A few years back I was talking about problems many people having problems with social interaction elements in their work social platforms (where it really clicked were many early adopter types who have used social web tools for many many years running into issues). The problems related to activities they thought were private were showing up in the public stream. People were finding that their own understanding of many social interaction patterns and use of features had many, and often unknowable, variations that made their intent for an action often broadly misunderstood.
As I have talked about this over the past four years or so at in client projects, presentations, and workshops there seems to continually be problems of interpretation. This isn’t really surprising that problems of misinterpretation occur as most understanding around activity and actions have meaning constructed by and within the culture the actions take place.
Problems of Favorites
One of the design elements from social web services that made its way into many social work platforms is the simple star for favorites. It is simple and innocuous it means the person favorites something. But, in many social web platforms it isn’t or was not easy to see these actions publicly. The act of clicking the star on Twitter often only was seen by the person who clicked on it and it put the favorited item in their collection.
The Twitter favorite star is now more problematic as it is now broadcasted and the person who has had an item favorited gets notification (if they so choose, and it is on by default). Looking at other people’s favorites has for years been public and likely has been from the day it was added. The reality is it required RSS or using a service that notified you when somebody (and who it was) favorited an item. Not having the favorites be easily found nor broadcasted created an easy environment for people to create their own social meaning of what the favorite does and means, much like the over all broadly correctly answerable questions, “what is Twitter and how are you supposed to use it”.
Meaning of actions is often a social construction by the community that uses a service. But, it also can have many sub-communities creating alternate and conflicting meanings and understandings. Where it really gets fun is when the service’s desired or stated meaning, “Clicking the star means you like it and put it in your favorites” directly next to the star or as a tool tip (hover notice), often is the second social understanding and the communities using the service opt for their own explanations and understanding of meaning.
Since Twitter made the notifications of favorites public, it has caused considerable concern and problems for many who had never considered their favorites to be public. The act and collection of their favorite items was theirs, not the domain of others.
Source of the Reticence of a Click
The problem isn’t germane to Twitter or any other service it is rather broad. It is one of the big reasons why use of social platforms inside organizations can take a while to get adoption going. Why things are stuck is unclear meaning. People are getting easily stuck with the lack of clarity around:
- What a interactive element on any of the pages does
- How broadly is the action shared (public or private or something between)
- What does the action mean
- Who is the action really interpreted
Three of these four need to be clarified much more clearly in services. Sadly, many services are people who do not understand the limited adoption and even more limited use of the services they are echoing the interactions from. All of this keeps people guessing, and not wanting to get it wrong they opt not to try seemingly simple features and functionality.
Why is Something So Simple So Hard to Grasp?
The action of clicking a star to favorite something is easy. Just as easy as clicking a “Like” button, which also has the same problems.
What happens after that simple click is where things get really goofy. These simple social services have stayed simple, but how people use them and how people think of the actions they take is far more diverse and complicated. There are four meanings that can be individually be construed by the clicking of the favorite star:
- One can favorite something so others can see it is one of their favorite items
- A person can click the star to note they have seen this and approve
- One can mean I have read this and is sharing that publicly
- A person can hold on to some thing for later review and doesn’t mean like or dislike nor approve
This variety of meaning is very common. The problem is that one button is used for many purposes as the service is simple with a simple uncluttered interface that doesn’t have options for alternate meanings, say an anchor to hold on to something, and a “+1” for things that are approved of or liked, which the star for a personal favorite for one’s own purposes can stand on its own.
What Could Go Wrong?
This is all just simple silly social software, what could possibly go wrong. For some of us it was clear that things could get muddled and muddy from the beginning. But, what could go wrong rather often has gone wrong, some with more problematic consequences than anticipated. Often these community and sub-community derived understandings lead to poor understanding and miscommunication through assumption. But, lacking functionality or means to account for the variety of meaning people intend socially or personally this will continue (see clearly labelled and hinted meanings above for reality of how social meaning works with only one option available).
In the past couple years the stories I would hear from my work or speaking engagements grew more dire. Until I talked with one company that had an employee fired things got so confused. But, not long after that first story another company had nearly the same thing happen, while other organizations have similar issues with out the dire outcomes.
In both cases a person saw something float through their internal microblogging service and it piqued their interest. They looked at what had been shared and saw problems, but were swamped with existing tasks and heavy workload so they added the favorite star to put it in their own collection and come back to it in a couple weeks to provide the needed insight and feedback. In both instances their companies rarely moved quickly on anything, as ideas would floated and draft white papers go around, with about a month or more for feedback. But, the social platforms had made the floating of ideas and getting feedback go much more quickly. Those who had floated the idea saw the person has put a “star of approval” on the idea and since many of the people who they wanted feedback from or approval from has responded with feedback or approval they started acting on the plans within weeks not the month plus that things normally took.
In both cases the people who had critical feedback related to gaps or large problems they saw in the proposal or white paper responded when they saw or heard actions were taking place based on those ideas. Both spoke up that they had critical information to provide, but people had been hired or received notification their job was changing and contracts for resources has started to be signed. Upper management was furious as the change had already started to happen in days with commitments behind them. Upper management liked the idea of being more nimble and agile so to move more quickly. But, this was not an “oops” situation it was one that somebody needed to be let go and somebody was let go in both instances.
The problem is not the the tools were use nor how quickly things happened and commitments made. The problem is the clarity of meaning and intent was lost because the actions and activities that have divergent meanings were packed into one design element. Understanding from a design and engineering perspective what people not only want to do, but actually do and mean by that action is essential. Our work tool have long been over due for cleaning up and focus on use so that they become more simple. But, good design and understanding that goes into it, or needs to go into it, can be short cut. Copying a service and its interactions without understanding the social interaction design and meaning of actions, be it intent or by social construct is essential.
It is best to start with a solid platform, which may require bringing in somebody to help frame what that is in context to the needs as well as the social and technical environments you have.