Designing for Meaningful Social Interactions

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The age of cheap “like”-hunting needs to come to an end. It all started innocently enough with likes and tweets. Then in a few years, we suddenly ended up with governments scoring people and masses manipulated into meaningless activities to generate more ad revenue.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now the time has come for us—designers, working on digital products—to step up our game and act like real gatekeepers. Continue reading Designing for Meaningful Social Interactions

Second-hand UX

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Something that I feel is overlooked by a lot of product designers is the second-hand experience of their product. That is to say, above and beyond the target user, who is affected by the product—and most importantly—what is their experience?

If the UX team has satisfied all the needs and desires of the target user, minimized their pain-points, and maximized their ability to enjoy the most common process flows, that is truly awesome—but how does the experience they design affect that person’s social circle? Do product designers currently see that as a question worth spending additional time and resources to answer?

Continue reading Second-hand UX

Researching User Experience: A Knowledge Ecology Model

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When we think of learning environments, we think of books, lectures, databases perhaps. But in my recent research, I discovered that the interactions we have with people in our networks play an even more important role in what we learn and how we turn information into actionable knowledge.

All of the people in my study were learning how to be lecturers and how to progress their careers after spending considerable amounts of time as practitioners in a variety of industries such as business and marketing, health, psychology, education, environmental sciences and entertainment. I focused on exploring what informed their learning and professional development and how it informed their learning.

After a series of interviews and qualitative data analysis, I found that what is primarily informing their learning activities is knowledge–knowledge of oneself and knowledge from a range of people in their professional and personal networks such as informal and formal mentors, industry and academic colleagues, family, friends, and even inspirational figures they have never met. Some of the key learning experiences include:

  • hearing from experienced leaders as ‘role models’ at professional development programs,
  • seeking and attracting developers (informal mentors or peers) while taking formal courses,
  • presenting papers at events such as conferences, thus gaining peer feedback and making friends,
  • getting known through volunteering within professional communities and internal committees,
  • maintaining personal foundations around the home, family, and social life, and
  • seeking or attracting new opportunities for expansion using a range of social media.

Five types of knowledge emerged from the data:

Knowledge Types Examples
Experiential lessons from past experience, tacit knowledge, know-how
Personal social savvy, common sense, trust, empathy
Technical how-to guides, user reviews
Disciplinary conversations or reviews within similar discipline or field
Interdisciplinary conversations or reviews between different disciplines

Each knowledge type refers to knowledge co-created within relationships: knowledge from the new lecturer (knowledge of self) and knowledge from their developers (knowledge of others).

I also found that, for these new university lecturers, what they gleaned from informal interactions is key to meaningful learning experiences. All of the above forms of knowledge are created and used during the key learning experiences within the informal sphere of learning. The informal sphere is where trust is built and where people can ‘be themselves’ and choose to learn what matters most to them.

Contrastingly, information is discussed as useful for learning but is experienced as secondary to knowledge. My participants view the knowledge types as listed above as more important to their learning than information types listed below. Although they are both useful for learning, the lecturers first ‘relate’ to information types–they select information that they can relate to or they have something in common with–that becomes knowledge stored in the mind which strongly informs their learning.

From the data, I have identified the following categories of information resources used for learning experiences.

Information Types Examples
Texts articles, books, websites, multimedia, emails
Tools software, hardware, mobile devices, equipment
Humans elevator speeches, business cards, online profiles
Culture organizational or community
Environments work/home space design, geographical location or political climate

Once a person interacts with these forms of information by relating to them personally, the selected information turns into knowledge inside a person’s head, to be used and re-used for learning experiences.

Relationships between people (in particular, reciprocal relationships based on trust and empathy) can be viewed as complex knowledge contexts, where knowledge is created from relating to information. By asking how particular forms of knowledge from people inform learning and development, we begin to see processes associated with the experiences of knowing oneself, knowing other people, and recognizing multiple layers of relationships. Processes involved in knowledge user experience include:

  • Knowing self by identifying, testing, feeling, discovering, reflecting on, and offering knowledge of oneself;
  • Knowing others by accessing, monitoring, aligning, seeking, applying and sharing knowledge of other people; and
  • Recognizing multiple layers of relationships by selecting communication modes, exploring personal dimensions, navigating across boundaries, balancing roles, and changing over time.

