Social media design should start with human behavior

Facebook's Paul Adams says social media is about more than just tech.

Businesses are under pressure to crack the social media code. There’s all those tools and platforms to harness, and all those best practices to adopt. Staying on top of it is exhausting. Staying ahead of it is almost impossible.

Fortunately, there’s a better way.

In the following interview, Paul Adams (@Padday), global brand experience manager at Facebook and a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo, explains how a simple commitment to value can unravel the complications of social media. The key, Adams says, is to understand and serve basic human behavior.

How is social media design lacking? How can it be improved?

Paul AdamsPaul Adams: I’m not sure we should even start with the concept of “social media design.” Social behavior in humans is as old as our species, so the emergence of an Internet based on social behavior is simply our rudimentary technology catching up with offline life. Thinking about “social design” should be embedded in everything we do, and not thought of in isolation. We should think about it the same way designers of electronic appliances think of electricity — it’s just there, it’s the hub, powering other things.

It’s problematic that many businesses focus on existing and emerging technology, and not on social behavior. Thinking about platform integration first, like Twitter or Facebook, or technologies first, like what could be enabled by “mobile location” or “real-time updates,” is the wrong place to start. Often, businesses need to step back and consider what will motivate people to use what they are developing, above and beyond what exists today. Something that I’ve been saying for a while is that human behavior changes slowly, much slower than technology. By focusing on human behavior, not only are you much more likely to create something that people value and use, but you’re more likely to protect yourself from sudden changes in technology.

Interestingly, even this may not be enough. When it comes to designing around social behavior, it’s not just about meeting a need that people currently struggle with, it’s about understanding why people would change their current behavior. When things don’t work well, people develop workarounds and form habits. These habits are hard to shift. Why try something new, even if it looks a little better, when what you currently use works fine? This is why basic technologies such as SMS remain popular with people, and advanced technologies like Google Wave didn’t catch on. SMS works, so why try something else?

People also take the path of least resistance, and trying something new involves change. This is compounded by the fact that many of these opportunities for design are latent needs. In other words, people can’t see the problems they have because they have developed workarounds. So simply saying that what you developed is better won’t cut it.

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Search engines are integrating social media into their products. How do you see this area evolving over the next few years?

Paul Adams: Integrating content created on social media platforms into search engines raises big questions around data usage and privacy. How this evolves will be very interesting because it highlights the difference between being public and being publicized.

At SXSW last year, danah boyd spoke articulately about this — her talk is worth checking out. My take, heavily influenced by the work of danah and others, is that when most people think of the public, they think of the public as they have experienced it offline in the past, usually being outside and being bounded by space and time. The most public setting for many would be something like a large music festival, where many thousands of people are gathered, and at least hundreds can observe your behavior. But only those people who are there, at that time, can observe what you say and do. Search and discovery platforms online, however, are very different. They are bounded by neither space nor time.

The problem is that many people don’t realize or understand that. They have no idea what it means to “index the web.” They act in the moment, in a specific context, and don’t think about how that content might look in the future, in a different context. Some technology pundits say that people should be more careful with what they post, but I strongly disagree with that. It’s up to us — the people designing and building the technology — to design the right thing in the first place. Our tools should respect the context in which the content was first created.

This raises a really important question: Does the fact that a post or update was public on a blog, social media site, or review site make it permissible for anyone to take that content and publish it wherever they choose? I don’t think it does. Yet, that’s what search engines are starting to do. It’s interesting to me to see billboard ads with tweets on them. Do those people know that what they said is plastered across town? Is that what they expected when they created the content? The unfortunate fact is that many people will probably come to understand what it means to post publicly online by exposure of something they thought had a limited audience. And I don’t think that’s a good thing for anybody.

How important is reputation in social media interactions?

Paul Adams: Reputation, or the broader concept of “Identity,” is the cornerstone for all other interactions. People need to know who they are interacting with in order to act appropriately, and they constantly scan for cues. As with influence, this is really complex. For example, it’s possible to take the view that no one has a single reputation. We are uniquely viewed by every single person, based on our previous interactions and their previous experiences. In this light, the current trend in representing reputation online with people being assigned a single score, makes no sense.

We’re also undervaluing the influence of strong ties. The people closest to us are often the ones who influence us most. To heavily generalize, people are influenced by five different groups in the following descending order: closest friends and family, groups of people they have a strong affiliation with, groups of people who are similar to them, very large groups of people, and finally, by random individuals they don’t recognize.

Is there too much focus on the total number of followers or “likes”?

Paul Adams: We’re still seeing the fans and followers arms race — businesses trying to gather as many fans as possible. But I think that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s more important to focus on quality, not quantity, of connections.

For example, many brands run competitions on social media platforms. You have to “Like” or “Follow” that business to enter. So the question is whether they are making connections with advocates of their brand, or with people who simply love competitions. If it’s the latter, then they’re filling their social media interactions and data with noise.

