Social Networking Sites Renew Interest in User Research

Joshua Porter

September 21st, 2006

One of the outcomes of the rediculously-fast rise of social networking web sites is that it’s got us asking a lot of questions. Not a day goes by here at UIE where we aren’t discussing MySpace, Facebook, or Xanga with each other or with clients. These sites are truly mysterious, in part because they’re not really made for our demographic but also because we’re not sure why people actually use them in the myriad of ways they do. As a result, we’re learning a tremendous amount of new things about social web design.

Stepping back a bit, however, it is clear that these sites are not only interesting in and of themselves, but they’re also an excellent source of discussion in terms of user experience design. After all, most of what folks like us in the UX industry do is to try to get as much insight as possible into the minds of our users in the hopes of designing systems that they’ll not only use, but be delighted to use. Often we have some idea why people might use software because we can easily relate it to our own lives. Social web applications, and more specifically social networking sites, are often an exception.

That’s one of the differentiators of social web design. It deals with the social lives of the people participating, not just the everyday tasks that anybody can relate to. When we’re studying banking applications, for example, it’s easy to talk about a user transferring money from one account to another because anybody who banks has probably done that at least once or twice. But when we start talking about social issues, like say a couple doing their yearly finances together using a web application, then the context changes completely into something that we might not understand at all. This is because the social lives of this couple, their relationship, is completely unique to them. We don’t understand how they interact, make decisions together, and deal with the aftermath. Designing a system that will delight not just one of them performing a task but both of them performing an activity at the same time is another hurdle altogether.

As a result of this, we’re seeing renewed interest in user research. More and more folks are telling us that they’re dedicating resources to finding out how people use their web applications in the context of their lives, not just in the context of their tasks. This is a great thing! Maybe the social networking sites are useful to us afterall. :)

We’re just beginning to get started down the road of social web design. The social networking sites are just a beginning, a great starter in a conversation that will be going on for quite some time.

3 Responses to “Social Networking Sites Renew Interest in User Research”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Suggest this will also extend to devices. How people want to share content more easily across their devices. Giving a photo to a friend, here is some music I am listening to, read this article … Palm played with this idea in terms of beaming info from one Palm to another …

  2. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Birth of a New Specialty: Social Networking Design Says:

    [...] Around the office, we’ve been talking about the increasing amount of social networking functionality that is permeating into the products and services we’re dealing with. Tagging, for example, allows people who use a resource to help define a living category structure for the content. But it also gives insight into what the other people are thinking. By looking at how other people tag certain items, you get new information about that item. The bookmarking service, Del.icio.us is a great example of that. [...]

  3. Gordon Montgomery Says:

    Great points Joshua. I feel that there is an innate strand in all humans to communicate; to get their message to another, to be acknowleged and even sometimes to connect with others and hear what they have to say.

    Perhaps, social software is just a 21st century extension of the self-directed (i.e. not post-industrial institution directed) foraging that our caveman ancestors carried out once they were established and did not have to hunt just to survive.

    There’s also something very interesting and very “1995″ about the type of interactions and content that we see on these new sites…let’s keep observing ;)

    Thanks.
    Gordon.

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