Facebook, Lifelets, and Designer Responsibility

If you’re a regular reader of Bokardo then you know I think issues like the Facebook Beacon incident, the Facebook News Feed incident, and the Digg gaming incident(s) are big deals. (I’ve written about all three here on Bokardo)

The reason why I think they’re big deals is because they’re canaries in a coal mine of privacy, so to speak. What Facebook and Digg are doing (or trying to do) is exactly what everyone else will be trying to do (or having to deal with) in the near future. Why are Facebook and Digg able to do it now? Two reasons: they have flexible platforms which allow them to make changes relatively quickly and have big, savvy audiences who grew up with tech. Other social apps aren’t dealing with the same issues yet because they’re simply not innovating as fast as these two. But they will have to deal with them, and soon.

I was chatting with another designer the other day and we were surprised at how little we hear other designers talking about these issues. Why not?

It’s an interesting question.

If you’re a regular reader of Bokardo then you know I think issues like the Facebook Beacon incident, the Facebook News Feed incident, and the Digg gaming incident(s) are big deals. (I’ve written about all three here on Bokardo)

The reason why I think they’re big deals is because they’re canaries in a coal mine of privacy, so to speak. What Facebook and Digg are doing (or trying to do) is exactly what everyone else will be trying to do (or having to deal with) in the near future. Why are Facebook and Digg able to do it now? Two reasons: they have flexible platforms which allow them to make changes relatively quickly and have big, savvy audiences who grew up with tech. Other social apps aren’t dealing with the same issues yet because they’re simply not innovating as fast as these two. But they will have to deal with them, and soon.

I was chatting with another designer the other day and we were surprised at how little we hear other designers talking about these issues. Why not?

It’s an interesting question.

One reason is that designers might view these as policy issues to be handled by executives. Certainly, part of them are policy issues: someone has to decide what to do when the barbarians are at the gates. Another reason is that they aren’t traditional design topics. They have little to do with color, typography, coding, standards, or any of the standard design issues we deal with day in and day out. A third reason might be that designers consider these issues no-brainers…although judging from the fact that it’s happened twice to Facebook I highly doubt that.

In watching these issues come and go, however, it strikes me that we might be looking at a new kind of design problem, a much harder type of problem than we designers are used to.

Consider:

1. In each case the design of the site either directly or indirectly influenced the user experience negatively. In the Facebook Beacon situation in particular, the design was especially conspicuous, as Facebook tweaked the language and the behavior of interface elements. (see evolution of the Beacon interface)

2. The solution to each problem was a change in the design of the site. In Digg’s case it was getting rid of the Top Digger’s screen and in Facebook’s it was (and still could be for Beacon) a control panel.

3. Some of the issues at hand are of such spontaneous nature that current practices in design evaluation (usability testing) could not have predicted them. Nor, probably, could have an insightful designer known when or how something was going to erupt. There is no test that lets you know when the mob will want rule.

So to me these are clearly design issues. But the people who are talking about them are decidedly not designers. Why is this so?

Here’s an idea for you:

Every web application is an interface through which people lead increasingly remarkable lifelets (lifelet = a slice of life). The users of Digg and Facebook rely on their respective application interfaces to let them know…well…everything! In the same way that you can’t shop at a physical Amazon store, you cannot do anything with Digg or Facebook without having access to the interface they provide. Thus the users are subject to whatever (and only whatever) the interface allows. If information is in the interface that day, it’s part of their world. If it’s not in the interface that day, it doesn’t exist. The interface therefore becomes the arbiter of their existence in that world.

As our online experiences grow richer through social software, the responsibility of that software to represent the world faithfully becomes paramount. And who is responsible for the integrity of the software interface?

Designers!

And…these entanglements continue to happen to all sorts of great designers. Just this past week the Google Reader team stepped into it by releasing a feature which took previously private items and made them public.

Things are just beginning to get interesting. The question is: who’s paying attention?

Published: December 31st, 2007

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