My findings reflect the experiences of a group of people who are moving between different contexts, such as industry to academia or research. The conceptual model described above is a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ which could also have implications not only for UX practice in designing, learning, and professional development experiences (both online and offline) for user groups who transition between different worlds, but also possibly for building bridges between them. Some general implications for UX practice are below.

At first glance, it seems that the current generation of UX practice is geared towards users’ experiences of information (texts, humans and tools) and also context (culture and environment), as in the case of service design, for example.

If information is only secondary to knowledge in terms of usefulness to achieve a particular goal or purpose, this finding suggests that the UX field could advance by looking beyond interacting with information and towards a more holistic, ecological view that encompasses both information and knowledge user experiences.

A key question here could be: How do we create a user experience that facilitates tapping into the different forms of knowledge found within people’s heads?

Thinking about people as users of knowledge rather than just users of information opens up a whole new terrain of potential design, thus moving from information user experience to knowledge user experience.

At the heart of people’s user experience is the concept of the human relationship, the processes of informing our relationships through knowledge, and strengthening our social networks to achieve one’s life purpose. Relationships are not just between the interface of human-to-computer/website but also, more importantly for knowledge user experience, human-to-human interaction, whether that interaction occurs online or offline.

Designing for Social Interaction

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It took both the telephone and the mobile phone 15 years to amass 100 million users, but Facebook did it in 9 months. We see more and more people becoming connected on online social networks, and it seems our networks are growing exponentially. But the reality is, social networks rarely add to our number of connections. We’ve already met almost all the people we’re connected to on social networks. We’re already connected to these people offline. Social networks simply make the connections visible. For example, we often connect with old school friends, and catch up over a couple of wall posts. But rarely do we continue the conversation once we’ve connected, and over time we forget that the connections exist. In fact, Facebook users often have no interactions with up to 50% of their connections.1 When we study how people are interacting on social networks, we see that most interactions are with a very small subset of the people we’re connected to.

The average number of friends on Facebook is 130, and many users have many more.2 Yet despite having hundreds of friends, most people on Facebook only interact regularly with 4 to 7 people,3 and for 90% of Facebook users, 20% of their friends account for 70% of all interactions.4 We also see this with phone usage. We have hundreds of people in our phone contacts, yet 80% of phone calls are made to the same 4 people. We know dozens of people who use Skype, yet 80% of Skype calls are made to 2 people.5 Even when people play computer games online, they mostly play with people they know offline.6

We also have varied interactions with the people we’re not as close to. We find out about new jobs, not through our friends, but through friends of friends. When our friends’ friends’ friends lose weight, we lose weight.7 We go onto eBay and buy things for hundreds and thousands of dollars from people we’ve never met, and will probably never interact with again.

We have many diverse relationships with the people in our lives, yet the web doesn’t support this very well.

the web doesn't support different layers of relationships very well

On Facebook (left), all my “friends” are treated equally. I’m presented with a long alphabetical list. Some of these people I would trust with my deepest secrets, and there are others that I’ve met less than five times. Yet they are grouped together in a big bucket of “friends”. Of the people who are “friends” with me on Facebook, there are many that I wouldn’t call a “friend”. I may call them an acquaintance, or a colleague, or even a family member, but they’re not in the same category as my closest friends.

In my phone (right), all my contacts are treated equally. I’m presented with a long alphabetical list. My best friend is given the same number of pixels as someone I haven’t spoken to in 5 years. I may be able to access my most frequently contacted people via a ‘Favorites’ tab, but these people are still presented in the same way as the people I’ve lost touch with. On LinkedIn (right), all my connections are treated equally. Yet I have worked with some of them every day for years, and there are others that I met once at a conference.

Our social web tools must start to understand the strength of ties, that we have stronger relationships with some people than with others. And with this knowledge they need to adapt.

There are three kinds of relationship ties:

  • Strong ties: People we care deeply about.
  • Weak ties: People we are loosely connected to, like friends of friends.
  • Temporary ties: People we don’t know, and interact with temporarily.