As I mentioned earlier, people are often most influenced by their closest friends. So only make connections with true advocates of your brand, and market to the friends of those fans.

Will we get to a point where “social media” is not an online thing, but a bridge between the digital and real worlds?

QR codePaul Adams: I think we’re already seeing it happening. We see Facebook, Twitter and Google Maps stickers on business windows all over town. I do think this is where it’s headed. As I mentioned earlier, social media should be like electricity. It’s there, powering everything, but we don’t really think about it.

Our phone, or whatever we carry around with us, will probably be our primary source and producer of social media data, so it’s important that when we use it, we’re not burdened by its place in the ecosystem — for example, by seeing constant privacy controls or too many invasive alerts.

Fundamentally, the phone collects a number of datasets that other devices don’t. It knows who we communicate with the most, who we care about the most — because it knows who we call and text most often — and it also knows where we are, where we’ve been, and probably where we’re going. And in the near future, it will know the things we buy.

Mobile is going to be a very disruptive space, and I’m not sure how it will evolve. Rather than try and predict which technologies will be dominant, I think the safer bet for businesses is to understand how these technologies will support human behavior and how they will help people do things they are struggling to do today.

Photo: QR code by Projeto Sticker Map on Flickr


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  • Great points to consider. It makes me wonder how social media has influenced the masses particularly those who do not even have a voice in society. At the same time, it makes me reflect on humanity as a whole. Are we more apathetic to what’s going on around us because of social media or more sympathetic?

  • “Thinking about “social design” should be embedded in everything we do, and not thought of in isolation.”

    Words to live by.

  • Actually social media goes round with human satisfaction. That is why “likes” and “followers” exist. lol Thanks for sharing this article. I just learned several things that I found really helpful.

  • James

    “So simply saying that what you developed is better won’t cut it.”

    That’s right. That’s why working with people is the preferred choice.

    “I think the safer bet for businesses is to understand how these technologies will support human behavior and how they will help people do things they are struggling to do today.”

    Perhaps it is best to understand how to profit from these technologies. After all, that is the driving motivating force which builds them.

  • Thanks for the comments folks.

    @James, it’s an interesting point about profiting from these technologies as ultimately that’s the goal of the businesses developing them.

    However, I think it’s important not to focus on profit first, but to focus on creating something that people really value. So, if you were writing a business plan, I would suggest this order:
    – Desirability: What problem are we solving for people?
    – Viability: How might we build a profitable business around our solution?
    – Feasibility: What technologies are best suited to our solution?

  • Really informative post! Social media is very complex especially now that I’m thinking about the possibilities of the near future for technology and human behavior.

  • “When it comes to designing around social behavior, it’s not just about meeting a need that people currently struggle with, it’s about understanding why people would change their current behavior.”

    Very well-said–or written? :) Regardless, I especially enjoyed your thoughts on social media and social behavior. Makes you take a step back and re-focus your efforts on the behavior of your end-user, rather than trying to keep up with all the newest social media tools and functionalities.

    Thanks for your insight!

  • On one hand I’m excited about offline and online converging. Yet on the other I’m concerned about the amount of stress and anxiety it is causing for everyone with always being ON. I think if there is going to be larger bridge with information we need a bigger BLOCK strategy in place to make the choice to give us a rest from it. I am a full time social media marketer for a large Ontario Tourism Enterprise, yet I know when enough is enough also and try to practice it with my marketing techniques so that I don’t create to much interruption marketing and instead make it more helpful. Guess that is why they call is Social marketing which will add to a conversation instead of it being just one way of old school get in your face marketing…. On the other hand, bring on the 3D universe.. lol

  • YES! I live for social media posts like this. Too often, you read about marketers and brands trying to learn social media. But, before you learn social media, you have to understand human behavior and psychology.

    Understand how people think and why they do what they do, and social media will come much easier to you.

  • There are suckers born every moment. When social media become passé, something else will replace them as all the rage. Something to sell.

    It’s important for people working in digital media to have a stronger grasp of communication theory — critical theory, in fact — than most do. Theory is a necessary intellectual compass.

    Adams’ emphasis on _understanding_ social-media phenomena is a breath of fresh air. Now let him sell his perspective within Facebook. It would be entirely appropriate for Facebook to sponsor online lesson, webinars, etc., discussing communication theory.

  • Awesome article, Jenn – and thanks, Paul, for your insights. It’s great to hear you as a member of the Facebook team helping to re-focus the discussion on design and communication, not just the merits of any one platform, no matter how cool it is.

    At 32 I’m ancient by web standards – I actually started in print design! But what I learned while art directing a tiny local newspaper – about people, small businesses, and human relationships – has stuck with me even while the platforms have changed.

    Thanks again for the great interview!

  • Congrats! This is masterpiece about Social Media Marketing essentials!

  • Those interested in adapting human behaviour and communication styles in social media should have a close look at as it has been build around the ON networking model doing just that..