20 thoughts on “Designing for Social Interaction”

  1. There are huge opportunities to increase adoption and engagement in these strong, weak, and temporary ties. Unfortunately, in many of the off-the-shelf social or collaboration platforms I’ve seen (my experience is limited to enterprise social tools), the ability to recognize and target interactions based on how well people may know each other is a pipe dream.

    Um, check that: a pipe dream would suggest some of these providers are aware of the opportunities that exist in those relationships. In fact, I find many of these providers/vendors/etc expect us to be wowed just to be able to add *friends* or *colleagues* because Facebook and LinkedIn do it. Hopefully as these products continue to mature and react to more innovative entrants into the market, we’ll see greater functionality in reputation scoring and relationship management.

    Until then, without sounding like I’m giving up, I feel like my hands are tied to the technology my clients have agreed to long before UX types like myself enter the picture.

  2. Thanks for the comments!


    “…the ability to recognize and target interactions based on how well people may know each other is a pipe dream.”

    I don’t think it is a pipe dream. Many companies are working on building tools that extract social graph data and make that available to others. Many research studies have been conducted on Twitter users and usage by using their API to access their data about who is connected to whom.

    “I find many of these providers/vendors/etc expect us to be wowed just to be able to add *friends* or *colleagues* because Facebook and LinkedIn do it.”

    I think it is up to us to educate others about different kinds of relationships. We need to show people how having one big friends group doesn’t reflect life offline, and presents as many problems as opportunities. It is up to us to push this and get people thinking about doing more than what exists today. You may be tied to a certain technology now, but we need to make sure that people are informed enough so that they might make different decisions next time.

  3. Awesome post with great insights Paul!

    I think the single most critical point you have made here is to separate “weak” and “temporary” ties. The failure to realize this distinction lies at the heart of most critiques of any community driven endeavor. Traditional communities, that the word hark backs to, were people with weak ties. The internet communities are one of temporary ties.

    What internet has really facilitated is the emergence of these temporary ties because the marginal cost of communicating with anyone new is close to zero. In earlier days, the cost of discovery itself was a significant barrier to entry for these communications to happen.

    Again great post, and hope to read some more soon.

  4. Paul,

    I’m very interested in this concept, and I think you’re right about how different design and UI approaches are best suited for particular strengths of ties–particularly professional ones.

    I actually heard a program (Spark podcast) on this recently and began to think about the different types of connections I maintain online. Rather than thinking of them in terms of strength, I thought more about how frequency indicated value. I then mapped it out and found that I had a longer list of connections with whom I spoke every few months than those with whom I spoke several times a month (not including family, friends or co-workers). The people that were in the “every few months” group presented a lot of value to me, though! (They’d probably fit within your category of temporary or specific need-based ties.) I wrote up a blog post on this and included a visualization of my connections map: http://www.newfangled.com/mapping_your_professional_network. As I pointed out there, the two to three people that had a significant impact on my career in the last year were in the infrequent group–something I wouldn’t have realized without mapping it out.

    The reputation points aspect of Boxes and Arrows commenting functionality is a perfect example of ways that UI can help to leverage and indicate the value of weak or need-based ties. I’ve actually made a handful of long-term professional connections by participating in discussions attached to posts like yours with people I would probably never have encountered otherwise.


  5. Thanks again for the comments!

    @Sriyansa Many people use weak ties to describe our interactions online with people we don’t know. I’m glad that my distinction of weak and temporary ties is useful for you, it has certainly helped me in my work.

    @Chris I think there is a great opportunity for us to rethink how we represent our relationships in our digital tools. Imagine if we replaced/supplemented our alphabetical lists with representations like you created in your exercise. We could learn a lot of new things.

    The relationships between strength of tie and frequency of communication is an interesting one, and it comes up in research. There are people in many of our lives that we don’t communicate with frequently, yet would turn to for support in an instant if we needed to. These are also the people that we meet, and despite not having seen each other in many months, it feels immediately natural. People describe it as immediately feeling “like the old times” and “like you’d just seen each other a few days ago”. So frequency is a good signal for strength of tie, but it doesn’t always show us the full picture.

  6. Hey Paul,

    Great piece, while I have read about thsi elsewhere, I think you did a good job consolidating some good data references and putting it in a language most people can understand. I sent it to a few stakeholders and other partners from a project I am working on.

    I am the position of, as Chris Avore put it, addressing the pipe dream. About more than year ago my organization brought an out of the box social enterprise solution thinking it would address their needs. Well it kinda did, but not really. I was hired with some other people about 6 months ago to try to understand better our users. We learned a lot about their real life social interactions and are now starting to educating our business partners on social interaction design. For example we were talking about the subject of ties, and how we should enhance the strong ties (which we don’t do at all) and build up the weak ones (which we kinda do a little).

    Our problem now is that we must customize the enterprise tool or build extra custom components to do what we need. So in some ways I agree with Chris Avore, many enterprise companies are buying products and expecting amazing results. But that is not happening. If their smart they can get a good team int there to come in and straighten things out.

    I think that it is up to us to educate the enterprises as well as the enterprise solution providers. I am hoping that the company that provider our software will look at what we’re doing to learn how they can adopt their software. It may be a pipe dream, but I can at least hope.

