Behavior First, Design Second

As designers we must remember that behavior comes first. Always.

Not a day goes by without someone I follow on Twitter complaining that others are too focused on growing their follower numbers. Just yesterday someone who I know to be a very calm person went on a verbal rampage complaining about someone who was way too worried about getting more followers…by doing things like saying “Please retweet!” or “Follow me!” one too many times.

ashton kutcher (aplusk) on Twitter

But really, who doesn’t at least notice how many followers they have? And, if you were honest, wouldn’t you say that if you had to choose, you would probably want more rather than less followers?

Here’s a question: how would Twitter change for you if you didn’t know how many followers you have? What if the designers at Twitter removed the number from all screens/APIs and forced you to rely on replies or retweets to let you know what was going on? Would that be OK with you? How would it change your behavior?

Humans are hard-wired for attention. My newborn girl, for example, cries when she’s not getting attention. My 3 year old, who isn’t used to not having attention, is going through a major psychological shift in her life because she’s realizing that she isn’t the only child in the universe…she now has a sister who will be getting attention as well. Attention is a core human issue for all of us. As designers we need to keep this in mind.

I use follower numbers in several ways to judge the type of person who is on the other end. If I’m followed by someone who has very low following/follower numbers, then I know they’re probably new to Twitter. If someone has really high following/follower numbers, then I know they’re probably an auto-follower, which suggests they might not focus on quality conversation as much as attention. If someone has high follower numbers and low following numbers, then I know they have an audience for some reason (it might not be a good reason). Obviously, these numbers don’t tell you everything…but I use them to give me an idea. When metadata is available…humans will look at it.

We don’t just collect attention, of course. We collect lots of things. Most video games are built entirely around the premise of collecting things. The more you collect the higher your score. The more coins that Mario and Luigi collect, the better they do. It’s a causal relationship. We understand when playing these games that collection is the way to achieve success. For more on the psychology behind gaming and collecting, read The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding.

Of course, games did not instill the collecting behavior in humans. Gaming merely exploits it. We haven’t become collectors because of technology. We use technology to help us collect things. We’ve been collecting objects forever…art, seashells, books, firewood, paper clips. A core human behavior is collecting things, real and virtual.

As designers we must remember that behavior comes first. Always. The quirky, the obscure, the vain, the annoying, the wonderful. We need to observe human behavior if we are to support it in design. If people collect things, how can we support that? If people are vain…how does that affect the design? Will it kill some interesting behavior…or will it help drive adoption of the service?

You’ll find that many successful social software products/services focus on the collection of social objects such as photos, bookmarks, friends, vampires. This is no accident…people collect things as a natural matter of course. Software that supports the behavior will naturally be more successful.

We also have the opposite case…when we have nothing. This is particularly relevant when talking about people new to a service…when you just join a social network, for example. So the scenario is this: you sign up, you land on a dashboard of some sort, and you have nothing. No friends, no posts, no pictures, no bookmarks, nothing of any kind. It’s not a good feeling…and its a great way to drive people away.

It’s like we’re saying: “Hey you, the one with the collecting behavior…yeah you’ve got nothing!…you better start collecting!”

So as designers we can actually satisfy the collecting behavior at the same time we’re helping people get started with software. Do what MySpace did and give everyone at least one friend to start with (when you join MySpace you are automatically friends with Tom) Or, you can provide a sample post to let people know what a post is and how it works. Or, if you’re building an activity stream why not seed it with a few items so that people know what that’s like? It’s kind of like giving people a place to sit when they move into a brand new home.

So, back to behavior. Some behaviors that drive us nuts are core to the human experience:

  1. We want attention.
  2. We collect things.
  3. We want status.
  4. We are vain.
  5. We make judgments accordingly.

These behaviors aren’t going away anytime soon. So instead of decrying such behavior, we need to embrace it! We need to figure out how it fits within the context of what we’re building. Sometimes it won’t. But we can’t dismiss it. If we are really serious about designing great software then we have to at least give this type of behavior some thought, considering whether we should or whether we can damp it or amplify it.

And, from time to time, possibly even take advantage of it.

Published: June 4th, 2009