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Understanding Social Computing

by Mads Soegaard
3 min read
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Designing for social interaction is a balance of ethics; there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.

At Interaction-Design.org, we make educational materials by top designers and top professors and give it away for free. We have prepared a preview for UX Magazine readers of our newest material: an authoritative overview of social computing, which includes many relevant perspectives for the UX community.

The overview of social computing includes nine HD video interviews with the author, Tom Erickson, who is a veteran researcher in IBM’s Watson Research Lab. Tom has worked on many of IBM’s social computing systems all the way back from the late 90s. The material includes a lengthy commentary by Elizabeth Churchill who is manager of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo! Research.

The Dark Side of User Experience

The overview is relevant to anyone involved with designing products, user experiences, or user interfaces that support online social interaction, especially as the social dimension is becoming more and more critical in many products. But as any UX professional will know, designing and supporting social interaction is also about a balance of ethics. There is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.

Tom Erickson gives some concrete examples of how designers can both leverage, or exploit, social mechanisms when designing products. A classic example are shopping recommender systems, such as that of Amazon.com, which show you products based on the actions of people with similar interests. Using social computing in such a context can—as online retailers clearly know—be a huge mechanism for up-selling. But not always; it depends on the specific design and the resulting user experience. Do customers feel they are being persuaded, gently encouraged, manipulated, or pushed? This is the dark side of UX, that social mechanisms can be leveraged to create such wonderful or persuasive user experiences that users grab their credit cards and start buying. Is that good? Well, that of course depends on the perspective. Elizabeth Churchill sums it up this way:

[Two important keywords are] “coercion” and “conned.” Utopian perspectives focus on the co-development of social arrangements and the establishment of consent; the darker, dystopian perspective is that social skills and manipulative mechanisms may be used to drive non-consensual outcomes through coercion and/or through being “conned.” As we are all aware, the truth about social computing systems is that they support the full panoply of human social engagement, from angelic to demonic.

It’s All about the Experience

One of the reasons we call ourselves UX professionals is that it’s all about the experience. A system lag may be experienced very differently depending on the context and the design of the system. The user might think, “Something’s wrong with the system, it shouldn’t take that long,” or “Wow, the system is really working hard on my behalf.“ Similarly, when designing user experiences supporting online social interaction, i.e., social computing, it’s all about the resulting experiences. Therefore, a big question for designers is how we design these “experiences,” however vague that word may be.

Tom Erickson gets some of his inspiration from urban planning. How do architects and city officials create “good vibrations,” a “nice atmosphere,” or an “effective throughput” when designing physical spaces? Their methods, Tom argues, can be translated into insights on how we design similar online situations or experiences. This may seem abstract, but really it is not. And once you acquire this mindset, you can find inspiration for your online services on your way to work. Tom explains in detail in the video below.


You can read the rest of the material written by Tom Erickson, and watch the other videos, at https://interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/social_computing.html?p=ca65

post authorMads Soegaard

Mads Soegaard, I'm currently editor at Interaction-Design.org. Until recently, I've worked at The Danish National Technological Institute working with research in industry. Until March 2000 I was one of three partners in Csite.com, a web development company of about 11 people. It went out of business in 2009. I've worked in the eBusiness Think Tank of Daimler in the corporate headquarters in Berlin (DaimlerChrysler Financial Services). I've worked as a lecturer at the Department of Information and Media Studies at the University of Aarhus. I've been a PHD student at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Aarhus and spent a semester in Paul Dourish's research group at University of California at Irvine. I've spent six months at University of Tasmania's School of Psychology. I lived six months in Paris while working at La Maison du Danemark. I spent one back-breaking year in the Danish infantry back in '95. I lived one year in Gladstone, Manitoba, Canada, back in '92-'93.


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