clerk at a store, a server at a restaurant, or someone who asks us for directions on the street. These relationships are clearly delineated and easily managed in real life, but are often not so on the web. This has the potential to create all types of problems. People using online social networks often aren't aware of or don't know how to control who can see the information they post online. This means that things that might only be intended for close friends end up being seen by people who shouldn't see them; someone's boss for example. This isn't a problem in the real world, as I know that if I tell something to my brother he won't tell it to my boss, but as social networks are currently designed it is often hard to manage on the web. Neglecting to design for different types of social ties also represents a missed opportunity in terms of leveraging close social ties. When someone goes to an ecommerce site, they are unlikely to be highly persuaded by a review of a random person whom they don't know, but if it's a review from one of their good friends then they will be much more likely to be influenced. Sites that can do a better job of leveraging close social ties will have advantage in selling their products online and improving their brand image online.

The web is new, human social patterns are old.

We humans have been living in social groups for much longer than the web has been around. Human social patterns, if they change at all, change very slowly. The social web needs to be built around these social patterns, not vice versa. When we design websites to be usable for individual users, we need to take into account some limits of the human brain, like the number of objects we can keep in our working memory at any one time, how we process information visually, etc. There are also limits in the human brain that we need to think about when designing for the social web. For example, humans can only keep track of about 150 individual people at any one time. Groups of 150 or less tend to be more cohesive than groups that are larger. Online social networks do make it easier to stay in contact with our more distant acquaintances, but just because it's easier doesn't necessarily mean it's much more likely that we'll increase the amount of actual interactions we have with them. While we might be slightly better informed about some aspects of their lives via status updates, it's likely that we'll continue to mainly interact with a fairly small group of people, just as humans have for thousands of years. The point is, it's probably better to gain a thorough understanding of existing social networks and relationships and design the social web around them rather than trying to use the social web to change the way in which people naturally interact.

Where does this lead?

Google recently released its latest attempt at a social network, called Google+. It's still in a trial phase, and I haven't had a chance to use it myself yet. From the details that are currently available though, it seems that it is built around the ability to quickly and easily organize one's contacts into groups based on types of relationships and control who has access to various types of information. Paul Adams actually worked on developing this before he moved to Facebook last year, and so it's not surprising to see many of the ideas he talked about show up in Google+. It will be interesting to see if this gives Google and advantage this time around as they try to develop a viable social network service of their own.

Regardless, that the web is becoming increasingly social is undeniable. It's something that needs to be accounted for when developing new products for the web; and by understanding the ways in which people organize themselves offline, companies can get a good start on designing effective ways for people to organize and communicate online.

I've only briefly touched on some of the topics that Paul Adam's covered during his speech, so if you are interested in learning more I'd suggest checking out his blog http://www.thinkoutsidein.com/blog/, or his slide share site at http://www.slideshare.net/padday

Also if you are interested in learning more about usability and user experience research in general, check out the UX Masterclass being hosted in Chicago, by User Centric and the UXalliance, October 2011. More info at: www.uxmasterclass.com

For more information on our services, timeframes and estimates, as well as examples of our work, please feel free to be in touch.