Social Smarts for Small Screens

Sonia Koesterer

As an interaction designer and technology enthusiast, I am in awe of how far our personal devices have come. Just 15 years ago our idea of text messaging was very creatively sending numbers to a friend’s pager to spell out a limited set of words, like “hello.” Today we are hyper-connected digitally. We are constantly connected to the internet, have multiple sensors in our phones and increasingly even on our bodies, and are talking about embeddable technologies as the next logical step. All of this fast progress can be truly empowering, however, the advantages are currently coming at a tangible cost to our real-life social interactions and experiences.

I created this talk, Social Smarts for Small Screens, for Midwest UX ’13 because I believe we are approaching a turning point in our field where, as designers, we need to go beyond putting cool new services into the world, and think about how our designs are influencing our society. We are responsible for and have the power to design for a better future, so now more than ever it is imperative we have conversations about the impact of technology on our daily lives.

The fact is: we are no longer in control of our devices. They are making us socially awkward in public, distracting us from our relationships with friends and family, over-sharing our personal information with others, and making us miss out on the events in our lives by making us less present.

Our interactions with devices are redefining our social norms.

We are constantly put at odds with social etiquette by performing strange interactions with our devices. As these new interactions become common, they begin to redefine our social norms and what is considered socially acceptable to the people around you. For example, today it is typical to see others walking down the street, or standing in line for coffee, while staring down at their phones rather that making eye contact with the people around them.

As designers, we should design new services and interactions to be social by incorporating more natural interactions. The more frequently a person must perform an interactions, the more subtle it should be. The goal is to design in a way that encourages people to have better social habits and avoid forcing them to act weird.

We’re accidentally over-sharing personal information.

Most services are not context aware. Even though we have the sensors and could connect applications to help understand what’s appropriate when, we are unintentionally broadcasting personal information either to the people around us, or to our social networks everyday. Our phones pop-up notifications and personal communications indiscriminately, and the apps we use default to posting our activities to our social networks, often broadcasting embarrassing or uninteresting information. It makes sense that brands want us to see and interact with them as much as possible, however if that leads to a poor experience, it also erodes trust and brand perception.

To avoid this, we must design services to be appropriate to the users’ context, by considering where they are (home, work, a restaurant), and who they are with (who may see the content), then predicting their needs. The more comfortable a people are in their physical location, and with their social situation, the more receptive they become to a variety of content. You won’t get it right every time, but the goal is to create intelligent defaults and allow users to quickly adjust things on the fly where they need to.

Our devices are making us miss out and distracting us.

We are less present with our real-life experiences and distracted from primary activities, often experiencing through the filter of a screen. Many of us are guilty of posting about experiences during it rather than focusing on the activity at hand. While we bring our devices into activities to get more out of the experience, there is a mounting need to constantly document our activities and experiences. Services like Fitbit, RunKeeper, or Strava track physical activity and help improve performance, and documenting an event can help us remember it, but the same device that you bring into an activity to help you improve can have a detrimental effect if an irrelevant notification pops-up and takes you out of your flow.

We must be aware of the user’s primary experience and design services to enhance it. Understand that your service is one of many that people use, and may only be relevant to a person a small percentage of the time. Rather than distracting your users, help them maintain their focus by filtering out content that is not relevant to their activity as their flow increases. The goal is not to simply turn off, or go into a ‘do not disturb’ mode, but rather offer encouragement at the right time that helps push the user to keep going.

We, as interaction designers and UX professionals can encourage better social behaviors on devices, we can give control back to our users. We must design for natural interactions, be appropriate to our users’ current context by considering their location and social situation, and enhance rather than distract from the primary activity. Together, we can create a world where the services we are creating are enhancing real-world experiences instead of taking away from them.

Slides from the presentation are below, and thanks to Deborah for the photo!

Sonia Koesterer

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