Diversity and social design

In a post last week, Adrian Chan called out claims that competitive motivations are predominant in human nature.

One such quote comes from Louis Gray, writing on the need for more meaningful metrics than followers. “Humans have this innate sense of need to be ahead of all others, to measure themselves, and deliver some level of self-assigned worth thanks to what are questionably valuable statistics.”

Adrian rightly observes that, “it’s not humans or human nature that are the cause of this. It’s systems and the design of social experiences and systems…. viewed empirically, societies around the world are organized in wonderfully different ways, manifest in a tremendous range of culturally diverse traditions and pastimes.”

People in different cultures have different preferences with about the expression of value and status. For example, the design pattern wiki for O’Reilly’s Designing Social Interfaces describes differing cultural preferences for ratings. “The very notion of a binary, black-or-white, love-it or hate-it ratings system may not be a natural fit for some cultures. Many locales have stated a preference for ‘shades of gray’ in a polarized scale. (Note this is subtly different than Star-ratings, which imply “I like it exactly this much.”)?

To remedy the situation, Adrian calls for a better understanding of social dynamics. The current understanding gap is exacerbated by a lack of diversity in social design; consciousness of diversity among the user community, and actual diversity among designers. The lack of diversity contributed notoriously to the Google Buzz privacy debacle – Google tested Buzz internally for six months, but Google’s employees – mostly young male engineers – were not concerned that the system exposed users’ list of email contacts. The social networks of Google employees were more homogenous and harmonious than the social networks of the gmail user base. As soon as the product was released, users with different experiences – people who were harrassed by stalkers – consultants who had confidential client lists – quickly objected to this disclosure.

Embedded in the practice of software design is the notion that “you are not your user”; designers need to consider the way that users preferences may be different from their own. Demographic diversity is the most visible sort of diversity – differences in gender, age, ethnicity, geography. Diversity isn’t just a matter of demographics; there are differences in personality and temperament that lead to different social interaction preferences. As social software and social media mature, designers and implementers will benefit from a greater understanding of differences in among users.

The need for diversity in social design is another reason to advance the development and adoption of standards. A monoculture of a few dominant vendors is less likely to generate a diversity of social software affordances that that will meet the variety of needs among social software participants. The spread of standards will make it more feasible to have a diversity of suppliers, creating a diversity of services meeting different needs and preferences.

9 thoughts on “Diversity and social design”

  1. Great post Adina. Parallels how even internally at Socialtext, we are constantly discovering different patterns in how we use features, or expect UIs to work.

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