Let’s look at each type of tie, and how we might design for them.

Most people have less than 10 strong ties

For decades, people have talked about social networks being made up of strong and weak ties. Think of the people in your life. Think about your closest friends, the people you are closest to in your family. These are examples of your strong ties. Strong ties are the people you care about most. People often refer to strong ties as people in their “circle of trust”. Strong ties often wield the most influence over people’s decisions.

Most people have very few strong ties, usually less than ten. A study of 3000 randomly chosen Americans showed that the average American has just four close social contacts (four strong ties). Most Americans have between two and six strong ties. People’s strong ties come from a variety of places. About half of the strong ties are said to be friends. The other half includes spouses, partners, parents, siblings, children, co-workers, fellow members of clubs, neighbors, and professional advisors and consultants.8 In both 2002 and 2007, a study of 1,178 adults found that on average, people had about 10 friends they meet or speak with at least weekly (10 strong ties).9 So, when we’re designing for strong ties, we’re designing for small groups of people.

Some people believe that this is changing, that the web is making us closer to more people.10 On the contrary, research studies have shown that the vast majority of usage on social networks is between strong ties. As we saw earlier, on Facebook it’s with 4 to 6 people, with phone calls its with 4 people, and with Skype it’s 2 people. When people play online computer games with others, they are mostly interacting and playing with people they know, often with people who live less than a few miles away. This pattern of technology being used for strong tie communication is not new. When the telephone was invented, it did more to expand and strengthen strong ties than to weaken them. A study in the 1970s showed that the majority of phone calls were to people who live within five miles of the caller’s home.11

When designing for strong ties:

  • Think about their existing means of communication. Phone calls, text messages, email. Strong ties already have established ways to interact, we should support them, and not try and replace them with our own messaging systems.
  • Showing more information about the ten closest people is likely to be much more valuable than showing less information about many more people.
  • Avoid generic terms such as “Friends”. This will likely lead to over-populating groups and reducing their relevance.
  • Suggest connections to people, but communicate the effects of adding new connections.

People have about 150 weak ties that they stay up-to-date with

Moving away from your strongest ties, think about some of your friends’ friends. People you don’t know so well. These are examples of your weak ties. Weak ties are people you know, but care less about. These are the people that are loosely connected to you. Weak ties are people you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable stuck in a elevator with, yet don’t feel much emotional closeness to.

In the 1970s, the sociologist Marc Granovetter wrote a seminal paper about the strength of weak ties. He concluded that weak ties are often a much better source of information than strong ties. As our strong ties are a very small circle, weak ties can be a more powerful source of information and advice. Studies show that most people can only stay up-to-date with 150 weak ties in real life. This pattern has been true for thousands of years. Neolithic villages tended to separate into two once they reached 150 inhabitants, the Roman army was split into groups of 150, so that everyone knew each other.12 It is still true today, online and offline. We are connected to many more than 150 weak ties, but don’t stay in touch with them. We may be connected to hundreds of people on Facebook, but we would struggle to tell anyone what is going on in all of their lives.

In social networks, weak ties can sometimes be very useful, for example, connections on LinkedIn can help you find a new job, a friend of a friend can give you advice on a specific topic. Yet sometimes, weak ties on social networks can lead to awkward social situations, for example, receiving unwanted Facebook invites from people you don’t know very well.

When designing for weak ties:

  • Consider the trade-off between communication and trust. Weak ties may be more knowledgeable about something we’re interested in, but we may trust them less. It may be important to show our other shared ties, or expose their sources of knowledge, so that we can increase the trust between people.
  • Make it easy for people to expose their networks to people they trust with that data. This will open up links between weak ties, without compromising user privacy.
  • Enable appropriate communication channels between weak ties. It may be better to go through, or highlight, a shared strong tie.

The web is increasing our interactions with temporary ties

Strong and weak ties are not enough when we think of relationships online. We need a new category of tie – the temporary tie.

