Social problems need social design

A common question I get, when people find out what I do, is “How do I get on the first page of results on Google?”. This is the goal of lots of people, from relatives with web sites to small-business owners to huge organizations to bloggers. They want to be in that first window of […]

A common question I get, when people find out what I do, is “How do I get on the first page of results on Google?”. This is the goal of lots of people, from relatives with web sites to small-business owners to huge organizations to bloggers. They want to be in that first window of opportunity when people go to Google and perform a search. And, really, who wouldn’t?

The answer, of course, is that it’s hard to get on the first page of Google. But the solution is relatively straight-forward: you need lots of people linking to you. If you’re a blog, try and get other blogs to link to you. If you have some sort of content you’re an expert in, try and get the other experts to link to you. It’s a problem, but not an impossible one.

More interestingly, it’s becoming more clear that it’s a social problem as much as a technical one. It’s a social problem because it involves the social behavior of more than one person. Getting on the first page of Google isn’t something that someone can do without others’ help. (well, spammers technically do this, but…most people don’t want to be one of them)

When the solution involves more than a single person using what you’ve got, or when it takes the input of several people, that’s social design. Systems are becoming more social every day, more collaborative, more shareful, and our design practices will have to change accordingly.

If the Google example was a stretch for you (e.g. you think the experience of your users doesn’t include how you’re represented by other sites), consider the example I wrote about yesterday: Is social all about cool? (Or why teens switch from MySpace).

The MySpace example is clearly about more than interface or visual design, two of the pillars that we so often look to for improvement on the Web. It’s even more than what’s included in the traditional usability fields, as usability is so often focused on a single person completing tasks. But interface or visual design won’t solve the 4 problems that are driving kids away from MySpace (social pressure, parents and schoolfolk snooping, security, and friend’s movements). No, it will take a deep understanding of the social lives of the kids involved…how does the fact that parents are snooping affect what they do?

Imagine if someone asks you “How do I build the next MySpace?”. Your answer, I daresay, will have more to do with social design than our current mainstream practices. The reason is that the issues MySpace is dealing with are social problems (not individual or technical), thus necessitating the need for a more socially-focused design.

Published: November 2nd, 2006

The What to Wear Daily Report. A simple daily email with clothing recommendations and other info based on the weather. Remarkably useful. It's free to sign up.