  7. Paul,

    I definitely agree–frequency is only one piece of the puzzle. In fact, just yesterday I received a phone call from someone I would have put in the very infrequent category and whom I’d actually never spoken to directly before (only via email/Twitter so far). He wanted some advice and felt that a direct conversation was the best approach, even though our relationship had never included that kind of contact before. I was surprised by his call, and then as we got to talking a bit more, even more surprised by my feeling that talking to this person over the phone was so unusual–especially when 10-15 years ago phone would probably have been the primary contact method!


  8. Great post, well explained and provocative. Reminds me that many years ago we did fieldwork with French mobile phone users and talked about technology and social connectivity. We got some very clear explanations about the difference between “copains” (i.e., buddies) and “amis” (friends), where an ami was for life and where one had far fewer amis than copains. Our French client had a lot of trouble understanding, then, our Japanese respondents who were (at that time, using Print Club, those small stickers) aggregating large numbers of shallow relationships they called “friends.” So you have the nomenclature issue, and you have the cultural issue. Even talking about it was tough, if the frame being illustrated didn’t match the existing frame.

  9. Fantastic post! Thought provoking.

    In the comment stream above, Chris Butler touched up on the frequency of communication as being another attribute of a relationship. Steve Portigal mentions how difficult it is even to describe these relationships in simple terminology (Copains et Amis).

    It is definitely helpful to look at individuals in our social networks as nodes and their relationships as bonds that can be described with a set of attribute; but this type of predicate logic may yield to undesirable results – Just like in the real world. Example: the realization that the bonds of a particular relationship are stronger in one direction and weaker in the other.

    How can we address these types of issues when designing online interactions. Do we simply rely on the individuals to “attribute” the type of relationship? Do we let the system provide hints on the state of that relationship? Food for thought, no doubt.

    Thanks for sharing,

  10. @John “So in some ways I agree with Chris Avore, many enterprise companies are buying products and expecting amazing results. But that is not happening.”
    I’m really interested to hear what their goals are. What does “amazing results” mean to them?

    @Chris It’s interesting how expectations of how communication technology should be used changes over time, and between demographics and cultures. One nice example is how many younger people feel that calling someone on the phone is rude, and that you should send a text message first to make sure they are available to chat.
    Here’s another anecdote: I was in China doing research with a merchant store owner. When we were there, a guy walked into the store and introduced himself to the store owner as a new potential business partner. He had traveled 200 miles to make this unannounced visit. When we asked him why he hadn’t called ahead to introduce himself, he said that the first contact between potential business partners must be face to face in order to build trust between both parties immediately. For him, no communication technology would suffice.

    @Steve. Absolutely agree re. nomenclature. This is also a problem when we talk about “social”. The social web. Making things “more social”. Often, people have very different ideas in their head when they use that word.

    @Khalid I think the key here is how much transparency your system has. Sometimes less transparency for one party is better. Examples where this has been done well include Facebook’s “Ignore” a friend request. People need to know that they can ignore someone without the other person finding out. For many actions people need to take to define relationships, they need the action to remain private. Our real life relationships are asymmetrical, and our online systems need to be designed to reflect that.

  11. Hi Paul, Interesting post – thanks. A very trivial question for you: On the Android address book image at the top of your post there is an an orange clock icon next to Amy Lau. What does this signify?

  12. @Adam, the orange clock icon is to indicate that that person is using Google Talk (instant messenger) and is currently idle. If they are active, the icon changes to green.

  13. Dear Paul:

    Well done. Great lead and useful statistics in the opening section of this article. I was not surprised that FB and cell phone users do not correspond with all of their “friends,” but I WAS surprised by the low numbers of people most of us actually call or contact.

    You clearly and concisely explain Fowler and Christakis’s insightful work (Connected is a fascinating read) before extrapolating about the implications for UX design.

    Thank You,

    Eric O.

  14. @Znok I worked on Buzz during development and continue to work on it as part of my job today (I also work on YouTube and other social initiatives). One part of Buzz we worked hard on was making it easy to share with groups of strong ties. We continue to try and improve it. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to talk in detail about it currently.

    @Eric Thanks! We do have very small groups of people we communicate with regularly. This pattern is very consistent in our research. There is also some more detail in this recent presentation I gave:

  15. An IxDA colleague referred me to your article – after reading my recent post on Facebook friend circle size (http://tpgblog.com/2010/05/10/edo-amin-facebook-like/). Your article fills in the blanks for me!

    Dunbar actually talks about a series of numbers, not just 5 and 150. Are more distinct strength levels beyond strong and weak? I notice anecdotal evidence among my friends who are teachers and journalists, who seem to have a moment of truth when reaching around 500 followers.

    Doesn’t this have huge implication for, say, contact book design? For example, when a user moves beyond 150 or 500 contacts, shouldn’t filtering and removal tasks be escalated to mission-critical status?

  16. Paul,

    One thing I’m curious about is the definition of interaction on Facebook (I know I can look at the cited sources, but I assume it’s wall posts, messages, pokes, etc). The reason I’m curious is because unlike Skype, cell phones (for phone calls) and other media, Facebook can unilateral interaction, which is basically stalking. Knowing what someone is doing, thinking and saying at all times is on some level interaction.


  17. well, I think i know something about social media .. lol .. after I read your post become interesting to realize how much I have to learn .. interesting and good point of view you make here .. sometimes was in my mind Twitter is amazing , now Facebook become number one in all my preoccupations..thank you

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