Temporary ties have always existed, but the web is bringing them to the fore. Think about some people you’ve only interacted with once. You don’t actually know who they are. A store assistant, a call center employee, the person you bought from on eBay. These are examples of your temporary ties. Temporary ties are much more common online than offline. They are people that you have no recognized relationship with, but temporarily interact with for a specific reason. Once the task has been completed, temporary ties are unlikely to interact again. You don’t know these people beyond the words they typed, and whatever online profile they have. With the rise of online user generated content, temporary ties are becoming more important.

Following are four common types of temporary ties:

  1. People sometimes interact with temporary ties around an information need. People needing information seek people with knowledge of the answer. Once the request for information has been fulfilled, interaction with these ties usually ceases. You may ask a person in the street for directions, or online you may seek information from people on Yahoo! Answers. This type of temporary tie is increasingly important for the future of web search. People are looking to other people, rather than businesses, to answer certain queries.
  2. Temporary ties also exist when people need to temporarily interact to complete a task. Once the task is completed, interaction ceases. For example, interacting with a sales assistant in a shop, or having a plumber in your house to fix a leaking pipe. Many of these tasks are now online, for example interacting with a call center representative to arrange cable installation, or buying something from a temporary tie on eBay.
  3. Temporary ties can form around a shared ongoing interest such as a sports team or hobby. Interaction can often happen on a community website, for example a sports team forum. The true identity of these ties can remain unknown. One some of these sites, frequent posters start to recognise each other and each other’s behaviour. Although they likely have never met, their relationship can move from temporary tie to weak tie. There are an increasing number of examples where temporary ties interact online, and meet offline.
  4. People often form temporary ties with people sharing the same physical space. These ties can be as simple as a 1 minute conversation on the street, or as complex as an intermittent 3 day conversation at a music festival. Technology now allows us to communicate with temporary ties who shared the same physical space with us, albeit not at the same time. We can use our phones to see who has previously been to the restaurant we’re considering, what they ordered, and whether they thought it was any good.

Because we have no relationship history with our temporary ties (unlike with our strong and weak ties), representing identity and reputation are critical for successful interactions. We need to know that the eBay seller is trustworthy. We need to know that the medical advice we’re reading is from an actual doctor, and not someone pretending that they are a doctor. We need to know that the restaurant review is from someone who knows about food, and that the Amazon review wasn’t written by a company employee.

reputation building

On Yahoo Answers, people can build their reputation in different ways. On the left, “Messykat” is building her reputation by trying to provide the best answers to questions. She may be helpful in 20% of cases, but we still don’t know much about her credentials as an expert in any of her 3 specialty areas (Cats, Dogs, Weddings). On the right, “RuthAnn” is trying to build her reputation by stating that she “has been training dogs for 40 years”. This only adds a superficial layer of credibility, as we can’t verify if it is true.

building trust by positive feedback from temporary ties

On eBay (left), “jmjenkins” is building trust by getting positive feedback from temporary ties who have dealt with him in the past. Some of these people have also left positive comments on his profile, e.g. “Item just as described, arrived safe and sound. Thanks! A++”.

On Amazon (right), “W.Todd Dominey” is building his reputation by providing helpful reviews in 665 of 711 cases. He is also building trust by using his real name, and sharing where he is from. However, as with “RuthAnn” on Yahoo Answers, we don’t know how much “W.Todd Dominey” knows about the topic being reviewed. We can’t verify his credentials.

The motivation for most people who help their temporary ties is not monetary. You can’t create a great temporary tie community with financial reward. Yelp tried to do this by paying people $1 per review, and later they tried to build communities by paying people $15 an hour to comment on existing reviews and write new ones. Yelp ended up with a lot of poor quality reviews 13 14, and a lot of bad press. Some of the actual motivations for temporary ties include recognition of being an expert, altruism, and feeling that they belong to a community. All of these behaviors need to be understood and accounted for in our social web designs.

