Social Design Research

Joshua Porter

May 4th, 2007

This is part of a series on the topic of social design, a follow-up to the virtual seminar we held on April 11, 2007 called Social Design: Designing for the Social Lives of Users. To follow along, grab the Brain Sparks feed or subscribe to our free email newsletter, UIEtips.

Virtual Seminar attendee Paul Baker asks:

“What sort of contextual research might you do when designing a social site?”

We have found that research methods won’t change much when designing a social site, but the line of inquiry will. So we tend to use tried-and-true research tools: interviews, user tests, and field studies.

The big difference when moving to social design research is the focus of observation: in addition to wondering what activities people are doing and what is necessary for their completion, we increase focus on the social interactions that influence why they’re doing so.

A major insight of social design is that when people make decisions they rarely act alone. Their social groups, friends, and family have a huge influence on their behavior. As software becomes more a part of our lifestyle, social influence will play a larger part in how we use it.

This shouldn’t be surprising as it is easy to think of the last recommendation, suggestion, or pointer we received. Thus, these simple items are the object of our inquiry.

Here’s an example of how we might focus an interview on social aspects:

Imagine you’re interviewing someone about looking for an apartment on the Web. You ask them the usual questions, where they go, what sites they visit, what information is important to them, what they like and don’t like. Most of the discussion will deal with what is important to them as they fulfill this activity.

At some point, unless the person is truly anti-social, someone else will enter into the conversation. Maybe it’s their brother who recommended they search in a certain neighborhood in the Back Bay of Boston. Or their boyfriend who says to make sure everything that in the apartment is fixed before moving in. This is where the social part comes in.

Most of the time these people are treated as outsiders to research. They are flat characters, so to speak, who show up only for a minute. But when thinking about this from a more social perspective, these people are primary actors because they’re influencing the person as much as any software is. They are helping to define why the person is doing what they’re doing.

So the line of questioning turns toward them. We ask more about their influence. Did you take your brother’s suggestion? Do you often take his suggestion, or just in cases involving this subject? What makes him such a good person to listen to concerning this subject? Whose suggestion did you end up going with, and why?

In addition, we want to get a sense of how they communicated. Was it over the phone? Email? IM? During a face-to-face conversation? Did they get a recommendation from a blog? How are they getting their information?

Using questions like this help us figure out how this person assigns trust to those around them. It also helps us tease out important factors in their decision making process that involve other people.

Once we have a clear picture of how a person makes decisions in a certain area, we can compare them with others. We’ve found that there are usually trends in how this works. These trends feed into our design.

So if we were creating a site to support this activity, we might create a “apartment hunters” model in our software that allows people to connect with landlords based on criteria their social network suggested was important. We also know that apartment hunting doesn’t happen frequently, so we might lean away from a “friends” feature for the time being. But we might also focus more on archiving information over a longer term so that folks coming to the site don’t have to tap into their social network as much, instead relying on the accumulated wisdom of others.

This is just an example of how this might work. Your research will probably take you in some other, more interesting, direction. The key to doing social design research is to figure out the relationships between users and their social group, and how that affects their behavior and decision-making.

3 Responses to “Social Design Research”

  1. MN Web Design Says:

    Wow, you definitely wrote a lot of worthwhile information! I really like the “apartment hunters” example, what a great parallel! Thanks!

  2. Stephanie Says:

    All through university I struggled to pick a major because my interests over lapped so many disciplines. I took a lot of interesting Sociology courses only to end up with a career in web development.

    I thought it was way out there compared to my other interests but here we are, studying humans and how they make decisions so we can build better websites and I feel like I’m back in the Soc department ;) I hadn’t made that connection before, very cool.

  3. Joshua Porter Says:

    Stephanie…that’s a great observation. It really is a lot of sociology. In fact, I don’t have a sociology degree but I feel like I’m starting to need one. :)

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