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Social Software Design

November 10th, 2004 · No Comments

Clay Shirky writes:

We have grown quite adept at designing interfaces and interactions between computers and machines, but our social tools — the software the users actually use most often — remain badly misfit to their task. Social interactions are far more complex and unpredictable than human/computer interaction, and that unpredictability defeats classic user-centric design. As a result, tools used daily by tens of millions are either ignored as design challenges, or treated as if the only possible site of improvement is the user-to-tool interface.

The design gap between computer-as-box and computer-as-door persists because of a diminished conception of the user. The user of a piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but a group. Individual users take on roles that only make sense in groups: leader, follower, peacemaker, process nazi, and so on. There are also behaviors that can only occur in groups, from consensus building to social climbing. And yet, despite these obvious differences between personal and social behaviors, we have very little design practice that treats the group as an entity to be designed for.

There is enormous value to be gotten in closing that gap, and it doesn’t require complicated new tools. It just requires new ways of looking at old problems. Indeed, much of the most important work in social software has been technically simple but socially complex.

Given the breadth and simplicity of potential experiments, the ease of collecting user feedback, and most importantly the importance users place on social software, even a few successful improvements, simple and iterative though they may be, can create disproportionate value, as they have done with Craigslist and Slashdot, and as they doubtless will with other such experiments.

Tags: Software

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