Supporting temporary ties is good for business. One study showed evidence that “an increase in positive comments about a mobile handset typically appeared a month or two before an increase in market share for that handset.”15 Another study over 7 months showed that when the online promoter activity (an estimate of the online chatter likely to lead to a recommendation) went up, sales went up the following month. When activity went down, sales went down. 16

When designing for temporary ties:

  • Prioritize a great system for building reputation. Allow people to give feedback to one another.
  • Encourage people to expose content that will increase trust in their identity. This could be their real name, a real photo rather than an avatar, or proof of their qualifications.
  • Prioritize a great system for building trust between people. This may be highlighting shared connections, shared groups, or shared interests.
  • Don’t incentivize people with money, incentivize them to build their reputation.


Social web design will become an important part of every interaction designer’s skillset. To do it well, we’ll need to understand some basics about human relationships. If your users’ needs center around strong ties, you’ll design something very different than if they center around temporary ties. Understanding the difference between strong, weak, and temporary ties will help us build better online social experiences.


1, 4 User Interactions in Social Networks and their Implications, Wilson et al. 2009


3 The Economist article quoting stats from Cameron Marlow, sociologist at Facebook

5 Data from a TED talk by researcher Stefana Broadbent

6 PBS article by Henry Jenkins, MIT Professor

7, 8 Nichola Christakis + James Fowler “Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives” Little, Brown and Company 2009

9 Reports from the Center for the Digital Future, University of Southern California

10 Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

11 I. de Sola Pool, The Social Impact of the Telephone, MIT Press, 1977

12 Quoted from studies by Robin Dunbar

13 Paying People to Yelp

14 Yelping for Dollars

15, 16 Charlene Li + Josh Bernoff, Groundswell, Harvard Business Press, 2008

5 Steps to Building Social Experiences

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Nowadays everyone wants social in their sites and applications. It’s become a basic requirement in consumer web software and is slowly infiltrating the enterprise as well. So what’s a designer to do when confronted with the requirements to “add social”? Designing social interfaces is more than just slapping on Twitter-like or Facebook-like features onto your site. Not all features are created equal and sometimes a little bit can go a long way. It’s important to consider your audience, your product—what your users will be rallying around and why they would want to become engaged with it and each other, and that you can approach this in a systematic way, a little bit at a time.

These concepts derive from a book I wrote recently with Christian Crumlish, “Designing Social Interfaces“. They are quick and easy things to remember when infusing social into your site. Each points offers some simple suggestions and points to consider when designing. Potential design patterns are recommended (and linked to) as examples for what could be done in your interface as you design and grow your service. Keep in mind that your context will dictate different specific solutions but the questions and concepts to think about will still be applicable.

Step 1 – What’s your social object? Make sure there is a “there” there. Give users a reason to rally. Why would someone come to your site?

Most people are drawn to a site based on their particular interests, in hopes of learning more or meeting others like themselves. They may be looking for information or they may have information to share. They have a passion—such as making handcrafted jewelry or taking landscape photographs—and at some point, they will want to share that with other people. That passion, that thing that people rally around is often referred to as the social object. It’s the object around which conversations emerge and thrive.

Remember that sometimes, the social object is a person – or the conversations between people. But don’t forget history (remember Friendster? or SixDegrees?), if the only thing to do is build a profile, people will eventually go somewhere else to have conversations or to do things around objects of interest.

Step 2 – Give people a way to identify themselves and to be identified.

This can be as simple as an “attribution” line when contributing and signing content.

Attribution of a comment on flickr
Attribution of a comment on flickr

It could be an “identity card” that shows a little bit about the person and is attached to every thing they do or can be as robust and complex as a “full profile” that is linked from all their contributions. The method can start out simple and grow over time.

Identity or Contact card as seen on FriendFeed
Identity or Contact card as seen on FriendFeed

It’s important to give people credit for their words and contributions. It helps others recognize their friends and disambiguate them from other people with the same name and builds a “reputation of quality” or lack thereof for their participation on your service.

Public display of relationships allows viewers to find others they might know by allowing them to browse contacts for the person whose info they are viewing.

Public display of relationships allows viewers to find others they might know by allowing them to browse contacts for the person whose info they are viewing. Module shown from MyBlogLog
Relationship module shown from MyBlogLog

Once you have given people the ability to identify themselves, allow them to “find each other” and claim their tribe. “Relationships” make the world go round and online it’s no different.

