It’s Not Just Usability

This week I read a post of Joel Spolsky, the CEO of Stack Overflow. This post talks about designing social interface which is the next level of software design issues, after you’ve got the UI right, designing the social interface. Software in the 1980s, when usability was invented, was all about computer-human interaction. A lot of software still is. But the Internet requires a new kind of software: software that’s about human-human interaction such as discussion groups, social networking and online classifieds. It’s all software that mediates between people, not between the human and the computer.

When you’re writing software that mediates between people, after you get the usability right, you have to get the social interface right. The social interface is more important because the best UI software would fail with an awkward social interface. More, let’s look at an example of successful social interface. Many humans are less inhibited when they’re typing than when they are speaking face-to-face. Teenagers are less shy with cellphone text messages, they’re more likely to ask each other out on dates. That genre of software was so successful socially that it’s radically improving millions of people’s love lives (or at least their social calendars). Even though text messaging has a ghastly user interface (just being a little bit improved recently), it became extremely popular with the kids. The joke of it is that there’s a much better user interface built into every cellphone for human to human communication: this clever thing called “phone calls.” It is so simple that to dial a number, and after that everything you say can be heard by the other person, and vice versa. However, many people choose the way that you break your thumbs typing huge strings of numbers just to say “damn you’re hot.” Clearly, it more awkward to say this than texting!

In designing social interface, you have to look at sociology and anthropology. In societies, there are freeloaders, scammers, and other miscreants. In social software, there will be people who try to abuse the software for their own profit at the expense of the rest of the society. Whereas the goal of user interface design is to help the user succeed, the goal of social interface design is to help the society succeed, even if sometimes it means one user has to fail.

Social interface has rapidly grown and developed together with social networking. Software companies hire people trained as anthropologists and ethnographers to work on social interface design. Instead of building usability labs, they’ll go out into the field or online space and write ethnography.


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