Step 3 – Give people something to do.

Provide a path for participation so lurkers as well as early adopters can be engaged at the level of effort that is appropriate for them. Things like ratings (“1-5” or “thumbs up“) are easy ways to get low participation people involved by letting them quickly register their opinion with little effort.

Thumbs up and down ratings for restaurants on GoodRec let people quickly register their opinion with little effort
Thumbs up and down ratings for restaurants on GoodRec

Allow them to “share items” they find interesting with their friends or family and “curate and collect their favorites“. The latter requires a little bit more effort, but lets your users have ownership over what they find meaningful.

Flickr allows users to “favorite” images they like and collect them for display to others.
Flickr allows users to “favorite” images they like and collect them for display to others.

At the other end of the spectrum is full authorship of content with “reviews“, “comments“, “blog postings“, and “wiki entries” all the way through to participation as a moderator or guide in your service.

Wikimedia allows collaborative editing of content on sites built with the software.
Wikimedia allows collaborative editing of content on sites built with the software.

Start simple, with light features, and gradually add more complexity if it is really needed. Keep the structure flexible enough for your users to mold and adapt to their needs. In the book, we discuss several principles related to this including “Deliberately Leave Things Incomplete“, which reminds designers to allow features to emerge from the community behavior rather than forcing behavior to fit the UI and “Strict vs. Fluid Taxonomies” which merges a strict taxonomy like your site navigation with user generated groupings and organization with features like Groups, Message Boards, Tagging, etc.

Allowing behavior to guide your features and giving your users ownership of the structure make the site much more personal for them which in turn encourages repeat and longer term usage.

Step 4 – Enable a bridge to real life (groups, mobile, meetings, face-to-face).

Don’t be afraid to build in tools that allow your users to bring their community into the real world. In many online groups, a majority of people know each other personally.

Upcoming shows local events and allows people to add events to their calendar and view events their friends are interested in.
Upcoming shows local events and allows people to add events to their calendar and view events their friends are interested in.

Providing tools to help plan face-to-face meetings and then archive those happenings will strengthen your site and the community. Consider incorporating “geo” features like “GeoMapping“, and “GeoMashups“.

Additional features might entail creating “subspaces (groups)” and coordinating real time “face-to-face meetings” and gatherings among users of your service.
Meetup lets people affiliate with groups of interest and the site helps coordinate real life - in person meetings and gatherings between members.
Meetup lets people affiliate with groups of interest and the site helps coordinate real life – in person meetings and gatherings between members.

Step 5 – Gently Moderate. Let the community elevate people and content they value.

This can be through simple things like ratings or “reputation labels“.

Reputation labels on the intranet at Yahoo!.
Reputation labels on the intranet at Yahoo!

The community can help you surface contributions of quality which in turn should help attract future participants and will help keep the interactions lively. This process also helps push bad quality content down and out of sight.

Keep an eye on the community, participate yourself, welcome people as they join, set yourself up as a role model.

Hunch founder, Catarina Fake, acts as a role model for the community being built on the site.
Hunch founder, Catarina Fake, acts as a role model for the community being built on the site.

Notice who is passionate and who is potentially causing trouble. Conversations should run their course. Let the “community moderate itself” and provide tools to allow them to do that, like allowing them to mark content as spam or block trolls or “report abuse“. Step in only when necessary.

Report Abuse is available on every comment in Yahoo! Answers and allows users to moderate the content quality.
Report Abuse is available on every comment in Yahoo! Answers and allows users to moderate the content quality.

Make sure people are aware of the “terms of service” and “license” implications of content they create – both as it relates to your site as well as what they can permit others to do with their content.

Go out and get started

These are a few of the things to consider when building a social application or when adding social features to an existing site. There are a lot more features and concepts available within the social ecosystem but these should get you started and will build a good foundation from which more robust and complex features can be added to.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can apply features sparingly and let the community tell you when you need to expand. Consider the bare minimum while fleshing out your infrastructure. Add complexity as your community grows and scales. Remember that you are building a container for activity and conversation and that you don’t have to have everything figured out. The people will create their own paths of interaction making their own meaning and experience.